What to Expect While Hiking in the White Mountains
“Just wait until you get to the Whites.”
For over 1,700 miles of trail (NoBos), this phrase became commonplace in conversations with other hikers when talking about foot pain, terrain, weather and other hiking challenges. We always knew it could be harder — we always knew what we were truly preparing for.
As I stood at the base of the presidential traverse, looking up at the monstrous size of Mt. Washington, I finally understood what they meant.
The Whites aren’t out to get you, they’re just a different kind of challenge, which can make them difficult to prepare for.
The key to being safe in the backcountry is preparation, so if you’re planning a backpacking trip or day hike in the Whites, here’s what you could expect in one of America’s most infamous national forests:
1. Mileage is just a Number
The mileage you are used to hiking in other ranges will likely be much higher than what you’re able to accomplish in a day in the Whites — and that’s okay! I went from averaging 15 miles per day to crawling into camp after 7. In fact, now I plan my hikes around the climbs and descents themselves in relation to water and campsites, rather than focusing on a particular number of miles.
2. Technical Climbs and Descents
Unlike many hiking trails that try to make themselves accessible to all levels of hikers, the Whites pride themselves on their technically difficult climbing, which requires more thought and skill to accomplish compared to most of the trail. While ample hiking experience isn’t required in order to complete a trail through the Whites, it can be helpful to be aware of rock scrambles and other obstacles that could slow your pace.
3. Goodbye Treeline
There are several ridges along the Appalachian trail in this section that house some of the most beautiful alpine habitats in the country; however, with such beauty comes exposure. For the first time, wind, sun and severe weather had an even more direct impact on us as we trekked across miles of open terrain. Also, if you are susceptible to vertigo, there are some spots (such as Mt. Madison on the Presidential Traverse) that did trigger dizziness, which is something to remain vigilant of to stave off injuries.
4. And…Hello Views!
Saying goodbye to treeline also opens up the AT to views unlike anything else on trail. Many hikers claim Franconia Ridge to be the best viewpoint across the east coast. And I can confirm, it’s pretty astounding.
5. Plan your Camp
In other states, I would often hike until the sun was setting or I found a spot for camp. In the Whites, it’s much more important to plan where you will be camping ahead of time. The infamous high huts are pricey and reservation-only (making them uncommon stays for thru-hikers). The prevalence of paid campsites through the Appalachian Mountain Club, as well as the fragility of the natural environment, makes stealth sites hard to come by. Additionally, many longer ridges such as Franconia, Kinsman and the Presidentials have no campsites atop their peaks. This requires hikers to either complete the entire ridge in a single day, or plan to hike down side trails to treeline to look for stealth/camp spots. It can be tricky to plan, so be sure to come to the mountains with an idea of where you’d like to end up.
6. Muggles Galore!
Muggles (aka a thru-hiker’s nickname for day hikers) from all across New England frequent these trails, particularly on weekends. This can make treacherous climbs feel a little safer surrounded by other hikers, but it can also mean crowded trailheads and campsites — so plan accordingly. This is also an important space for practicing healthy behaviors we may have forgotten on trail. Bring your mask and wash your hands!
7. Watch the Weather
Weather can play a huge role in the comfort and enjoyment of a hiking day. So, the rapidly changing weather of the Whites can play a huge role in your trip. In some areas, it’s not only uncomfortable to hike during poor weather conditions, it’s downright dangerous. The Mt. Washington Observatory releases detailed weather reports at 7am to all AMC staff and park service personnel. If you happen to stay near a hut or campsite, they will often announce and/or post this report for hikers. However, detailed weather can also be found via the observatory website or atweather.org
8. “I climbed that!!”
With every mountain range or special climb comes a measure of accomplishment and pride in having done it. You will feel this more than ever in the Whites, especially as you look back on the colossal, challenging climbs you were able to overcome. There’s a reason these mountains remain so popular, there’s no feeling quite as gratifying as looking back on the mountains you’ve moved in the Whites.
The Whites are a unique challenge compared to the rest of the Appalachian Trail. They are challenging and beautiful. You’ve trained for this, and you’re ready.
Just wait until you get into the Whites, you’ll see for yourself.
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