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Keeping it Safe in the Whites

Recently, I found myself reflecting on the juxtaposition of the incredible beauty and physical and mental challenges one enjoys when hiking in the White Mountains. This observation was echoed by many Appalachian Trail (AT) “Through Hikers,” folks hiking the entire 2, 200 mile trail), I met along the way. The comment I heard repeatedly was, “the White Mountains represent the most beautiful section of the entire AT; however, it is by far the most challenging terrain.” I also came across hikers that had traveled from Europe, Canada and the West Coast to enjoy the beauty and rigor of the White Mountains. A taste of the terrain is below.

For those less familiar with the White Mountains, the terrain/environment is challenging for three primary reasons:

  • It’s generally steep with trails that usually go straight up, as opposed to “switchbacks” or the equivalent, commonly found in the West.

  • The terrain is rocky and consistently uneven such that it feels more like bouldering or rock climbing than it does walking on level ground.

  • While any mountainous region features some level of weather unpredictability, the White Mountains and some of its higher elevations are notorious for weather variability and in some cases extreme weather.

So, I thought a blog identifying those things a prospective hiker new to the White Mountains could be useful, increasing the likelihood of a safe and enjoyable visit. Below is my top ten list of things to do to safely optimize your White Mountains experience. Disclaimer, many of these recommendations are taken from the AMC website and shared here for your convenience.

  • Be prepared for severe conditions, regardless of the season.

  • Have an alternate route planned if your original route becomes impassable. Similarly, know your primary route, even if a friend or another trip organizer has done all of the route planning.

  • Pack the 10 essentials.

  • Bring extra layers (including synthetic or wool base and insulating layers, and a windproof/waterproof outer shell). Winds of exposed terrain like the Franconia Ridge can experience high winds that make it difficult to stay warm. A rain poncho from a ballpark is not going to cut it.

  • Eat high energy foods.

  • Stay hydrated on your trip. Hydration should start the day before so you are not starting from a deficit because it will be difficult to catch up if you are starting from a point of dehydration.

  • Be prepared to rescue yourself with a space blanket.

  • Invest in high quality boots (typically several hundred dollars – insert boot guide from REI) and if you can’t afford them you can rent them for free at the AMC highland center. Here is a link to REI assessment of best hiking books for 2023.

  • Realistic trip and route planning - experience suggests that travelling a mile an hour is a conservative estimate given the aforementioned terrain.

  • Bring waterproof, physical trail maps. Apps and cell phones are great unless and until they are not because of a lack of coverage and/or a dead battery.

  • Use Hiking Poles to help navigate the ups and downs. The poles add two more points of contact as your navigating the uneven terrain and will help save your knees on the way down.

There is a reason we all brave the terrain and weather in the White Mountain and that is for the benefits afforded by vistas like this one. Enjoy and happy and safe trails.

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