HIKING THE 48 4000-FOOTERS OF NH IN WINTER
All of the 4000-Footers of New Hampshire can be hiked in winter, and many hikers set out to do just that. While we should all have a healthy fear of these mountains, especially in winter, all of these peaks can be climbed if you have the proper gear, the necessary skills, and favorable weather conditions.
If you are going to hike the NH 4000-footers, I highly recommend purchasing these three excellent guidebooks from Amazon.com (affiliate links):
AMC White Mountain Guide (31st Edition)
4000-Footers of the White Mountains (3rd Edition)
Climbing New Hampshire's 48 4,000 Footers (1st Edition)
If you are looking to hike these mountains in the the non-winter seasons (i.e. from late spring through early fall), visit my Hiking the 4000-Footers page.
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STANDARD HIKING ROUTES TO THE 4000-FOOTERS IN WINTER
Presented below are the most common routes used to hike each of New Hampshire's 4000-footers in the winter season, along with their total mileage and elevation gain. I have also done my best to estimate how frequently crampons are needed on each of the peaks. Microspikes or Hillsounds (or their equivalent) will likely be needed on ALL of these peaks in winter, unless the snow is deep enough on the ENTIRE trail to warrant using snowshoes from start-to-finish (keep in mind that such good snow conditions can be rare).
In addition to reading these notes, you should always check the latest trail conditions for these peaks at trailsnh.com. I would also like to encourage you to write and submit online trip reports in winter to help others understand and see the latest winter trail conditions. A great website to submit trip reports is newenglandtrailconditions.com.
If you suspect there are any errors in the above information, please email email@example.com so that the error(s) can be fixed.
WHY HIKE IN WINTER?
There are many reasons why people hike New Hampshire's 4000 footers in winter. Here are some of the reasons:
TIPS FOR HIKING THE NH 4000-FOOTERS IN WINTER
Hiking the 4000 footers in winter is a whole new ball game. There is no arguing that many of these mountains are much tougher to hike when there is ice and/or snow to contend with. Some roads are closed in winter, meaning the total hiking distance will be increased for some peaks. Some peaks have to be ascended via trails that are not the standard approach in the summertime. White-outs, hypothermia, and spruce traps can be serious threats if you aren't prepared for them.
The term 'winter' is a bit confusing here because these mountains are often under winter conditions from early October through the middle of May. Occasionally, winter storms can hit in other months of the year, although such storms are quite rare (except for perhaps Mt. Washington) from June 15th through September 15th.
HIKING SAFELY IN WINTER
Winter hiking can be dangerous, but there ways to reduce/minimize the risks.
Special care must be taken to ensure that you use the right clothing when hiking in winter. You'll want to avoid all products that contain cotton since they usually become soaked with sweat very quickly (and it does not dry quickly). The idea is to make sure that you are always warm AND dry. As such, you really need to use clothing that wicks moisture well and dries quickly. Materials that are waterproof and highly breathable are also very important. Windproof clothing can also come in handy.
Here is my list of recommendations for winter hiking clothing:
Make sure that you de-layer as you get hot when hiking. Take the outer layers off, and even your gloves and hat if necessary. The idea is to avoid being too hot or cold. It can get annoying taking clothes on and off while hiking (especially if it's cold out and you need to remove your gloves), but you'll stay much more comfortable (and safe) if you do.
When you reach the summit, or take an extended break, it's really nice to reach into your pack and throw a down jacket on. Try to get a down jacket that has a fill weight of 800, although 650 or 700 is also generally fine too. The very best down jackets are usually 800-900 weight and cost $200-$400 (generally speaking of course).
If you'll be winter camping, make sure you bring a complete change of clothing. You do not want to sleep in the clothes that you hiked in since they are extremely likely to be at least partially soaked from sweat.
DETERMINING TRAIL CONDITIONS
Before you hike in winter, you need to try to determine the trail conditions that you are likely to encounter. This must be done so you can determine if you will need to bring traction (such as Microspikes or Hillsound Trail Crampons), full crampons, and/or snowshoes. Sometimes it is relatively easy to gauge trail conditions, but sometimes it can be challenging to do so.
Start the process of predicting trail conditions by looking at the NOAA's New England Snow Depth Map. This map is normally updated on a daily basis, but it sometimes takes NOAA an extra day or two to update the map after a significant storm. When you are looking at the map, pay very close attention to the colors. The colors are a good indicator of what you can expect in terms of conditions - here is a guide to the colors and what they mean to the 4000-footers:
Another great resource you should always check is the page of AMC Backcountry Conditions. This link shows you 24-hour recent snowfall as well as the current total snow depth of several very specific locations in the White Mountains. As long as the locations have been updated (they always state the date of the last update for each location), it is extremely accurate (I've never seen it be incorrect). This website also typically recommends the type of gear that you will need (i.e. traction or snowshoes).
I also like to check the "snow/mountain reports" of various ski resorts in the White Mountains prior to hiking. This can give you a great idea how much snow has fallen in the last 24 hours, and also sometimes in the last 48 or 72 hours. I usually check the websites of Bretton Woods, Cannon Mountain, and Wildcat Mountain (there are other ski resorts that you can check too).
You have to be careful with river crossings in winter as well. Check this website to see how the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River and the Saco River are flowing. If the Saco River gauge near Conway is flowing above 4.0-4.5 feet, some river crossings have the potential to be difficult or even dangerous on peaks near that area. Some rivers do develop good 'snow bridges' over them in winter, and you should read online trail conditions to see the current status of such bridges and river crossings.
Another resource for determining trail conditions is to simply ask the hiking community. You can do this on any of the popular hiking forms (such as Vftt.org and Hike-Nh.com) or you can post a question to one or more of the 4000-footer groups on Facebook (there are several, including Hike the 4000 Footers of NH and The 4,000 Footer Club-Climbing and Hiking in New Hampshire). Before you ask a question, do a search of the group to see if someone else has already recently asked the same question.
WEATHER / WEATHER CONDITIONS
Just like you should be doing in the summer, check the Mount Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast the morning before each hike (it usually gets updated between 4:00am-6:00am each morning). This forecast can you help you gauge how the above-treeline peaks are likely to behave on a winter day. Mt. Washington is usually the most extreme of all the 4000-foot peaks, so hikes will sometimes downgrade the forecast a fair bit. This is a bit of a dangerous game though, because peaks like Mt. Adams, Mt. Madison, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Lafayette, Mt. Lincoln and the Bonds (among others) can closely mimic the severity of weather that Mt. Washington is experiencing.
It is also wise to check multiple weather sources in case one forecast service is noticing a weather trend that others are not. I always check both weather.com and noaa.gov. Others check accuweather.com, mountain-forecast.com, and wunderground.com. I recommended checking at least two of these five websites within 1 hour of the start of your hike.
Temperatures in the White Mountains in winter generally range from -30 degrees all the way to +50 degrees. The temperature you get is all about where the air is coming from; if an arctic blast is occurring, the tallest peaks can see -20 or -30 degree temperatures at their summits, with wind chills much, much colder than that. The normal high temperature in the mountains on most days in January, February & March is usually 15-35 degrees (near the summit can be colder than this, though). The normal high temperature in the nearby towns/valleys (such as Lincoln and North Conway) on most days in January, February & March is usually 25-42 degrees.
Hiking when it's below -0- degrees and/or when its very windy is not very comfortable, unless you are an expert on layering and have all the fancy (and often expensive) clothing that will keep you warm and dry. Alternatively, hiking in winter when there is little wind and the temperate is between 20-32 degrees is pure bliss. Be aware that if you hike during winter and the temperature is above 32 degrees, the snow conditions can be tough and you may find snow from the trees melting down onto you. Rain is also fairly common in winter, and hypothermia can set in very quickly if you don't stay dry (waterproof pants & jackets are a must when it's cold & rainy in winter).
Generally speaking, you don't want to be hiking above treeline in winter when the wind is blowing more than 25-30 mph. Whiteouts can easily occur, and the wind chill can be nasty too (Mt. Washington occasionally has wind chills of lower than -50 degrees!).
FOOD FOR WINTER HIKING
You have to be careful of the types of food that you carry in winter. Many foods with a high water content will become rock-solid quickly in winter (some foods will harden after only a few minutes). Here are some foods that are recommended for winter because they won't become rock-solid:
Sports drinks like Gatorade have a freezing temperature that is only slightly lower than that of water. You should still expect sports drinks to freeze very quickly in winter, unless you buy them in powder form and/or store the drink in an insulated bottle. You can also put a bottle inside of a insulated bottle holder just like you would do with water.
Most hikers agree that the following snowshoes are the absolute best you can buy for hiking the 4000 footers as of 2020:
There are some other snowshoes (made by the above brands and other brands that I have not listed) that are sometimes sufficient for some of the 4000-footers, depending on the current conditions. Just make sure that the snowshoes that you buy or use have an aggressive-enough crampon and several straps/buckles to keep your feet in place on mountainous terrain. I don't recommend buying any snowshoes that are for "rolling" terrain.
There are so many factors to consider when it comes to the sizing of snowshoes, but I generally recommend 20-22 inches if you are 170 lbs or less, 25 inches if you are 170-250lbs, and 25-30 inches if you are 250+ lbs. When sizing snowshoes, keep in mind that trails become packed very quickly, so having maximum flotation is generally not important or even necessary. You'll see snowshoes out there that are 30-36 inches, but these are simply too long for most people on the 4000-footers in my opinion. For 95% of hikers, 20-25 inch snowshoes will be sufficient for the 4000-footers.
One thing that you can purchase for many brands of snowshoes is 'tails'. This allows you to get a smaller snowshoe, because you can convert them to longer ones if/when needed by simply adding the tails (which normally come in 4 inch or 8 inch sizes).
SELECTING FOOT TRACTION
Most hikers agree that Microspikes and Hillsound Trail Crampons are the premier traction systems for hiking the 4000 footers in winter (when snowshoes are not necessary). Hillsounds have a new product for 2014 called Hillsound Trail Crampons Ultra that look extremely promising as well.
Yaktrax (all models of them) and Stabilicers (the Light Traction and Sport Lightweight models) are generally not robust enough to be useful on the 4000-footers. The "Original Heavy Duty" model of the Stabilicers used to be quite popular before Microspikes hit the market, and are still considered sufficient for many 4000-footers. However, most will agree that Microspikes and Hillsound Trail Crampons are superior.
Some people also create some DIY "screw-boots". If you do this correctly, they can be quite useful for the 4000 footers.
Keep in mind there are a lot of situations in which crampons are absolutely needed - especially above treeline. Microspikes, Hillsounds, Screw-Boots, etc. are often not sufficient on steep ice and/or above treeline.
HIKING ALL OF THE 4000-FOOTERS IN WINTER
According to the 'rules', if you want to claim that you have hiked all 4000-footers in winter, you need to hike each mountain within the actual astronomical winter, which begins on the winter solstice (on or around December 21) and lasts until the spring equinox (on or around March 21). There is a specific time (to the minute) of each of these days that serves as the start-and-end times. Your hike must start after the start-time in December, or end before the end-time in March.
You cannot snowmobile any portion of any trail (nor any road that is closed in winter). If you do, it does not officially 'count' towards hiking the 4000-footers in winter. The rest of the "rules" that determine whether or not you've officially climbed a 4000-foot mountain can be founded here.
WINTER HIKING ETIQUETTE / LEAVE NO TRACE ('LNT')
There are ways we can all make winter hiking enjoyable for all other hikers who will later travel in our footsteps. I have made a list below of how we can be courteous to the hikers who come after us. Don't consider these as 'rules' - instead, consider these items just as proper winter hiking etiquette.
Everyone should have an equal opportunity to enjoy nature in winter - please consider adopting good winter trail etiquette.
EASIEST 4000-FOOTERS IN WINTER
Here is a list of the easiest 4000-foot peaks to hike in winter:
Cannon - via Lonesome Lake > Kinsman Ridge Trail (just be aware that traction, or perhaps even crampons, may be required for several steep sections near the top of the Kinsman Ridge Trail)
Field - via Avalon Trail > Willey Range Trail or via Avalon Trail > A-Z Trail > Willey Range Trail
Pierce - via Crawford Path > Webster Cliff Trail
Tecumseh - via Mt. Tecumseh Trail (from the trailhead located in the parking area of the Waterville Valley ski resort)
Tom - via Avalon Trail > A-Z Trail > Mt. Tom Spur
Waumbek - via Starr King Trail (make sure to continue past the summit for great views)
The easiest 4000 footer to hike in winter is either MOUNT TOM or MOUNT TECUMSEH.
If weather conditions are good, MOUNT PIERCE is the most rewarding of the easier 4000-footers in winter. The view of the southern Presidential Range from the summit of MOUNT PIERCE on a fine winter day is fantastic.
MOST DIFFICULT 4000-FOOTERS IN WINTER
The following 4000-footers are generally considered the most difficult ones to hike in winter:
Adams - lots of elevation gain; some sections can still be very rocky in winter; weather can be extremely nasty above treeline
Bond - extremely remote; requires a minimum hike of at least 19 miles round trip
Bondcliff - extremely remote; requires a minimum hike of at least 18 miles round trip
Isolation - remote; it can take several weeks for trails to be broken out well to this peak; the 'Engine Hill bushwhack' may be tough to follow
Jefferson - weather can be extremely nasty above treeline
Lafayette - crampons are often required between the AMC Greenleaf Hut and the summit; weather can be extremely nasty above treeline
Lincoln - weather can be extremely nasty above treeline
Madison - lots of elevation gain; some sections can still be very rocky in winter; weather can be extremely nasty above treeline
Monroe - lots of elevation gain; some sections can still be very rocky in winter; weather can be extremely nasty above treeline
Owl's Head - remote; requires a hike of at least 18 miles round trip (although this gets decreased to 16.0 miles if you take the Black Pond bushwhack); involves hiking up a steep slide or bushwhacking to the side of it
Washington - lots of elevation gain; some sections can still be very rocky in winter; weather can be extremely nasty above treeline
West Bond - extremely remote; requires a minimum hike of at least 19 miles round trip
Wildcat & Wildcat D - all trails are steep
Zealand - requires a minimum hike of at least 18.8 miles round trip
GREAT 4000-FOOTER SNOWSHOE HIKES
The following 4000-footers are a true pleasure to snowshoe in winter, assuming there are good snow conditions. I recommend visiting trailsnh.com to read trip reports that have information on the latest winter/snow conditions.
Carrigain - this is quite a long day-hike in winter because the normal access road is closed (adds 4.0 miles round-trip)
Garfield - this is quite a long day-hike in winter because the normal access road is closed (adds 2.4 miles round-trip)
Kinsman, North - this is quite a long day-hike though (I recommend hiking this peak via the Mt. Kinsman Trail off NH 116)
Kinsman, South - this is quite a long day-hike though (I recommend hiking this peak via the Mt. Kinsman Trail off NH 116)
ROADS THAT ARE CLOSED IN WINTER
Some of the 4000-footers require longer hikes in winter because their access roads are closed.
Carrigain - Sawyer River Road is closed (this road-walk adds 2.0 miles each way and 600 feet of elevation gain)
Eisenhower - Mount Clinton Road is closed (this mountain is instead typically climbed in winter via the Crawford Path from Mt. Pierce)
Galehead - Gale River Loop Road is closed (this road-walk adds 1.5 miles each way; this can be shortened if you follow existing herd paths / X-C ski trails)
Garfield - Gale River Loop Road is closed (this road-walk adds 1.2 miles each way)
Hale - Zealand Road is closed (this adds 2.7 miles each way; the winter trailhead is on US 302 0.2 miles east of Zealand Road)
Jefferson - Jefferson Notch Road is closed (this mountain is instead typically climbed in winter via Jewell Trail > Gulfside Trail instead)
Moosilauke - Ravine Lodge Road is closed (this road-walk adds 1.6 miles each way)
Osceola - Tripoli Road is closed (in winter, reach Osceola via a very-steep route from NH 112 / the Kancamagus Highway)
North Twin - Haystack Road is closed (this mountain is often hiked via Little River Road / herd-paths in winter)
South Twin - Haystack Road is closed (this mountain is often hiked via Little River Road / herd-paths in winter)
Zealand - Zealand Road is closed (this adds 3.7 miles each way; the winter trailhead is on US 302 0.2 miles east of Zealand Road)
The status of all major roads in the White Mountains can be found on the WMNF Roads Status page of the US Forest Service's website. Take note that the US Forest Service can sometimes be very slow to update their website. You can always call one of their ranger stations for updated conditions.
Generally speaking, all roads in the White Mountains are generally open from mid-to-late May through early-to-late October.
HOW OFTEN ARE CRAMPONS REQUIRED?
Microspikes, Hillsounds and other forms of "light traction" are not the same thing as crampons. Crampons are far more aggressive, and are often needed to tackle icy or steep terrain in tough winter conditions.
Before you review this section, you must understand that ANY of these peaks could require crampons under certain trail conditions. It's very tough to predict what trail conditions you will encounter, but you can increase your knowledge by reading the latest trail conditions at trailsnh.com
The responses below are based on the standard route of each mountain. For a list of the standard routes of each mountain, please see the appropriate section above.
Adams - crampons are almost always required
Bond - crampons are almost always required
Bondcliff - crampons are almost always required
Cabot - crampons are NOT typically needed
Cannon - crampons are sometimes needed
Carrigain - crampons are NOT typically needed
Carter Dome - crampons are sometimes needed
Carter, Middle - crampons are sometimes needed
Carter, South - crampons are sometimes needed
Eisenhower - crampons are almost always required
Field - crampons are NOT typically needed
Flume - crampons are sometimes needed
Galehead - crampons are NOT typically needed
Garfield - crampons are NOT typically needed
Hale - crampons are NOT typically needed
Hancock - crampons are often needed
Hancock, South - crampons are often needed
Isolation - crampons are sometimes needed
Jackson - crampons are often needed
Jefferson - crampons are almost always required
Kinsman, North - crampons are NOT typically needed
Kinsman, South - crampons are NOT typically needed
Lafayette - crampons are almost always required
Liberty - crampons are sometimes needed
Lincoln - crampons are almost always required
Madison - crampons are almost always required
Monroe - crampons are almost always required
Moosilauke - crampons are often needed
Moriah - crampons are often needed
Osceola - crampons are almost always required
Osceola, East - crampons are almost always required
Owls Head - crampons are almost always required
Passaconaway -crampons are NOT typically needed
Pierce - crampons are NOT typically needed
Tecumseh - crampons are NOT typically needed
Tom - crampons are NOT typically needed
Tripyramid, Middle - crampons are often needed
Tripyramid, North - crampons are often needed
Twin, North - crampons are often needed
Twin, South - often needed
Washington - crampons are almost always required
Waumbek - crampons are NOT typically needed
West Bond - crampons are almost always required
Whiteface - crampons are often needed
Wildcat - crampons are often needed
Wildcat, Peak D - crampons are often needed
Willey - crampons are NOT typically needed
Zealand - crampons are NOT typically needed
4000-FOOTERS THAT CAN BE PARTIALLY SKIED
Some of the 4000-footers can be partially skied, although good snow conditions can be rare. See trailsnh.com to read online trip reports that provide good beta on the latest winter/snow conditions.
Cannon - ski resort trails & backcountry trails
Flume - Flume Slide Trail (insanely steep)
Hale - bushwhack to reach its birch glades
Moosilauke - Carriage Road
Tecumseh - ski resort trails
Washington - there are many backcountry trails and routes on this mountain
Wildcat - ski resort trails & backcountry trails
TRAILS WITH GOOD BUTT-SLIDING/SLEDDING IN WINTER
Many of the 4000-footers offer good butt-sliding/sledding opportunities when good snow conditions are favorable.
Before you read this list, please understand that butt-sliding/sledding is a controversial activity. In order to be a team-player and ensure the safety of both yourself and others, always ensure that the section of trail that you intend to slide/sled down is completely free of other hikers. To a winter hiker, there isn't much that is more terrifying than having a sledder barreling down at them at a fast rate of speed. To be on the safe side, it is best to avoid sliding/sledding on weekends where the odds of hitting another hiker are far greater. Or, better yet, you can try hit the trails extremely early or very late in the day whenever you want to slide/sled.
I do NOT recommend butt-sliding/sledding with your dog (leashed or unleashed). They could easily get hurt by your sled or by trying to keep up with you.
Some believe that butt-sliding/sledding can negatively impact hiking trails. They believe that trails can get worn down and that hiking will accordingly become more difficult. I encourage you to contemplate such things before you partake in this activity.
If you decide to try butt-sliding/sledding, here is where you can do it:
Adams - Lowe's Path
Cannon - Kinsman Ridge Trail
Carter Dome - Carter-Moriah Trail (very steep!)
Field - Avalon Trail (this ride can be a total blast!)
Hale - Hale Brook Trail
Hancock - Hancock Loop Trail (lots of fun, but snow pack needs to be quite deep)
Hancock South - Hancock Loop Trail (lots of fun, but snow pack needs to be quite deep)
Liberty - Mount Liberty Trail (only a few sections near the top)
Middle Tripyramid - Pine Bend Brook Trail
Moosilauke - Glencliff Trail
North Tripyramid - Pine Bend Brook Trail
Pierce - Crawford Path
Tecumseh - Mount Tecumseh Trail
Tom - A-Z Trail (only a few sections of the trail)
Waumbek - Starr King Trail
Willey - Avalon Trail (this ride can be a total blast!)
OTHER GREAT SNOWSHOE HIKES IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS
I recommend that you snowshoe to one or more of these destinations before you attempt to snowshoe a 4000-footer. Each of the hikes listed below makes for an excellent snowshoe hike, assuming that the current snow depths are sufficient enough for snowshoes to be used.
Arethusa Falls - tip: go and watch the ice-climbers climb up the left face of the falls
Bridal Veil Falls
Carter Notch Hut
Doublehead Mountain - tip: rent the USFS cabin overnight and bring firewood to use in the wood stove
Echo Lake/Cathedral Ledge
Tuckerman Ravine-Base - tip: go watch the extreme skiers test their skills from late March to early May)
TOP 4000-FOOTER WEBSITES
These are the top websites on the internet dedicated to the 4000-footers of New Hampshire
4000-FOOTER FACEBOOK GROUPS
I highly recommend that you strongly consider joining these 4000-footer related groups on Facebook. These groups have many great posts with wonderful photographs and trip reports. You can often discover up-to-date trail conditions as well.
Click here to download a Microsoft Excel 4000-footer log spreadsheet that you can use to track all your 4000-footer hikes (including fields for listing the dates & your hiking partners)
GUIDEBOOKS TO GET YOU THERE
The following guidebooks are trusted resources to help lead you to many or all of the 4000-footers of New Hampshire:
AMC White Mountain Guide (31st Edition)
4000-Footers of the White Mountains (3rd Edition)
Climbing New Hampshire's 48 4,000 Footers (1st Edition)
Click on any links above to read reviews and/or purchase these books on Amazon.com (affiliate).
MAP OF THE 4000-FOOTERS
Feel free to save or print this .JPEG map of the 4,000-footers (which are marked in blue). I've also listed many other of the top attractions in the White Mountains with a red star. Take note that Mt. Moosilauke, Mt. Waumbek, and Mt. Cabot are not shown on this map. At some point I hope to update this map to make it larger and include more of the best attractions of the White Mountains.
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