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Hiking Above Treeline

Above Treeline. If those words don’t scare you or at least raise your guard, then you should read this post carefully.

Above treeline on Mt Washington.
Above treeline on Mt Washington.

Above Treeline occurs at about 4,500 feet of elevation in my neck of the woods, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  When you get up to this elevation, you are fully exposed to the elements including wind, rain, hail, fog, lightning, snow, and cold. While it can be beautiful in good weather, getting stuck here in fog, a whiteout, or after dark can have lethal consequences, any time of year.

There are no trees and few plants, except lichen and sedge grasses. There’s very little cover if something goes wrong and you may have to wait until daybreak before anyone can come get you in an emergency.

For all practical purposes, it looks like you are on the moon. The tops of the mountains are covered in boulder fields that are tricky to walk on. The rocks are sharp, and if you stumble, it’s easy to cut up your hands when you hit the ground.

Descending Mt Jefferson
Descending Mt Jefferson

Rock cairns replace trail blazes but can be difficult to see in low light, whiteouts, and darkness. Your best defense is good preparation and planning. Bring warm clothing and rain gear (tops and bottoms.) Prepare bail-out routes in advance in case the weather changes suddenly, and remember, there is safety below treeline. When conditions degrade, the people who get below treeline have a higher survival rate.

Despite the harshness of the environment above treeline, it is a very fragile environment that can be easily damaged Don’t pick any flowers or plants above treeline and stay on the path, or jump from rock to rock to avoid disturbing any.

Camping is forbidden above treeline in the White Mountains, except on 2 feet of snow or more. Wood fires are also illegal, so use a backpacking stove (especially since there is no wood above treeline.)

Mt Monroe, Presidential Range
Mt Monroe, Presidential Range

Don’t be afraid to turnaround on a hike above treeline if you run out of daylight or a member of your party becomes fatigued.  Most accidents occur at these elevations because someone didn’t turn around until it was too late. Remember, the summit is always optional. Among mountaineers and hikers there is as much glory in a good attempt as there is in a successful summit.

Written 2015. Updated 2018.

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  1. I really enjoyed this blog post and some great information in the comments. I’m a relative novice backpacker with about 6 trips under my belt including Mt.Washington, Mt.Carrigain etc but I’m looking to take my wife and daughter on an overnight backpack. Something under 10 miles roundtrip and some near or above tree line hiking while still being manageable for them would be ideal. Would any of those summit hikes recommended to Rita be suitable as an overnighter?

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