Why Am I Publishing a Free Backpacking Guidebook for the White Mountain 4000 Footers?

Free Guidebook 4000 Footers

I’m currently publishing a FREE guidebook for Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 footers in New Hampshire in serialized form on SectionHiker.com. Why would someone “give away” the contents of a Guidebook for free instead of publishing one with a real publisher and getting paid for it? I thought I’d explain the reasons why I’m doing it, because it’s probably not obvious.

Here are the trip plans I’ve published so far. 

Greater Reach Online

My goal in writing a guidebook about the 4000 footers is to help preserve and protect the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF). The main reason I’m publishing the guidebook online is to get more people to read it and use it. Making people pay for a printed guidebook would limit the number of people who could benefit from it.  But publishing a credible, well researched backpacking guidebook online is the best way to reach the largest number of people.

Close to 900,000 acres in size, the WMNF is within driving distance of three major metro areas including Boston, New York, and Portland (Maine). It’s visited by over 6 million people per year, more than the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Parks, combined. In addition to supporting local economies, the WMNF provides numerous recreational opportunities including hiking, backpacking, camping, climbing, skiing, ice climbing, mountaineering, snowmobiling, mountain biking, cycling, kayaking, and fishing.

Alpine Zone Sign
Alpine Zone Sign

But the recent hiking, backpacking, and outdoor recreation boom has greatly increased the number of people visiting the WMNF each year. Resource overuse is a growing concern and many fragile natural areas (for instance – Franconia Ridge) are increasingly crowded, trashed, and trampled to death.

Backcountry use, away from popular tourist areas, has also increased substantially. Unfortunately, the Forest Service, for all of its strengths, has been completely overwhelmed by the influx of people. Federal budget cuts haven’t helped either.

While there are rules and regulations for backcountry camping in the WMNF, the Forest Service does an epically poor job in educating visitors about their existence or enforcing them. They don’t have the staff and their website is just AWFUL. The result has been a widespread proliferation of unsightly and illegal campsites in popular areas, concentrated around the White Mountain 4000 footers. It’s not pretty and it’s not necessary, since there is plenty of space available for low-impact dispersed camping.

Kindle Stewardship

My goal in publishing a guidebook is to foster greater stewardship of the WMNF by people who backpack by educating them about the local regulations, telling them about the best maps and apps to use for navigation, and encouraging them to use hardened campsites. I’ve focused on the 4000 footers because they are THE most popular destination for beginner hikers in the Whites. They’re super fun to hike too.

By all accounts, my strategy is working. My guidebook trip plans and maps are some of the most heavily read and downloaded posts on my website. I can see how many people click-through to the WMNF backcountry camping regulations and other information through my website statistics. I know how hard it is to find this information by conventional means, so I know I’m having an impact on making it more accessible.

Stewardship is a difficult concept to explain, but it’s a combination of “taking ownership” and a “desire to educate.” There is a cadre of people who hike, backpack, and maintain trails in the WMNF who I think of as stewards. They care deeply about keeping it pristine, while encouraging responsible use by newcomers. I really look up to them, and hope my guidebook will help foster the same spirit in people who are experiencing White Mountain backpacking for the first time.

But why FREE?

Why is Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers freely available to website visitors? The publishing and outdoor educational landscape has changed radically in the past 5 years. Publishing is now continuous, people desire more interaction with authors and peers, and the overhead of working with a publisher doesn’t justify the effort required.

The death of paper backpacking guidebooks….

People want up-to-date information that you simply can’t provide in a static book that’s updated every 2-3 years with the publication of new editions. Map-publishing using tools like Caltopo, GeoPDF, and GPX files make it very easy to publish and share routes. The backpacking landscape and trails also change constantly due to the effect of winter weather, avalanches, landslides, floods, fires and road closings. Those changes can’t be reflected quickly enough in a paper guidebook.

Commercial guidebooks have also been replaced by other forms of online information, ranging from online map portals to Facebook groups. People want immediate, access to information and the personalized contact that comes with conferring with peers in social media groups. Paperback guidebooks are a poor substitute for the real-time discussion and advice you can get in a Facebook group or Reddit. But publishing a free guidebook on a website (where the owner reads and responds to questions and comments) helps bridge the gap between a frequently updated authoritative guide and a coach who can advise readers in real-time.

The death of hiking and backpacking clubs….

Hiking clubs, like the local Appalachian Mountain Club, used to be the main vehicle for guided trips and educating new backpackers about low impact camping, navigation, wilderness first aid, and hiking and backpacking in general. But their influence has been replaced by the tidal wave of online content. The clubs have largely become irrelevant, because they can’t keep up with the flood of interest or lead enough trips to satisfy the demand.  New backpackers and campers also get their information from the web, Facebook, and YouTube, not in classrooms, or on mentored backpacking trips…like the old days.

The death of traditional publishing….

The economics of backpacking books has changed. You simply can’t make any money by authoring a regional guidebook if you work with a traditional publisher. The publisher keeps 80-90% of the profits generated by a book. They provide virtually no editorial assistance and impose all kinds of impediments on authors in terms of illustrations and the number of pictures and maps you can include. I could go on. I had a book contract with a top-tier outdoor publisher about another topic that I cancelled recently. After working “with” them for a few months, it became readily apparent that they provided zero added-value beyond distribution, which I can do myself through my website.

Wrap-up

So that in a nutshell is why I’m publishing a Free Guidebook for Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 footers. I’m not trying to redefine guidebook publishing or disenfranchise traditional publishers. I just love backpacking in the White Mountains and want to help preserve it for others to enjoy. This is the best way I can think of doing that.

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide, a distance of approximately 2500 miles, completing a second round in 2021. Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire.

Published 2018.

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24 comments

  1. I teach the Boy Scout Backpacking merit badge. The scouts need to plan a five day, three site trip of at least thirty miles, I point them to your White Mountain guide for examples. Thanks

    • I congratulate any scout who has completed the Back Packing Merit Badge as I consider it, and Hiking, to be the hardest physically and mentally to complete. For those who don’t know just what it takes to earn the Backpacking badge, these are the trip requirements:
      1) Participate in at least three backpacking treks of at least three days each and at least 15 miles each, and using at least two different campsites on each trek. Carry everything you will need throughout the trek.
      2) Make a backpacking trek of at least five days using at least three different campsites and covering at least 30 miles
      The entire requirements can be found at the web site below, if all backpackers had to do at least this it might go a long way to keeping the backcountry preserved and clean.

      Ps; one of my troops scouts just finished his 3rd year at West Point and he made the comment that the map and compass reading he did as a scout made many of his training courses a lot easier. He was surprised at how many well educated cadets couldn’t read a map never mind how to use a compass.

      https://meritbadge.org/wiki/index.php/Backpacking

  2. Thank you for providing such an in depth backpacking guide. Your website is my go to resource for info on the Whites, and I utilized it almost solely before I purchased the White Mountains Guide. I now use a combination of both, as well as reading trip reports posted online.
    Backcountry camping can be a daunting task for newcomers. I’ve found myself frustrated many times while trying to locate a proper place to pitch. I typically look for established, hardened tentsite first but on the lesser known trails I’m known? to travel they are few and far between. I wish there were more “official” sites such as there are in the Presidential-Dry River Wilderness marked with a tent symbol. I think the creation of more of these sites would help limit the amount of bootleg sites that are created. They would especially be helpful in areas that are thick with undergrowth and full of Widowmaker birches. Just my two cents and something we could discuss further next time we hit the trail together. Keep up the good work, I’ve been enjoying reading these guides.

  3. One worry I have with the death or at least less relevance of the older hiking and backpacking clubs is that for all the online content and other clubs and organizations thru meetup.com for example, someone still has to build and maintain trails so people can actually go use them. At least down here where I live near the DC area, the older clubs (PATC in VA, and the KTA in Pennsylvania) are the ones still maintaining and building 99% of the wilderness trails in state and national forests. This requires knowledge, tools, and organization that is hard for individuals or small clubs to really match and I have not seen any other organizations stepping up to help out or that would have the knowledge or long term staying power and planning to really do this job. At the same time, younger people are not going to these organizations but newer things like meetup.com. I’m not sure what to do about it, but I’m in my mid 30’s and 9 times out of 10 at trail work events with these clubs I’m the youngest person there. It worries me.

    • Up here in New England there are a number of trail maintenance organizations that have summer teen spike trail crews throughout the area. Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and Upper Valley Trails Alliance have waiting lists of teens that want to hit the trails, get dirty, learn LNT etc and make friends. My kids will be doing a couple of crews with the AMC, and there is a fee to go- they didn’t get their first choices either- most crews in the Whites were full in mid-April! One of my boys will be going out with a Green Mountain Club crew on the AT as well in a couple of weeks and that is free. The GMC is 18+, though.

      Also tried to set up a teen hiking meetup for the kids- let me just say that meetup appears to be experiencing technical challenges with new groups at this time, so I’m glad to have the clubs.

      • The AMC charges people to do trail maintenance. Isn’t that the ultimate con job. There are lots of groups that don’t charge any money for this and provide fantastic training. Don’t get me wrong. The AMC does good work, but they don’t call it the Appalachian Money Club for nothing. Everything has a price and profit centers drive AMC manager MBO’s.

    • Given federal and local budget priorities, there won’t be a lot of new trails being built any time soon. Heck, there are still a lot of Congressionally approved national scenic trails that haven’t been built yet. I expect you’ll see a lot more trails closing than opening. The golden era of trail building is unfortunately over.

      • I’m not worried about new trails, just the trails we already have. It sounds like the AMC is a much different organization that kta or the patc

  4. Thanks for all you do Philip. I luve far away from the White Mountains but it’s one of my favorite places on this planet. Given the mass of people who have easy access the area needs all the help it can get.

  5. Hear, hear, Philip. Thank you for helping to protect the our beautiful WMNF.

  6. Dominique McLean

    Thanks Philip! You are my # 1 source for info on hiking in the WMNF. I also refer people to your web site on a daily basis when I’m working at REI

  7. You are making a huge impact with your deep reservoir of knowledge and generosity in sharing it. Not to mention the effort involved. It is much appreciated and incredibly valuable.

  8. Metro areas
    I meet many hikers from Montreal Quebec when on trails in the WMNF

  9. Phillip,
    It is also very satisfying to “give back.” You may also wish to open-source the content so you don’t have to do all the updates yourself. You might also consider offering your guide collection in a dead-tree edition for those digital immigrants who want hard copy. Blurb.com allows you to upload the manuscript for free, and those that want a printed book can order and pay Blurb. (Not trying to add to your workload… just a suggestion to extend your reach.)
    Thanks for all the great content you post each week. Most appreciated.

  10. CAPT Gary Andres USN ret

    Phillip…in my old Navy-ese “Bravo-Zulu”, brother! Outstanding effort with this guide….more importantly is how much I appreciate your effort and your guiding principle on why you “published” for free. I often get a kick out of your dry wit…and I always learn something from your newsletter! I am in recovery still after succumbing to a serious illness AND injury incurred on my attempted AT “flip flop”….it makes me all the more appreciative of all hikers regardless of age or genderand gender! Thanks again, sir!

  11. Phillip, Thanks for this most important contribution of your time and talents.

  12. Been a fan for many years, thank you for bringing the truth.

  13. Hi Philip,

    Me and my girlfriend live in NYC and are would like to do a moderate 2-3 day backpacking trip in the white mountains this summer. We’ve done some overnight trips in the Catskills (panther, wittenberg & cornell) but haven’t been up to NH yet. Any one of the guides here you could direct us to? We’re looking for a good introduction to the Whites but something that’s not too difficult or risky at this point. Thanks for making these free and available for your readers

    Kevin

  14. All I can say is thanks. I mention your website whenever I can work it into a conversation.

  15. Your a pretty cool guy , need more hikers like you! People who leave even the smallest trash in the woods don’t belong there it’s hard enough to find a place without it it seems. I’ve never been to the white mountains but from all your articles maybe someday I can plan a trip there, thanks for the website you have too its pretty interesting:)

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