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

What is the best tent for camping n the White Mountain National Forest?

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.

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 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.

Another USFS designated tentsite although this one is rather wild looking
Another USFS designated tentsite although this one is rather wild looking

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.

Hilleberg Niak Tent pitched at a USFS designated tentsite
Hilleberg Niak Tent pitched at a USFS designated tentsite

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.

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

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 (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.
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 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.

Written 2018.

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17 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 really wish that I could use a hammock, but I must be one of the few people on the planet to get motion sickness whenever I try to sleep in one!

  3. Phil, I’ve read a lot of different opinions on how waterproof the first light really is. So far, I’ve only used mine in very cold weather and haven’t worried about it. I’d like to get more use out of this tent. What has been your experience using it in the rain?

    • I’ve used in in rain without issue, although the ventilation does suck with the front door closed, so you have to contend with that. I seam sealed mine when I first got it which is probably why it’s stayed watertight. I’m pretty sure its not seam-sealed from the factory which is why BD says its not “waterproof”.

      • OK, that’s good to know. I’ll seam seal mine and hopefully I’ll have the same results. It would be nice to use this tent on Friday nights before I start a backpacking weekend to save myself unpacking and repacking my main gear. This way I can just use a spare pad and quilt and throw them all in the car in the morning before I hit the trail.

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

      • Rookie here! That’s a good idea. That’s why I come to this site. Thanks

  4. I keep reading about folks who’ve transitioned from ground sleeping to hammocks and aren’t looking back — and, in fairness, some who’ve tried hammocks and have gone back to tents — so this gets my attention enough that i might like to give it a try. But i’m held back by a few things.

    As someone who has had motion sickness issues (in cars as a kid; in certain boats/ferries as an adult), i worry about swinging around while trying to fall asleep and, i’d imagine, after most position adjustments during the night. Maybe some people get used to this or it doesn’t matter for them? Can the sides of the hammock be guyed down to damp or limit the motion?

    I also wonder about being in a bowed/banana shape for 8–9 hours, and, especially, how side sleeping would work being in that curved position. There looks to be quite a bit of deflection in most of the setups i see pictured by users. I understand there are ways to limit that, but there’s always going to be some deflection, it seems.

    And, there looks to be a pretty sizeable investment to get set up with a hammock system. Do rentals exist anywhere?

    The main advantage of hammocks for me would seem to be the ability to set up camp in areas where finding a flat tent spot is difficult or impossible; a definite plus in some areas. But i don’t see much weight savings over a tent, so the swinging motion issue and bent sleeping position would be the things that kill the deal for me.

    Thoughts from actual hammock users appreciated.

    • I can relate. I get carsick if I try to read while someone else is driving or and I get sick to my stomach if I jump up and down for basketball.
      But you really don’t swing that much in a hammock and that’s not a problem for me.
      Experienced hammock hangers never sleep like a banana. You get a longer hammock and sleep on a diagonal so you’re always flat, or very close to it.
      I’d recommend a Warbonnet or a Dutchware Chameleon. Stay AWAY from ENO, Grandtrunk, Kammock, etc.
      No rentals anywhere. Find a friend to loan you one.
      Yep – it’s about as expensive as a decent tent and a sleep system (pad/quilt).
      Buy Derek Hansen’s Latest book and you’ll be an expert overnight.

      • Hey, Philip, thanks for the input and book recommendation! No current friends i know of are using hammocks, so i’ll have to wait for some “disposable ” income to accumulate if i want to pursue this. I suppose i could just turn around and sell everything at a small loss if it didn’t work out. I’m not unhappy on the ground, but the appeal of not needing a flat site is definitely a draw.

        I’ve stumbled across a few You Tubers that post about hammock camping. One of the most helpful — and entertaining — is Sean Emery’s (Shug) from the midwest. Hammock Forums has a ton of discussion, but it’s a little daunting trying to sort out where to start there.

        Will look into Hansen’s book.

      • Shug is very entertaining. Very good advice and boy can he juggle!

      • Whooo, buddy!

  5. Now If only I could rig up a motor to it to rock me to sleep. I do no get motion sickness, motion actually luls me to sleep.

  6. Tarptent Rainbow I is free standing with trekking poles. Newer version is more waterproof than older silnylon. Should work well in the Whites.

  7. 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.

  8. 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…)

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