Hike New Hampshire
       
Trips in NH

Safety

This is probably the most important section in this entire FAQ. The White Mountains are a dangerous place. People die there all the time. Some from unavoidable accidents, but many from ignorance and stupidity. In this section we'd like to present some of the questions that we have been asked about various topics. However, a good place to start is with a page that has much of our collected wisdon on it: the 10 Things to Remember For Hiking in the White Mountains page.

 

 

What weather can I expect for my hike during X?
Mark Twain once said, "If you don't like the weather in New England, wait a minute." This is never more true than in the fall or early spring. We've lived here for 10 years now, and can give you these rules of thumb:

  1. It is normally 10 to 20 degrees colder in the mountains than in southern NH, where most of the weather forecasts come from.
  2. We have had snow on the ground for Halloween a few times.
  3. It rains a lot in the fall.
  4. It has also been 75 degrees on Halloween.


That about says it all. Pay close attention to the weather a few days before the trip. Depending on the altitude you plan on being at (subtract another 2 - 5 degrees for every 1000 feet you gain).

Remember that most New Hampshire Forecasts are for the lower elevations. The peaks are a whole different story. We had readers thank us for reminding them to take a fleece jacket in August, so I would prepare for temps as low as the 20s at night.

The bottom line is this: the temperature is not as important as staying dry. People die on these mountains every single day of the year. Another hypothermia victim was flown off the mountain a few weeks ago [September, 1999]. Found dead by a group of hikers. Prepare for the worst and you will have a pleasant trip. Bring layers, raingear, and synthetic fabrics and you should be fine. Remember, COTTON KILLS.

Here's the story:
[from our local TV station's website:
>From WMUR.com, 9/20/99

The body of a man believed to be a hiker has been found on Mount Lafayette in Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. It's not known how long the man had been on the mountain. Police say it appears that 51-year-old Brian Kane of New York died from hypothermia. An autopsy will be performed to determine the cause of death. Other hikers discovered the body shortly after noon yesterday about 200 yards from the peak. It was brought down by helicopter.

Snow may fall at this time of year, but rarely sticks around for more than a few hours. Mt. Washington has already had over 2 total inches in September [1999], but it's gone by now. You can find some useful weather links from the How To page on our site (http://hike-nh.com/howto/howto.shtml?weather). Go to "how to get a weather report for the White Mountains." Pay special attention to the Mt. Washington Observatory (http://www.mountwashington.org) site.

A final example. Right now, September 30, 1999 it is 49 degrees where I live in Newmarket, NH (near Portsmouth). It is 30 on top of Mt. Washington. There's the 20 degree spread. In another month, I would expect it to be 10 degrees colder in both places. Good luck and stay warm.

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I have no winter hiking or camping experience. A friend and I were thinking of hiking Mount Washington via the Tuckerman Revine Trail. Do you recommend this?

This sounds cliche, but please read this. It may save your life. In case you don't heed this advice and read no further, please at least go here: http://www.mountwashington.org/visitor/winter/index.html

I hope you'll read on.

As with most of the questions we are asked, there is a short answer to your query. There is also an infinitely long answer, which you should hear at least a significant part of. Here goes:

In short, we do not recommend Mt. Washington to novice hikers even in the summer months, never mind the winter.

At length:

Mt. Washington has been called by many "the most dangerous small mountain in the world." This is not a joke. Since records have been kept beginning in the mid-1800s, well over 130 people have died on Mt. Washington and the other northern Presedentials. Eliminating those killed in vehicular accidents (plane crashes, Auto Road accidents, and the Cog Railway) the death toll is still over 100. This number has unfortunately been increasing geometrically in recent years as more and more people take to the backcountry. I believe the body count is three already this season, and we haven't reached the busiest time of year when hundreds of people climb Tuckerman's Ravine to ski the Headwall.

When personified, one inevitably concludes that Mt. Washington possesses a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde personality. This is perhaps the most dangerous of its many characteristics. During the relatively warm summer months that envelop the rest of the state, the mountain can display two distinct environments. When the weather is dominated by high pressure and the skies are clear and sunny, climbing the mountain is a moderately strenuous dayhike for anyone with a water bottle, decent sneakers, a windbreaker, and who is in reasonable shape. The round trip can be done in 4 hours from base to base, and people in good shape don't even break much of a sweat. Yet, on the same day, a low pressure system can blow through and the weather can turn violent enough to scare even the most seasoned hikers; usually with deadly consequences for the unprepared.

Consider the following:

  • Mt. Washington has received measurable snowfall during every month of the year.
  • The highest temperature EVER recorded on the summit: 72F (August 1975).
  • Average temperature for the year is 26.5F
  • Average annual snowfall is 256 inches
  • Winds exceed hurricane force (75 MPH) on an average of 104 days a year
  • The summit is in the clouds about 60% of the time
  • The highest recorded surface wind speed in the world was recorded on the summit of Mt. Washington in April of 1934; it was 231 m.p.h.

In the wintertime, the mountain displays much the same bi-polar personality, only with temperatures ranging from a frighteningly low -20F to a high of +30ºF. Couple this with unrelenting wind, lack of shelter, and the fact that the summit is on clouds most of the time, and one sees the deadly potential. On a clear, sunny day, many skiers make the climb to the top of the Tuckerman's Headwall without incident, wearing light jackets to control their temperature. But when (not if, but when) the weather turns bad, people face the potential of losing their life.

There is a weather observatory on the summit that has been continuously staffed since the 1930s. They have this to say about Mt. Washington:

"Home of the World's Worst Weather"

Mount Washington presents the most severe combinations of wind, cold, icing and storminess available anywhere in the world where people are on hand to take measurements. The summit lies in the path of the principal storm tracks and air mass routes affecting the northeastern United States, and it is, because of its elevation, biologically and ecologically similar to the subarctic zone.

The people who live on the summit year-round know what they're up against. They allow members of the observatory to visit them during the winter months. More than anyone else, I trust their judgement, and I encourage you to read carefully their recommendations at this address:

http://www.mountwashington.org/visitor/winter/index.html

Their basic piece of advice to novice the winter hiker "Don't go for the summit." Beyond that they give the best and perhaps the most common-sense advice I've ever read about the subject.

In addition to all of the above warnings, I will also tell you that much of the area around Washington is closed to camping anyway per US Forest Service regulations. This is done as an effort to combat the intensive use that the area receives year-round. The Mt. Washington Observatory page above describes these restrictions well.

All that being said, I would pursue a trip to a much less severe area for my first outing. Chris and I recently reviewed a trip to Franconia Falls (http://hike-nh.com/trips/franconia/) that could easily be extended with a little creativity. Backcountry camping permits are required in the area, but are available free of charge from the Lincoln Woods Info Center. The beginning of the trail is well packed and traveled that it provides a great way to evaluate the weather before committing yourself too deeply. It eventually crosses the boundary of the Pemigewasset Wilderness area, which provides incredible camping away from crowds. It is also near water which is important, because as you'll soon find out, melting enough snow for cooking and drinking water really stinks and uses way more stove fuel than you think.

Other possibilities include Sawyer Pond, or a retrace of our route on Mt. Tripyramid (http://hike-nh.com/trips/tripyramid/).

Lastly, if you do plan on any hiking on peaks / summits, the following gear list is what the Observatory demands people coming to visit them bring, for the ride up the road in the snowcat. This is considered EMERGENCY gear -- it has nothing to do with providing comfort or camping overnight. This is the bare minimum needed to survive a 3 - 4 mile walk above treeline.

  1. Long underwear, tops and bottoms (wool or synthetic -- not cotton).
  2. Wool or synthetic pants (Jeans or any cotton pants are not acceptable); Wool or synthetic (e.g. fleece, pile) shirts and sweaters.
  3. Insulated boots -- double plastic mountaineering boots (preferred) or "Sorel" type with dry felt liners and felt insoles. Gaiters are also recommended, but are optional if the cuffs of your wind pants overlap your boots securely. Two pair wool or synthetic socks (not cotton) to fit comfortably in boots. SUMMER HIKING BOOTS ARE UNACCEPTABLE!!
  4. Insulated jacket (down, fiberfill, heavy pile, etc.).
  5. Rugged windparka with securely attached hood. (Some arctic parkas can do double duty as 4 and 5.)
  6. Wind pants. (Ski "warm-up" pants are acceptable.) (A good quality snowmobile-type suit with attached hood can serve as 4, 5, and 6.)
  7. Balaclava or wool cap with tight knit scarf or facemask, and ski goggles.
  8. Down mittens or windproof mitten shells with wool or pile liners.
  9. Sleeping bag rated for -25F. or lower, tightly rolled or stuffed inside a plastic bag, and a pillowcase.
  10. Crampons, which fit your boots securely.
  11. An ice axe (if you know how to use one) or a ski pole.
  12. A spare set of socks, spare gloves or mittens, and a change of casual clothes, packed in plastic bag inside your pack. Also rain gear -- it can rain here even in winter.
  13. Snowshoes for travel.

Bottom line, start slow. Hike Washington in the summer first and then work your way into winter camping.

Finally some other resources:

The NH Fish & Game Dept. recently announced plans to charge unprepared hikers for their rescue. Read about it on the Fish & Game page: http://www.wildlife.state.nh.us/newssearchrescue.html

For reference information and to pick up a copy of the AMC White Mountain Guide: http://www.hike-nh.com/books/

The Appalachian Mountain Club: http://www.outdoors.org/

Our normal views on Mt. Washington: http://www.hike-nh.com/trips/whywashington.shtml

For a humorous look at winter camping: http://www.haeadventure.com/

Good luck. I hope this helps even if it was more than you were looking for.


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Do I have to worry about bears in the woods?
Umm, no. You pretty much have to worry about bears that have left the woods and are near you. If they stay in the woods, you should be fine. But seriously, there are bears in New Hampshire. They are black bears, which normally don't bother people. However, in recent years, these bears have become accustomed to feeding on garbage, birdfeeders, and other things that people leave around the North Country. So what this means is: are you likely to be attacked by a bear? No. You will not, in all probablility, unless you do something really stupid, become part of Yogi's dinner. Will you encounter a bear? Possibly, although they tend to stay away from humans. The surest way to encounter a bear, however, is to leave food around your camp. Bears have an incredible sense of smell and are eating machines during the summer. If they smell your dinner leftovers they could, quite possibly, wander into your camp. If you are in the habit of keeping food in your tent, they may try and rip it open to see what's inside. If you are inside at the time, this could be quite an unpleasant experience. The safest thing to do is follow some simple rules:
  1. DO NOT EVER KEEP FOOD IN YOUR TENT! This is dangerous. Even if it is in plastic bags. Bears and other animals can smell food right through plastic bags (because most bags are made from food grade polyethylene which is a vapor permeable plastic. Basically odor molecules can go right through the bag. That's why a trout in a ziplock bag eventually makes your whole refrigerator stink). Even if you are not in camp, it is never wise to keep food in your tent, since you are much more likely to encounter raccoons, skunks, squirrels, mice, and a host of other rodents that will think nothing of chewing a hole in your tent just to get to your food.
  2. Cook 50 or more feet (100 is better) away from your sleeping area.
  3. Wash dishes and things at least 100+ feet from camp.
  4. Hang your food and garbage over a tree limb at least 50 feet from camp over night and when you aren't there. Again, this is mostly for protection from rodents chewing through your tent, but it never hurt to be safe.
As a final note, in case you don't believe bears are a problem, I give you two pieces of evidence. First, the New Hampshire Fish and Game department thinks the bear problem is severe enough to make them stop printing the classic yellow "Brake for Moose" bumper stickers in favor of the new green "Something's Bruin in New Hampshire, Learn to Live With Bears" stickers. And second, this photograph was taken by one of our co-workers from a second story window of our office building in Rochester, NH on 5/19/99. Enough said.

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Chris Oberg & Robert Havasy
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