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Winter Weather Forecasting in New Hampshire’s White Mountains: Concepts

Map of the White Mountains
Map of the White Mountains

If you plan to hike in the White Mountains in winter, it’s important to pay careful attention to the the weather forecast so you can avoid hiking in dangerous conditions. High winds, cold temperatures, or deep snow can compromise your safety but can be easily avoided if track the weather forecast for a few days before any planned hikes.

You’ll also want to learn about the weather patterns in the region and what forecasting tools are available for planning hikes. While many of these same techniques are useful for planning three-season hikes in the area, winter conditions in the New Hampshire backcountry are so extreme that you can’t simply plan a hike months or weeks in advance and expect the weather to cooperate. I have canceled many winter hikes due to sketchy weather conditions and would advocate you take a similarly conservative approach. The mountains will be there another day.

Weather-Related Hazards

The main weather-related hazards in the White Mountains are the wind, cold temperatures, and snow conditions.

  • High wind, over 40 mph, can make walking difficult. It can accelerate heat loss from exposed areas of skin, resulting in frostbite, and or create missiles, such as flying branches, chunks of ice, or tree blowdowns that can injure you.
  • Cold temperatures cause ice which can make walking difficult or dangerous depending on your location. They can also accelerate hypothermia and frostbite when coupled with the wind.
  • Deep snow can be difficult to walk through, resulting in higher energy expenditure if you need to break out a trail with snowshoes or end up post-holing because you do not have proper flotation.
  • Blowing snow can obscure your vision, particularly above treeline, in the form of whiteouts and cause navigational problems.
  • Snow accumulation can also produce avalanche conditions. Avalanches occur throughout the White Mountains and not just in areas with avalanche forecasts such as Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine. The White Mountain Guide, with over 650 detailed trail descriptions, notes trails that have avalanche zones and other hazards. It’s usually the best thing to read when planning winter routes. If you don’t own one, you should really buy a copy. It has directions to every trailhead and information about winter conditions and access. It’s indispensable for route planning in the Whites.
Avalanche Condition Sign at Pnkham Notch
Avalanche Condition Sign at Pinkham Notch

Key Mountain Weather Concepts

Wind Direction

The wind in the White Mountains mainly blows from the west. If the wind is blowing from the south or east, it means that moist air is blowing in from the ocean which can result in rain or snow. If the wind is blowing in from the north or northeast, it is a strong indication of bad weather and heavy snow in the form of a Nor’Easter. Nor’Easters are low-pressure storms centered off the coast and the Gulf of Maine that dump large quantities of rain or snow on the White Mountains and throughout New England.

Mountains Create Their Own Weather

When the wind hits the mountains, it speeds up as it flows over mountain tops. This creates numerous microclimates in the White Mountains, depending on the geography of the terrain, which can have very different weather conditions despite being relatively close together. For example, Tuckerman Ravine often experiences much heavier snowfall than the rest of the White Mountains because it is the lee of Mt Washington, the highest mountain in the region. When the wind hits Mt Washington and its subsidiary ridges, its speed increases, the air cools and drops large amounts of snow into the Tuckerman Ravine Bowl.

High Elevations are Colder

For every thousand feet of elevation you climb, the temperature drops 3 to 5 degrees. Called the atmospheric lapse effect, this not only has temperature consequences but can also explain why the weather on top of mountains differs from valleys and lower elevations. It also explains why the risk of frostbite and exposure increases at higher elevations when coupled with increasing wind speeds.

Colliding Fronts Bring Bad Weather
Colliding Fronts Bring Bad Weather

Fronts Bring Bad Weather

Fronts – both cold fronts and warm fronts – define the dividing line between two air masses, one of which pushes the other out of its way. When fronts collide there is a change in the weather pattern, usually with bad weather, high winds, and a change in weather direction. Here’s what the interaction between these two types of fronts looks like on the ground.

The Effect of a warm front on a cold front
The effect of a warm front on a cold front
The Effect of a cold front on a warm front
The effect of a cold front on a warm front

Warm fronts, associated with areas of high pressure, affect local conditions gradually and often provide observable clues, such as wispy clouds, 24 hours before their arrival. Cold fronts associated with areas of low-pressure move in much more rapidly, as fast as 35 mph, and cause rapid dramatic storms, followed by cooler and clearer weather. Knowing which is headed your way and when they will arrive can help you decide where you want to be when they make their influence on the weather felt.

In any case, you can always expect elevated winds when a high-pressure region is replaced by an incoming low-pressure area or vice versa. This information is always contained in the Mt Washington Higher Summits Forecast (written and audio) and in the NOAA ( Forecast Discussion. You’ll learn a lot by reading them regularly and checking them daily in the days preceding a big hike,

Snow Flurries on Mt Isolation

Winter Weather in the Whites

So how bad is winter weather in the White Mountains? It can be pretty nasty and it’s best to be prepared. Following the forecast is the best way to do this.

Here are a few local weather facts to put things in perspective:

  • Winter conditions start in November and last into May in the White Mountains – nearly 6 months of the year.
  • Three storm systems, including the jet stream, converge over the White Mountains, making accurate weather forecasting a challenge.
  • Pinkham Notch at the base of Mt Washington averages 168 inches of snowfall annually.
  • The Mount Washington summit (6288′) is covered by cloud 60% of the time.
  • The world’s highest recorded surface wind speed observed by man was clocked on the summit of Mount Washington on April 12, 1934, at 231 miles per hour.
  • The average daily temperature on Mount Washington in January hovers around 5 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds blowing at an average speed of more than 45 miles per hour. Fog and blowing snow can reduce visibility to 200 feet or less. The windchill equivalent frequently dips to -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • The winds on Mt Washington exceed hurricane force an average of 110 days per year. From November to April, hurricane-force winds are likely to occur during two-thirds of the days.
  • Snow has been recorded at the summit of Mt Washington every month of the year, with snowfall averaging 311 inches (7.9 m) per year. Temperatures above 72 °F (22 °C) at the summit have never been recorded.
  • During early January, the sun sets shortly after 4:00 pm, after only 9 hours of daylight.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 10,000 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 12 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 576 summits in all four seasons. He is also 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. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.


  1. Just getting into winter hiking, so i’ve been availing myself of the trove of info on SH; another nice post here on winter weather; thanks!.

    One point of info: I didn’t see a date on this post anywhere, but the wind record has apparently been eclipsed by Australia (253 mph); a 1996 event confirmed by research in 2010. One article about this at the triple w (dot) nbcnews (dot) com/id/35084480/ns/weather/t/new-hampshire-loses-strongest-wind-gust-title/#.WMnNfmMkY-Y.

    I see that the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center provides daily information on snow conditions and avalanche risk in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines, but i was wondering if there’s a centralized source for info on conditions in other areas in the Whites. Been looking around, and haven’t found anything.

    • No centralized source. You have to learn how to make those judgements yourself. My advice take an AAIRE I Avalanche Awareness Course with one of the local guide services in North Conway.

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