Backcountry on a Budget: Low-cost & Free Camping in the Northeast

March 23, 2017
free camping
Ryan SmithFour backcountry campsites in the Mahoosuc Range offer free camping, including Gentian Pond Campsite.

Sure, you know about AMC’s famed high-mountain hut system. Perhaps you’ve stayed in a few (or all!) of them. Or, maybe you’ve rolled up to an AMC roadside lodge and used it as a convenient base camp for exploring nearby trails and peaks.

Most guests consider AMC’s huts and lodges a great value, given their spectacular locations, unique amenities, delicious meals, and the high level of camaraderie experienced. But if you’re seeking high experiential value at a lower price point, we’ve got you covered, too.

Hit the trail and head out to one of AMC’s nine campsites and tentsites in the White Mountains and Mahoosucs, and you can bed down in the backcountry for 10 bucks a night. These are staffed sites where backcountry caretakers compost human waste, perform nearby trail work, and serve as search-and-rescue volunteers. The $10 fee covers about half the cost of trail and campsite stewardship. The remainder is provided by other AMC funding sources.

New this year is a perquisite for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. AMC has rolled out a new AMC Thru-Hiker Pass. Pass-holders pay the regular $10 fee for their first overnight stay at an AMC backcountry campsite and can then stay for one night at each of eight more sites for half price ($5 per night).

There’s more. AMC also maintains five fee-free backcountry campsites in the Whites (one site) and the Mahoosucs (four). AMC staff composts human waste at these sites, as well, to help protect natural resources—in particular, nearby water sources.

A spot at Hermit Lake Shelters below Mt. Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine in the White Mountain National Forest can be had for $15 per night. The only legal campsite on Mount Washington’s eastern slopes, Hermit Lake offers three- and four-sided shelters as well as tent platforms, and can accommodate up to 86 campers. Tickets may be purchased in advance at AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center or at the shelter.

Hikers will also find four fee-free campsites on the 39-mile Grafton Loop Trail in western Maine’s Grafton Notch.

Additional backcountry campsites are available on AMC’s 75,000 acres of conservation and recreation land in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness region. AMC maintains one shelter and 10 campsites, many with multiple tentsites and some with paddle-to access, each available for $12 per person per night ($10 for Maine residents). Reservations can be made through the KI-Jo Mary Forest, a partner of AMC. A gate fee of $12 per person per day ($7 for Maine residents) also applies. Each site includes a fire ring, a picnic table, and a privy.

AMC Worcester Chapter volunteers built the Adirondack-style Phoenix Shelter on AMC’s Katahdin Iron Works property. It sleeps eight and is a 0.9-mile hike from the Greenville Road trailhead. Because ponds serve as the drinking water source for these Maine locations, appropriate water treatment is necessary. Food, toiletries, and any clothing worn when cooking should be properly stored in a bear hang or a portable bear canister, as the sites do not have bear boxes.

Other low-cost AMC campgrounds include the Cardigan Lodge Campsites in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region; Maine’s paddle-to Beal Island Campground; Mohican Outdoor Center Campsites in the Delaware Water Gap, on the New Jersey–Pennsylvania border; Noble View Outdoor Center Campsites in the Berkshires of Massachusetts; and Harriman Outdoor Center campsites in New York’s Harriman State Park. Tentsites are available by the week or weekend at Ponkapoag Camp in the Blue Hills, 13 miles south of Boston, in addition to cabins available by the week.

If camping isn’t your thing, several AMC accommodations average $50 or less per night, including the self-service option at Cardigan Lodge and the bunkroom accommodations at Mohican Outdoor Center. If you’re traveling with a group, AMC’s self-service, exclusive-use destinations can be a budget-conscious choice, especially midweek. Rent the whole camp or cabin and divide the cost among the group, and the per-person rate can be surprisingly affordable.

Options include High Cabin, available for $149 to $179 per night, total, for parties up to 12. A 2-mile hike from AMC’s Cardigan Lodge rewards High Cabin guests with a backcountry experience near the summit of Mount Cardigan. There’s also Northwest Camp in Connecticut with six bunks and a tent platform that can accommodate four people; Harvard Cabin near New Hampshire’s Pinkham Notch; the shelters and cabins at Harriman Outdoor Center; the cabins at Noble View Outdoor Center (which also offers individual bunk rates), and Knubble Bay Camp on the Maine coast.

Fire Island Cabin, operated by AMC’s New York–North Jersey Chapter, is available for use by AMC members and nonmembers alike. Located on New York’s Long Island shore, lodging-only rates start at $30 per person, per night, in May and October.

There’s additional lodging in the heart of the White Mountains, as well, with bunks in the Shapleigh Bunkhouse at AMC’s Highland Center at Crawford Notch renting for an average of $48 per night for members, including an all-you-can-eat breakfast.

And if you’re sold on an AMC hut experience, check out Lonesome Lake, Zealand Falls, or Carter Notch huts during self-service season, when you can snag a bunk for an average of $28 per night. Bring your own food and enjoy full use of the hut’s kitchen and cookware to prepare your meals.




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Rob Burbank

Director of Media and Public Affairs
(603) 466-8155