When you backpack in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, there are two types of backcountry campsites. The first are designated backcountry lean-tos and tentsites managed by the US Forest Service or local trail organizations, and the second are dispersed campsites that you choose yourself in wilderness settings, provided you adhere to the White Mountain Backcountry Camping Regulations.
The White Mountain’s designated tentsites are heavily used, pretty much the same conditions you’d expect in any US National Forest or National Park. They’re primarily pressed-earth tent pads, often surrounded by sunken logs, that delineate the sites where people should set up their tents.
The surrounding trees have been stripped for wood fires, rocks have been formed into fire rings, and the tentsites themselves are heavily worn. Many designated sites have a water source, a bear box, or privies though, so it’s easy to overlook their cosmetic deficiencies in the name of comfort and the sense of security that comes from camping with other forest visitors.
Some White Mountain campsites have slatted wooden platforms instead of tent pads, that are used to provide a level campsite surface on steep mountainsides, or in fragile eco-systems, where tent camping would normally be impossible.
The best tents for both types of sites are ones that have deep bathtub floors, since water pools on the tent pads and wooden platforms, even though there are gaps between the slats.
When camping on the wooden platforms, you’ll also want a tent that is as “freestanding” as possible, and requires a minimum number of stakes to hold up. The wooden platforms have metal rings and hooks positioned around their perimeter framing that you can tie guylines to, although you’ll want to bring a few extra 8-10′ lengths of cord to span the gap between your tent and the hooks.
The easiest tents to set up on wooden platforms are dome-style tents with poles that drop down to grommets or connectors at the four corners of the inner tent that are also used to secure the rain fly. These are typically double-wall tents with two pole hubs like the MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2 or the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2, or the Hilleberg Niak, which has a single central hub but four corner connectors. I also use a freestanding Black Diamond First Light, although it’s really more of a winter tent. You’ll still need to anchor your tent so it doesn’t blow off the platform and tie down the vestibule door(s), but you can always tie them back and leave them open if it doesn’t rain.
While you can pitch a tarp or ultralight trekking pole tent on a wooden platform, it’s really sub-optimal if bad weather blows in since the wind and rain blows up under the air gap separating the shelter from the wooden platform…even in fairly well protected tent sites. I’ve spent some cold and windy nights shivering in ultralight tents because they’re so well “ventilated.”
If you have a tent or shelter like this, you’ll be much better off camping at a dispersed wilderness campsite, provided you adhere to the White Mountains backcountry camping rules. However, camping is prohibited above treeline and in sensitive alpine terrain, so you’ll have to lose elevation and head down into the valleys in most cases to camp legally (and levelly.)
There are many places in the White Mountain National Forest where you can camp in a backcountry setting provided you follow a few simple camping regulations. These are intended to minimize overuse and promote leave-no-trace ethics so everyone can enjoy the forest in its wild state.
However, the forest is very dense and it can be quite difficult to find a good campsite that’s large enough for a tent. The forest floor is a tangle of roots and stumps, fallen trees, rocks, and dense vegetation so it can also take a while to find a level campsite, that’s free of debris.
I’ve found that the best ground tents and shelters are narrow one person tent, tarps, or a bivy sack that you can squeeze in between the trees.
Small freestanding tents can also work well, since you can pick them up and move them to another spot when you discover a rock, root, or tree branch under your tent.
It took me a while to realize it (Andrew Skurka insisted I’d come around eventually), but I believe that hammocks are the most practical and convenient camping shelters to use in the White Mountain National Forest.
- You can pitch a hammock just about anywhere, no matter how dense the forest or understory, which makes them great for dispersed, wilderness camping.
- You never have to worry about what the ground is like below you, since you’re above it all.
- While awkward, you can string up a hammock on a slope, so you don’t have to search for a level area to lie on at night.
- You can set them up in the pouring rain, without getting your sleep insulation or gear wet.
Hammocks can also be used to camp at designated campsites or over wooden platforms, provided you have long enough tree straps or suspension cords to span widely spaced trees. There are no regulations for required tree strap widths in the White Mountains, but a minimum of 1″ of width is recommended by Leave No Trace.
There’s definitely a learning curve to dispersed, wilderness hammocking, but if you already own a hammock and want to backpack in the Whites, I’d encourage you to give it a go. Dome-style freestanding tents and narrow 1-person tents or shelters are the other shelters that work the best in the White Mountain National Forest, at least in my experience.