You’ve likely heard of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, those peaks in the White Mountains with summits cresting 4,000 feet in elevation. Thousands of hikers flock to them each year in search of a challenge. For some, the goal is to complete all 48. For others, it might be a single mountaintop. But where to start if you’ve never hiked before?
That question led to the birth of Couch to 4K, a program developed by the Young Members committees of AMC’s Boston and Worcester chapters. Worcester’s Steph Krzyzewski Murphy says the goal is to help would-be hikers get into shape and build up to summiting 4,000-footers by starting with shorter local hikes—sort of like a couch-to-5K plan, as in “5 kilometers,” for new runners.
“It’s all about comfort and fitness,” she says. “If you finish a hike at one level and feel like you still had 20 to 30 percent of gas left in your tank, and the distance or strenuousness wasn’t uncomfortable, you’re probably ready to go to the next level. If you feel like you want to repeat a level, there’s no shame in that. The goal is to feel safe and in control in the outdoors, and that takes experience.”
Level 1: Local Walks
This step is appropriate for any skill level and gives you a chance to build stamina while exploring your hometown. Start small, with a mile or two around your local park, or take a stroll through a popular tourist destination in your city, adding miles each time you go out. Routes at this level should have minimal elevation gain, but if you’re walking through a park with a nice lookout point, add that to your path as you get stronger.
Suggested hikes: Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park (Maine); Middlesex Fells Reservoir Trail (Mass.); Central Park Ramble Trails (N.Y.); Mount Vernon Trail (Va.); Valley Forge National Historic Park (Pa.)
Level 2: Routes Less Than 5 Miles with Small Peaks
Once you’re comfortable with your local haunts, it’s time to branch out to smaller peaks. Level 2 hikes may include mountains with summits lower than 4,000 feet and should not exceed 5 miles round trip. Uphill climbs are another challenge, in addition to longer distances, so give yourself time to adjust.
Suggested hikes: Bradbury Mountain (Maine); Mount Major (N.H.); Mount Wachusett (Mass.); Breakneck Ridge (N.Y.); Neversink Mountain Preserve (Pa.); Sugarloaf Mountain (Md.)
Level 3: Routes More Than 5 Miles with Small Peaks
This level is designed to help hikers get accustomed to longer day hikes in the 5- to 8-mile range. These hikes require a little more planning, including knowing how much food and water to bring and setting a turnaround time—especially if you’re hiking in early spring/late fall, when the days are shorter. For level 3 hikes, select routes that include more elevation gain—meaning the total number of feet you’ll climb from start to finish, not the actual height of the summit—than in previous levels. Once you feel comfortable with elevation gains in the 2,000- to 3,000-foot range, you’ll be ready for level 4.
Suggested hikes: Champlain Mountain (Maine); Mount Monadnock (N.H.); Mount Greylock (Mass.); Peekamoose Mountain (N.Y.); The Pinnacle and Pulpit (Pa.)
Level 4: Routes Less Than 5 Miles with 4,000+ Peaks
You made it! After weeks of conditioning, you’re ready to tackle your first 4,000-footer. And good news: Some are hikeable in half a day. At this level, choose a hike with a trail length less than 5 miles total, round trip—possibly including some steeper climbs. Don’t forget to celebrate that, while summitting a 4,000-footer may have seemed daunting before, you’re now ready to tackle one with confidence.
Suggested hikes: Cannon Mountain (N.H.); Mount Jackson (N.H.); Cascade Mountain (N.Y.); Flat Top Mountain (Va.)
Level 5: All Other 4,000-Footers
Now you’re hooked. Knowing you can summit a 4,000-footer, continue to add more mileage and elevation gain as you tackle higher peaks. Maybe you’ll want to complete the entire list of 48 4,000-footers. Or maybe you want to pick and choose mountains based on time estimates, trail features, views, or proximity to post-hike snacks.
Suggested hikes: Katahdin (Maine); Franconia Ridge Loop (N.H.); Mount Washington (N.H.); Mount Killington (Vt.); Mount Marcy (N.Y.); Spruce Knob (W. Va.); Mount Rogers (Va.)