To Pay or Not To Pay – Camping in the Whites
Putting it into Perspective
One of the controversies that gets discussed often among thru-hikers is the cost of camping in the Whites. All of the established campsites are managed by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). Though thru-hikers often refer to it as the “Appalachian Money Collectors”.
Now, having gone through the Whites and having used some of the campsites, done work-for-stay at some of the huts, and having spent time just talking with a number of site caretakers and members of the hut “Croos” – I would like to put a little perspective on the controversy.
First off, the White Mountains are an absolute treasure. The beauty is breathtaking. They are something that everyone should be able to see and appreciate.
Second, many, many, many people do take the time to visit, hike, and appreciate them. I traversed Franconia Ridge on a Sunday and there were so many hikers up there that the trail could have used traffic lights. In fact, the Whites are potentially being “loved to death.” Only 2-3% of those appreciative hikers are AT thru-hikers and the impact of so many visitors takes a toll. The environment, especially above the tree line, can deteriorate quickly with so many visitors.
The AMC maintains a series of huts and campsite/shelters across the heart of the Whites. The huts are pretty fancy from the camping perspective, with a bunk room, a kitchen that provides breakfast and dinner, running water, and some electricity. Plus, each of the huts is staffed by a “Croo” of college-age kids who maintain the hut, cook the meals, entertain the guests, haul food up the mountain and trash down the mountain.
The huts are expensive and definitely not in the thru-hikers’ budget. Plus they are usually booked up with paying guests months in advance. Even if you wanted to pay, a thru-hike does not allow the tight scheduling required.
That said, the Croos do try to accommodate thru-hikers with work-for-stay and with leftovers. Most of us have used the huts as a source of clean, treated water and can also use their privy facilities. The challenge is that there are more thru-hikers than there are leftovers or work-for-stay slots.
The campgrounds usually consist of a shelter, tenting sites, a privy, and a water source (stream or spring). The AMC staffs these sites during the season with a caretaker that maintains the site. These sites are used by thru-hikers but also by millions of seasonal visitors who may just be out for a day or two.
The caretaker job seems to be both the best and worst summer job ever. It’s the best in that you get to spend it camping and hiking in the Whites. It’s the worst because of the maintenance duties.
Picking up the trash left daily (I have seen caretakers pulling tin cans out of the woods around their site as the Leave No Trace principles are violated by a small but significant number of visitors. Unfortunately, the impact of their actions are disproportionately felt by all.) and maintaining the section of trail around the camp are one thing. The nastiest task is maintaining the privy.
The AMC is doing everything it can to support sustainability. This includes obvious things like solar panels and wind power at the huts to minimize propane use. It also includes a system of composting privies.
The chief thing the millions of visitors bring to the Whites, and the “trace” we all leave behind is poop – tons and tons of it. In the old days of pit privies, you’d dig a hole and put the privy over it. When the hole got filled, you would dig a new hole, move the privy over it, and cover the old one with dirt. After years of nature doing its thing, the old privy hole would become more dirt-like and less poop-like. However, visitors are depositing poop at too fast a rate for this process to keep up.
So, the AMC has moved to a composting system to speed up the natural process. While this works well, it also struggles to keep up, so it requires a lot of manual labor to stir the poop, to transfer it from the privy proper to other storage/composting tanks, and to remove all the non-compostable trash that people throw in there despite the signs asking us not to.
This gets much more complicated above the tree line. There, the composting process does not work as well. As a result, poop must be shoveled out of the privies at the end of every season and helicoptered off the mountain. With the cost of operating a helicopter at over $1,000 per hour, that’s some expensive poop.
Needless to say, operating this system and maintaining the trails and the campsites costs money. Too many people visit and use the Whites to do this on a purely volunteer basis.
There are alternatives to charging for maintenance and protection of the environment, such as a permitting system, or limiting and even banning access, but each alternative also has its drawbacks. So right now the AMC charges $8 to use the campsites.
It seems logical that there should be some fee to help offset the cost. I’m not sure the $8 fee currently charged is “fair.” I’m not sure what the AMC budget and finances look like, but I do know they are non-profit and are probably not trying to get rich.
I also now appreciate why the Whites, with the huge volume of seasonal visitors, are a little different than other parts of the trail and require more maintenance to protect them.
It’s easy to complain and to attribute the fee to nefarious, money-grubbing purposes. It is easy to then violate some of the LNT rules and stealth camp above the tree line or in protected areas – justifying these actions as a righteous response to an unjust camping fee.
Just keep in mind what it takes to maintain and protect such a precious natural resource as the Whites. And make a point of thanking the caretakers that have the best and worst job in the world.
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