A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking in the White Mountains
The White Mountain National Forest is one of New Hampshire’s most beloved outdoor playgrounds. Its world-class hiking, mountain biking, cycling, and fishing—not to mention Mount Washington, the Northeast’s tallest peak—draw visitors from around the world. But overuse and underpreparedness have both strained the White Mountain landscape and resulted in an increase in rescues in recent years. Before you head north to the White Mountains, consider the following hiking tips to help visitors enjoy the amazing outdoor experiences this location has to offer while also staying safe and preserving this important resource.
First-time visitors and less-experienced hikers should start small and work their way up to more challenging hikes, such as trying to summit a 4,000-footer or going on a multi-day backpacking trip. Although the elevation of the mountains here in New Hampshire may not seem high compared to mountains in the western United States, the trails leading to each summit are often very steep and rocky. Most trails feature no switchbacks, which can pose physical and technical challenges both climbing a peak and descending rocky terrain at the end of the day on already-tired legs.
Many people who are used to hiking in lower elevation areas with trails that are less steep overestimate the distance they will be able to hike in the White Mountains. Because of the difficulty of the terrain here, hiking 6 miles in the White Mountains is much more physically challenging than hiking 6 miles in the Blue Hills Reservation near Boston, for example.
Hiking to the summit of Mount Washington is equivalent to walking up 400 flights of stairs or climbing New York City’s Empire State Building three times. It’s great to have goals to hike some of these more difficult routes in the future, but do not start off with a hike like this. The last thing you want is to be unprepared and exhausted miles from the trailhead and potentially need to be rescued.
Instead, start off with a shorter hike of 2 to 3 miles that has an elevation gain of 1,000 feet or less. This will test your physical fitness and build hiking confidence and experience. There are lots of lower elevation hikes that provide great views of the surrounding landscape and other natural features, like waterfalls. You don’t need to sacrifice scenic value by going on a shorter hike. The hike from Old Bridle Path to West Rattlesnake, on the southern edge of the White Mountains, is just 2 miles round-trip and 1,200 feet at the summit but rewards hikers with 360-degree summit views of the Lakes Region. For a bit longer effort, try the 6.6-mile (round-trip) hike from Lincoln Woods to Franconia Falls, which follows an old railroad grade along the Pemigewasset River for 2.9 miles before a spur trail breaks off for 0.4 mile to the flat rocks at the base of the falls.
If you aren’t an experienced hiker and don’t know where to start, AMC offers a variety of outdoor programs for families, teens, and individuals. This is a great option for someone who is interested in learning outdoor skills and exploring the White Mountains with a guided group.
Once you’ve picked a route that suits your experience level, prepare well by practicing the Hike Safe principles.
Be prepared with knowledge and gear before you start your hike: Learn about the terrain, conditions, and local weather of where you’ll be hiking in advance. There are several online resources that can help you with this, but I would recommend picking up a copy of AMC’s White Mountain Guide, which gives detailed trail descriptions and includes a set of topographic maps. You may also call our Trails Information Desk at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at 603-466-2721 for trail and weather updates in the White Mountains.
Hike with the 10 Essentials, know how to use the gear you’re bringing, and make sure it works beforehand. Never substitute your smart phone for a map and compass or a flashlight and headlamp. The batteries in your phone can die and GPS does not always work well in the backcountry. Some of the most common reasons people need to be rescued in the White Mountains is because they do not finish their hike before it gets dark, don’t have a headlamp to guide them, or are lost because they relied on their phone for navigation.
Remember to bring extra layers and be prepared for a variety of weather conditions. Keep in mind that the weather you experience when you are starting your hike at the trailhead will likely be warmer and milder than the weather you’ll find in higher-elevation areas. So don’t decide to leave your jacket or extra layers in the car because you feel warm in the parking lot.
If you are staying at AMC’s Highland Center in Crawford Notch, visit the L.L.Bean Gear Library to borrow any missing items you may need for your hike, such as trekking poles.
Leave your hiking plan with someone else: Let a reliable family member or friend know where you plan to hike, what trails you plan to take, and what time they should expect you back. If you do not return by the time you specified, let them know what authorities to contact for help. If you decide to change your hiking plan, let this person know.
If you hike with a group, stay together (the entire time): Be sure everyone understands your hiking plan in advance and is comfortable with and prepared for the task. On the hike itself, hike at the pace of the slowest hiker so it’s easier for you to stay together. Be sure to stop at all trail intersections and wait for everyone in your party to catch up. If one member cannot complete the hike for whatever reason, head back to the trailhead as a group.
Know when to turn back and cut your hike short: Turn back if: you experience bad weather; you encounter a trail feature that you didn’t expect, like a river crossing that is much larger than you thought; you or someone in your group is too tired to complete the hike; or you are running out of daylight and do not have time to complete the hike before it gets dark. It’s not worth endangering yourself or others in your group for the sake of reaching a summit. The mountains will be there another day.
Most beginner hikers will be walking at a pace of about 1 mile per hour in the White Mountains. Based on this speed, you can calculate how long a hike should take you. For example, a 3-mile it should take you about 3 hours. Pay attention to your map and the landmarks you see on the trail to keep track of how far you have gone and how long it has taken. If you’re hiking at a slower pace than you planned and your progress is less than you expected, set a turnaround time with a landmark. For example, if you started a hike in the morning, plan to turn around at 1 p.m. if you haven’t reached the halfway mark of your planned route.
Consider purchasing a Hike Safe card: If you get injured or lost in the backcountry and need to be rescued, having a Hike Safe card will exempt you from reimbursing the cost of your rescue. Your purchase also helps support New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Search and Rescue Fund.
Leave No Trace
Always practice the Leave No Trace principles when you are out on the trail. While all seven principles are important, in recent years we have seen increasing problems with visitors not disposing of their waste properly. Please pack out any wrappers, food scraps, and other waste that you accumulate during your hike. These materials pollute the local environment and can attract wildlife—like bears.
While hiking in the White Mountains, you’ll enjoy few opportunities to use a traditional bathroom or privy. Day hikers are welcome to use the bathrooms at AMC’s eight high-mountain huts located along the Appalachian Trail, but you also need to know how to properly dispose of your human waste in the woods. (Read our guide on how to poop in the woods for more on this subject.)
When you are hiking in remote areas and there aren’t many people around, it can feel like it’s not a big deal to toss an apple core into the woods or not cover your human waste, but about six million people visit the White Mountain National Forest every year. This moment of not properly disposing of your waste multiplied millions of times becomes a huge problem that is unsustainable, so please do your part in helping to preserve the forest.
White Mountain National Forest offers nearly endless fun for those who enjoy hiking, but as is true in many areas of life, ample preparation—and a little common sense—will ensure that we can do so safely and with minimal impact.