Hiking the Whites in Winter

Ever wonder what the green tunnel looks like in winter? What about the spectacular Franconia Ridge, the steepest section of the trail up to the Wildcats, or the crowded summit of Mount Washington? New Hampshire, known as one of the toughest states on the AT, does get harder. Throw in several feet of snow, incredible wind, and temperatures far below zero, and you’ve entered another realm of hiking. Even with these challenges, hiking the White Mountains in winter is pure joy. It could be the fact the mountains look like a scene from Narnia or the absence of crowds and bugs. Either way, winter hiking is magical. Here’s a peek into what the Whites looks like when the cog closes for the season as well as some tips for those who want to experience it for themselves.

Snow capped mountains

Do Your Homework

The Whites get mind-numbingly cold. Remember that sign you pass hiking the Presidentials warning you that people have died there, even in summer? It means business! Make sure to research your route, know the temperature at elevation, and how to properly layer for winter hiking.

The more time you take before heading into the mountains preparing for a hike, the better. I suggest purchasing the 4000 Footers of the White Mountains book and a good map of the area. Learn which trails are ideal for winter. There are some forest roads that are closed in winter which can lead to a significantly longer hike. Mount Carrigain’s Signal Ridge is accessed by Sawyer River Road. When this road is closed the hike becomes 14 miles round trip instead of the typical 10 mile trek.

For weather, I check three different sources no matter where I hike in the Whites. The biggest mistake you can make is checking the weather in the valley and not at elevation. While it may be in the sixties and sunny in the valley, you will likely encounter much lower temps, high winds, and possibly limited visibility. I recommend looking at Mount Washington’s higher summit forecast as your worst case scenario, mountain forecast, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) website. You can check the weather at elevation with these surprisingly accurate sites to help plan your clothing, additional gear you’ll need to bring, and what peaks you should hike that day. In high winds or extremely low temps, sticking below treeline may be a smart move.

For trail conditions, Trails NH has information from bloggers and forums in New Hampshire and beyond so you can learn from others who have recently completed a hike you have your eye on. For an even simpler route, check out New England Trail Conditions for basic trail maintenance notes, recommended traction, and more. Remember that conditions can change dramatically after these conditions reports are posted and it’s up to you to stay up to date and arrive prepared.

The "don't show your momma" picture

The “don’t show your momma” picture

Gear Up

You may be surprised by how much gear is required for winter hiking. For your feet alone you’ll need to invest in insulated boots (I suggest Salomon Toundra Mid WP winter boots as they are rated to -40 degrees F) and multiple types of traction. For trails with consolidated or minimal snow, Kahtoola Microspikes will do well. I keep a pair in my pack November through April. Mountaineering snowshoes such as MSR Lightning Ascents are needed when there is unconsolidated snow to hike through as they will provide flotation. Mountaineering snowshoes also have teeth as part of its frame. It will be just about impossible to hike uphill without this added traction. The last type of traction are crampons which are made of much larger spikes to provide the most stabilization on steep slopes and icy terrain. I use Microspikes or snowshoes 95% of the time I’m hiking, but found that crampons are a necessity on some hikes. When the Franconia Ridge gets icy, you have to wear crampons to hike it safely.

Winter hiking is all about temperature regulation so dress in layers. If you become overheated and sweat too much, you may become susceptible to hypothermia once you get above treeline and your sweat becomes exposed to more extreme weather. I tend to wear a base layer or even a just a short sleeved shirt for steep climbs below treeline and pack a midlayer or two as well as a good down jacket for when I get above treeline. You will be surprised by how warm you get while hiking in the winter and need layers that will allow you to work hard without succumbing to hypothermia or becoming at risk for frostbite when you need added protection.

Your hands are especially at risk for frostbite. I  carry up to three pairs of gloves. The first is a pair of thin bike gloves that are touch screen compatible. This way you always have something covering your hands but are able to easily access your food and water as well as take photos. I can then put on a pair of insulated and waterproof gloves over the bike gloves. If it’s really cold, mittens are the best way to keep your fingers warm. Be sure these are waterproof and insulated, too.

For extreme winter hikes, goggles and a balaclava will be a life saver. When worn together, you can protect your face from frostbite and windburn. Your goggles should have UV protection as the sun’s reflection off the snow can be blinding. If you ski or snowboard, you may already own these two items.

pierce summit

High winds, low temps, no views. Good company is what it’s about!

Get in Shape

Just off the AT? You may be in ideal shape for hiking the whites in winter. Between the gear on your back and breaking trail, you’ll work muscles you never knew you had!

The best way to get in shape for hiking is to hike. The good news is that by winter hiking you won’t have to get back into shape come spring. Be consistent with your hikes and find a workout regimen that works as many different muscles as possible. In addition to big hikes every couple of weeks, I like to hit up the local trails near me, go snowshoeing, trail run, do high intensity interval training (HIIT), and kettle bell workouts at home. You don’t have to go crazy with your workouts- just 30 minutes a day, and find something you like to do! Something as simple as walking around your neighborhood with some weight in your backpack will help you get in better shape for hiking. Winter hiking requires you to carry more on your back so I focus on strengthening my back, arms, and shoulders. If I don’t, I feel like I have little t-rex arms and can’t carry anything!

Franconia Ridge midwinter battling 70 mph wind gusts

Franconia Ridge midwinter battling 70 mph wind gusts

Know Your Discomfort Level

If you’re new to winter hiking, I wouldn’t count on staying in your comfort zone. You have new equipment to learn about, tough conditions to deal with, and a nonstop runny nose! Think about the conditions you’re capable of hiking in and plan to turn around if you reach conditions beyond your capability. Deep snow on the trail with frigid temps and high winds in the forecast? Play it smart and reschedule your hike.

My first winter season was really mild and while I wish I had done more hiking, I was getting into it and didn’t have all the gear for more of the challenging peaks. Looking back, I am glad I played it safe and allowed myself to become a stronger and more experienced hiker before attempting some of the more difficult winter hikes.

Whiteout conditions on Moosilauke

Whiteout conditions on Moosilauke

Forget Your Expectations

You may be used to cranking out the miles, but in winter hiking may take much longer than you’re used to. If the trail isn’t packed out (when no one’s been there since the last storm) it may take twice as long or more to hike a section of trail. Plan a turnaround time and stick to it.

You may think that it will be faster hiking down or you’ll get your trail legs soon, but there is more of a possibility you will continue at a slower pace or poor weather will roll in. Stick with your intended plan and turn back when you hit your turnaround time.

Wildcat Ridge Trail

3 steps forward, slide down, and go at it again. Hiking up the Wildcats.

Beware of the Spruce Trap

Are the rumors true? Are the trees really plotting against you? Not quite, but spruce traps are the nemesis of winter hikers! During the winter deep snow hides a cavity between buried branches. Think back to hiking on all those lovely monorails on the trail. Now imagine it’s winter with giant snowshoes on your feet and no indication of exactly how wide a trail is. You step on what looks like solid snow and instantly sink in, sometimes up to your neck.

spruce trap

So how do you escape? It’s like quicksand- the more you struggle, the deeper you’ll sink. Take a minute to devise a plan. If there’s a nearby tree trunk, use that to pull yourself out. You may need to dig around your body to create a solid area to bear your weight on. Getting out isn’t always pretty. It often involves crawling or “swimming” out of the hole. And if you’re hiking with others, don’t expect much help until they’re done laughing at your misfortune and taking photos.

Find a Mentor

Before you go frolicking in the Pemigewasset Wilderness this winter, find someone who has experience. They can help you keep your water from freezing, understand what foot traction is needed when, and help you take a sweet summit photo. ‘Cause that’s why we’re out there, right?

Changing weather within an hour's time

Changing weather within an hour’s time

I could ramble on about the reasons I enjoy hiking in the winter, but showing you will be far more effective:

moriah

Glorious snow covered trees

Sledding down Mount Washington! Who needs a train?

Sledding down Mount Washington! Who needs a train?

The summit of South Twin

The summit of South Twin

The southern presidentials look good in white

The southern presidentials look good in white

Washington sans lines, concession stands, strollers, and flip flops. Need I say more?

Washington sans lines, concession stands, strollers, and flip flops. Need I say more?

 

In order to begin hiking safely in winter, you’ll need to learn a few skills. This includes how to use mountaineering snowshoes, self arrest using an ice axe, weather tracking, navigation, and layering right for the conditions. You can take courses from places organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club or your local REI store. Learn more about the specific gear you’ll need to be ready to hit the trails and remember, watch out for those spruce traps!

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Comments 3

  • Bob Rogers : Dec 7th

    I must say I’m jealous. I’m from FL, have lived in SC, and now Maryland. I spent one winter courteous the Navy in Chicago. I’ve only camped once in the snow and that was unintentional. Grand Canyon on Labor Day I woke up to 3″ of snow on the tent/ground. I was car camping and it was a cabin tent. Still I’m lucky the damn thing didn’t collapse. I would like to do more winter hiking/camping. I am certainly NOT ready for the Whites in full on winter. MD gets 6″ of snow an the entire state shuts down. I usually go out on a day hike to take pics when that happens. I need more gear; I don’t even have slip on boot crampons.

    What I’d like from you is advice on tents. I have a Big Agnes Fly Creek 2. Not exactly a 4 season tent. I don’t mind easing into this. I don’t need a tent that will survive the Antarctic (or My.Washington) unless the price deference between the tent that will survive 12″ of snow is near enough to the one that will survive 12″, -60*, and 100mph winds. I checked your link on gear needed and tents weren’t included. I’m not looking to go out in conditions below 0*, snow deeper than a foot maybe 20″ with drifting, and 20-30mph winds if that. Any links or suggestions on said tents? I’m off to REI to look at their four season tents now.

    Reply
  • Susan H : Dec 12th

    Thanks for this lovely post, and the reminder of how beautiful winter camping can be. I did the Presidential Traverse mid-winter back in the early 80s. We also experienced high winds above treeline. Two things come to mind- we had to remove snowshoes because the snow was so thin that we were walking on rocks. We quickly discovered that we had to lower the snowshoes to the bottom of the packs. Otherwise, they were like sails in those 85-mph gusts! Also, we were occasionally roped together due to low visibility, but had to un-rope because when the heavier guys were blown off their feet, we lighter gals tumbled with them!
    Such wonderful adventures, and only experienced when we are brave, and crazy, enough to take on the winter outdoors.

    Reply

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