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Bushwhacking in Northern New Hampshire – Tips for Navigating Off Road and Off Trail

Hiking along the border swath between Quebec and New Hampshire
Hiking along the border swath between Quebec and New Hampshire

“Better bring your passport,” said Kris, “in case we get stopped by the border patrol.” Good idea. We were headed up to  Northern New Hampshire, to bushwhack some trail-less mountains close to the US- Canadian Border.

Hiking in Northern New Hampshire is hugely different from hiking in the White Mountains. For one, it’s far more remote, completely off the grid without any cell phone service once you drive past Pittsburg, NH. Three hours north of Lincoln, NH, you’re bound to see a lot more moose in the woods than people.

Northern New Hampshire (top) is surrounded by Vermont, Quebec, and Maine.
Northern New Hampshire (top) is surrounded by Vermont, Quebec, and Maine.

Kris and I are working on the New Hampshire 200 Highest List which requires a lot of bushwhacking to summits that don’t have trails going to them. We enjoy the planning and off-trail navigation required to climb to these summits, the majority of which are in the White Mountains down south. As Kris puts it: “if you can use a map and compass, you own the White Mountains. If you can bushwhack in the While Mountains, you can hike off trail anywhere in the world.”

Imagine the freedom and confidence of knowing you can hike anywhere that your legs can carry you. That’s what drives us to master and practice the skill of navigating with map and compass.

Off-Road Navigation Tips

You get to Northern New Hampshire by following Rt 3 up through Whitefield, Lancaster, Colebrook, Stewardstown, and then Pittsburg. Colebrook is the last sizable town, but there’s no cell phone service north of Pittsburg, so make sure you drive up in a vehicle you can trust.

Kris' SUV had a high enough clearance and wide tires to handle the logging roads with ease.
Kris’ SUV had a high enough clearance and wide tires to handle the logging roads with ease.

With the exception of Rt 3, most of the roads in Northern New Hampshire are unpaved, so you’ll want a high clearance vehicle like a four wheel drive truck or a burly SUV to get around. While the major logging roads (a half dozen) are drawn in the Delorme New Hampshire Road Atlas, you will need to drive on the side roads that fork off driving as close to height-of-land as possible, to minimize the distance you need to climb.

This requires a willingness to drive down a bunch of unnamed logging roads, which are often deeply pitted, with washed out and eroded culverts. While many of these roads are numbered, they’re not named and there’s no map that shows where they go, so you need to put on your explorer’s hat.

A GPS that displays contour lines is essential. so you know whether you’re close to the peak you want to climb. Kris uses Garmin’s Navigon App on his iPhone when driving because it has the major logging roads listed. He also has a Garmin Etrex 20 GPS Receiver that he sticks out of the car window and he uses like a topographic map to find the best place to pullover to attempt a peak. While we use map and compass to navigate to the peaks themselves, the GPS is essential to figuring out where the smaller logging roads go as they twist and turn through the landscape.

Directions to the peaks are published on a few web sites like NH Mountain Hiking or Franklin Sites but careful planning is still required since since you can approach them different ways. The lumber companies try to keep up with repairs on most of the roads but the area is so far north that the snow keeps the repair season quite short. Snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and skiing are other options for accessing the mountains in winter.

Fern understory in open woods
Fern understory in open woods

Off Trail Navigation Tips

Most if the peaks in the region from Pittsburg north have been logged by lumber companies, so you’ll be hiking through areas with variable amounts of regrowth. This has implications for the type of trees an understory you’re likely to encounter on a bushwhack.

Understory

For example, areas that have been logged within the past 10 years are likely to be covered with waist high ferns and hobblebush which growths prolifically over the left behind slash. Walking through a sea of this stuff can be slow work, since you can’t see your feet or blowdowns and branches hidden under the vegetation. While carrying trekking poles usually gets in the way on a bushwhack, carrying a hiking staff as a probe can be useful in such situations.

Moose are abundant in the north country.
Moose are abundant in the north country.

Game Trails

Moose are common in the forest and you’ll see widespread evidence of moose beds and game trails. The game trails provide an excellent way to conserve energy when they head in the direction you need them to. Of course, if you stumble across a moose, get behind a tree. Male moose are particularly bad tempered during the autumn rut and you don’t want to be charged by one (or a mama protecting a calf.)

Logging paths also provide a way to conserve energy provided that they go in the direction you want.
Logging paths also provide a way to conserve energy provided that they go in the direction you want.

Logging Trails

For want of a better term, I’ll call the paths that leave the road and enter a patch of woods, a logging trail. I’m not sure if these have a purpose, but they provide a low energy way to penetrate the woods since many have been adopted as game trails and are usually only filled with ferns and weeds. You find these trails spaced out about every 50 or 100 yards alongside the road.

Border Swath between US and Canada can provide access to remote peaks
Border Swath between US and Canada can provide access to remote peaks

Border Swaths

Border swaths (see top photo) also provide a low energy way to access a summit or get closer to it. These are a grassy no mans land between Canada and the United States that mark the international border. You can find swaths on satellite images, such as the photo above from Caltopo’s free online navigation and route planning tool.

See also:

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8 comments

  1. I hope there’s a Part II, Philip. It seems as if you’re just getting started on this piece. I need more cow bell!

  2. Having a passport is a good tip when you’re hiking near a border.

    • Hi Dan,

      You know you are getting old when the SNL crew that ruined that show for you (i.e., Will Ferrell) are now considered some of the classic actors. I am from the Belushi/Akroid days and turned out after Eddie Murphy. But this has nothing to do with Bushwhacking.

      Philip, thank you for the “no trekking poles” reminder. I love my poles and am never without them….sadly that includes Bushwhacking where I ask myself why I have them…over and over.

  3. I hike and trail ride near the Mexican border. I’ve never considered having my passport with me, but maybe I should start carrying it in the future.

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