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What is the Best Tent for Backpacking in the White Mountain National Forest?

What is the best backpacking tent for the White Mountains?

When you backpack in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, there are two types of backcountry campsites. The first are designated backcountry tent sites 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.

New to the White Mountains? Read this Quick and Dirty Guide to Backpacking in the White Mountains for information about camping regulations, road access, trail shuttles, lodging, dangerous wildlife, weather, etc.

Designated Tentsites

The White Mountain’s designated tent sites 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.

Many designated sites have rock hard ground and are delineated by logs.
Many designated sites have rock hard ground and are delineated by logs.

The surrounding trees have been stripped for wood fires, rocks have been formed into fire rings, and the tent sites themselves are heavily worn. Many designated sites have a water source, a bear box, or privies, 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.

Hilleberg Niak Tent pitched at a USFS designated tentsite
Hilleberg Niak Tent pitched at a USFS-designated tent site

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 ecosystems, 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 when there are gaps between the slats.

Freestanding dome-style tents work the best on wooden platforms
Freestanding dome-style tents work best on wooden platforms

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 freestanding Black Diamond First Light Tent is easy to set up on wooden platforms
The freestanding Black Diamond First Light Tent is easy to set up on wooden platforms.

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 2 or the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2. 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.

Suboptimal - Tarp pitched low on a wooden platform with storm pending
Sub-optimal – Tarp pitched low on a wooden platform with storm pending

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.”

A floorless pyramid tarp can be difficult to set up on a wooden platform unless you have a lot of extra guylines. You're better off heading down the mountain to the valleys below, where you can set it up with tent stakes on the ground.
A floorless pyramid tarp can be difficult to set up on a wooden platform unless you have a lot of extra guylines. You’re better off heading down the mountain to the valleys below, where you can set it up with tent stakes on the ground.

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.)

Dispersed Camping

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.

The best backcountry shelters are narrow and easy to insert between trees
The best backcountry tents and tarps are narrow and easy to insert between trees

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 are good because you can pick them up easily and move them around.
Small freestanding tents are good because you can pick them up easily and move them to a different spot.

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.

Hammock Camping

Dense forest, no problem
Dense forest, no problem

It took me a while to realize it, 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 up the tarp first in the pouring rain, without getting your sleep insulation or gear wet.
It is much easier to pitch a hammock in dense forest than it is to find an open, level site for a tent
It is much easier to pitch a hammock in dense forest than it is to find an open, level site for a tent.

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 to prevent damage to trees in the White Mountains, but a minimum of 1″ of width is recommended by Leave No Trace.

Above it all in the Pemigewasset Wilderness
Above it all in the Pemigewasset Wilderness

Wrap-Up

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.

Updated 2023.

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9 comments

  1. I transitioned to a hammock in 2017 mostly for sleep issues. Once I did there was no looking back. I agree that it is much easier to find a suitable place to hang than to pitch a tent. There is a whole new learning curve that once you have it down you start to look at trees in a whole new light as you hike

  2. I’ve done the exact same thing myself many times because this tent is so easy to set up and take down.

  3. I bought the optional freestanding poles for my Zpacks Duplex so I could use it in the Whites on tent pads. It works well unless the caretaker starts putting 3 tents per pad. The Duplex takes up alot of space.

  4. Midweight and Medium Speed

    Phil,

    This was a great little post. I’ve used my beta light for years on the ground and on platforms, and I totally agree that the tarp type shelter systems are best on the ground, though with some effort they work ok on a platform. I wish there was a cheap, usable knock off of the first light that was cheap and fairly light, and good for three season usage. I’d buy one in a heartbeat. I just got a Paria Arches 2-P for use in the Whites, and with luck it’ll be a good balance between weight and usability. I got sick of bugs with the Beta light, though in other ways it has been one of my favorite “tents” of all time. I like the trekking pole simplicity but the setup is usually not as easy for me as a simple dome. Hammocks I haven’t tried for actual hiking but this makes me think it might be worth a shot. Do you have any recommendations for a tent that would be similar to the First Light, but cheap? (I know, not likely…)

  5. At your recommendation and also because I’ve spent so much time in WMNF looking for a flat spot while thinking “I could totally hang a hammock here”, I purchased a Hammock Gear kit and spent my first night sleeping in it two nights ago. Loved that I stayed dry in a thunderstorm, but didn’t sleep as well as I do in a tent. Hoping I’ll adjust and improve my hang skills with practice so I fully access the promised dispersed camping flexibility.

    • It takes a few nights out to get used to, but a hammock is a really comfortable way to sleep. That HG kit is really nice too. Did you get an underquilt for it? That can make a big difference too.

  6. Great article Philip. A few years back you mentioned an inexpensive Amazon-sold attachment that allows you to tie out lines between boards on the tent platform. Works great for me on tent platforms. Maybe worth a mention again.

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