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What is the Footing Like in the White Mountains?

Isolation Trail - Roots and Rocks
Isolation Trail – Roots and Rocks

I’m co-leading a Backpacking Fundamentals trip in two months with Andrew Skurka, and one of our students contacted me over the weekend for help with his homework. He’s been assigned the Footing section of the Environmental Conditions Assessment we have students collaborate on before the trip.

Isolation Trail - Stones
Isolation Trail – Stones

The purpose of the Environmental Conditions Assessment is to base your gear, food, and fuel decisions on the needs of trip you are taking so you are prepared, but don’t bring more than you need. While one of the benefits is potentially reducing your gear and food weight, the Environmental Conditions Assessment forces you to plan your trip in-depth and is particularly useful if your journey is outside of an area that you are already familiar with.

Isolation Trail - Stones
Isolation Trail – Smaller Stones

The Environmental Conditions Assessment includes sections on:

  • Climate
  • Daylight
  • Footing
  • Vegetation
  • Navigation aids
  • Sun exposure
  • Water availability
  • Problematic wildlife
  • Insects
  • Remoteness
  • Natural hazards

Andrew’s Backpacking Fundamentals trip in the White Mountains consists of trail hiking and some bushwhacking, to (among other reasons) demonstrate how amazing compasses are for navigation when your view is completely obscured by forest or fog.

Above Treeline - From Adams to Madison
Above Treeline – Col between Adams and Madison

I know it’s hard to believe that the preceding photos are part of a manicured trail system, but they are, and they’re fairly representative of the type of treadway you’ll find throughout the White Mountains below treeline. Above treeline is a different story altogether, since there are just rocks and no roots.

Washed out section of the 19 Mile Trail
Washed out section of the 19 Mile Trail

In addition to trails, there are lots of stream crossings in the White Mountains, but not a lot of bridges. The water level goes up and down, but will be higher in late October because trees will not be absorbing as much water as they do in spring and summer. Some stream crossings are bridged by rocks that you can hop over, but many others require that you get your feet wet, and even your pants.

Western Flank of Big Bickford near Jordan Brook
Western Flank of Big Bickford near Jordan Brook

On bushwhacks, you can assume that the ground surface will look like the rocks, roots, water, and mud you find on a typical below treeline trail, except that they’ll all be hidden from view by hobble bush and fern, with fallen trees hidden and scattered throughout. The basic rule of thumb is to avoid putting your entire weight on anything because you can’t assume it’s solid. This will slow our pace down to a crawl, to about 1/4 to a 1/2 mile per hour as we pick our way through the terrain.

Livermore Trail
Livermore Trail (old Logging Road)

Of course, in October, the chances are good that the leaves will be down off the trees. That will just obscure the ground under the foliage even more and hold any recent precipiation, possibly making things a bit wet and sloppy.

For purposes of the footing section of the Environmental Conditions Assessment, I’ve just provided a seasonally adjusted view of trail and bushwhack conditions in the White Mountains below treeline, but I haven’t really done the thinking part of the assignment. Here are a few questions for you to ponder, or that I would ponder, when trying to decide what footware to bring on a hike or adventure in these conditions.

  1. What are the daytime temperatures?
  2. What proportion of the time will be spend on-trails and off-trail?
  3. How muddy or boggy will the trail and bushwhacks be?
  4. Do the stream crossing have to be forded?
  5. How much precipitation falls during this part of the year?
  6. What are the chances we’ll encounter snow and ice?
  7. What are some alternative ways to keep my lower legs and feet warm?
  8. Should I bring hiking poles or not?
  9. Do I need extra ankle protection?

Those are some of the things I’d be thinking about.


  1. Excellent. I really appreciate the scope of questions you laid out as guidelines. Thank you! October can be an interesting month in the Whites. Last October on Osceola, I encountered rain, snow, hail, soggy ground, and sheets of ice in the same day hike. Never boring!

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