New Hampshire

7 White Mountains Hiking Safety Tips from a Longtime Guide and Mountain Rescuer

What should you always have in your pack and what’s as important to check as the temperature? Longtime guide and climber Joe Lentini shares his seven expert White Mountains hiking safety tips.

By Ian Aldrich

Jul 15 2023

The White Mountains of New Hampshire | Featured Photographer Joe Klementovich

Trail runner high above North Conway, New Hampshire on South Moat Mountain.

Photo Credit : Joe Klementovich

Each year some 6 million people visit the White Mountain National Forest, whose 800,000 acres spread across northern New Hampshire and into Western Maine. Notable for its pristine wilderness and famous 4,000-foot peaks, the Whites offer up some of the best hiking in the Northeast, especially the trails that scale the region’s most celebrated summit, Mt. Washington. But for all its beauty and accessibility, this is not an area that should be taken casually.

“People constantly underestimate these mountains,” says Joe Lentini, a longtime guide and mountain rescuer. “They’re not hard to get to—they’re just a few hours from Boston—and they’re not the big mountains you find out West. But things can go wrong if you’re not prepared.”

Lentini knows the landscape about as well as anyone. He is the former longtime director of Eastern Mountain Sports’ Climbing School and over his nearly 50 years of living and working in the White Mountains, Lentini has led nearly 500 winter ascents up Mt. Washington alone. For several decades he’s also been a member of New Hampshire Mountain Rescue Service, a volunteer group of elite climbers who are called upon for highly technical operations, from nighttime searches during the throes of winter to complicated retrievals on the region’s different climbing cliffs. It’s work that has given Lentini a front-row seat to the consequences of underprepared hikers.

So, what’s it take to safely hike in the White Mountain National Forest? The following are Lentini’s hiking tips for maximizing your enjoyment and safety in the region. 

7 Essential White Mountains Hiking Safety Tips

Check the Weather and Wind Speeds

Too many hikers, says Lentini, make the mistake of assuming what the weather see in downtown North Conway or at the trailhead is what awaits them above treeline. That can be a big mistake. “On the bigger mountains it can be a completely different world up there,” he says.

And checking the weather requires hardly any time at all. The Mt. Washington Observatory Web site delivers round-the-clock live reports and recently has also begun to offer free forecasts delivered right to your phone. Just text “weather” to the Observatory’s automated line at 603-356-2137 for a summary of the day’s conditions. For a multi-day report text “weather forecast.”

Just as important as checking the weather, says Lentini, is not underestimating what gets reported back to you. Especially potential wind speeds. “If you ask a person what kind of winds they think they could walk in people will routinely say 80 to one-hundred miles an hour,” says Lentini. “No you can’t. Try sticking your head out the window of a car when it’s moving even just 55 miles per hour and you’ll get a sense of what you’re up against.”

Big wind gusts are a regular feature on some of the Whites’ highest peaks. In winter, for example, Mt. Washington, “home to the world’s worst weather,” the summit experiences average wind speeds around 45 MPH, and it’s not uncommon, of course, for gusts to climb much higher than that. Wind can be a factor on the smaller peaks as well, and with all that wind other factors come into play, says Lentini, like poor visibility and colder temperatures.

The Friends & Family Rule

Before you head out on any hike, let others know of your plan: where you’ll be hiking, when you’ll be heading out, and when you expect to return. “It’s one of the most important things you can do,” says Lentini.

Gear Up

For summer hikers, Lentini advises a backpack that includes one light jacket shell to protect against wind and potential rain. Hat and gloves are also a must, as is a pair of lightweight pants that you can quickly pull-on in case precipitation or colder temperatures hit. But it’s not just about the clothes, either. “Make sure everyone in the group has a headlamp,” he adds. “Just in case you’re out there longer than you think you will be.” Maps and a GPS tracker (either from a phone app or a separate unit) are also  crucial, as is a battery charger for whatever kind of device you might be using. Because bumps and bruises, even twisted ankles are a possibility, you should also make room in your pack for a First-Aid kit. Last but certainly not least, Lentini recommends trekking poles. “They really let your arms do part of the work and keep the pressure of your knees, especially when you’re going downhill,” he says.

It’s All About the Footwear

Flip-flops, low-cut sneakers, Lentini has seen it all on the trail. What he likes to see, and what he prefers to wear, are hiking boots with ankle protection. “Sneakers are great if you’re just going to be on the flats, but when you’re dealing with rocky terrain you’ll have no ankle protection and that can be a huge issue,” he says.

Extra Food, Extra Water

Pack more of both than you think you’ll need, says Lentini. “For water the basic rule of thumb is to carry a minimum of a liter of water for a half-day hike and at least two liters for a full day.”

Know Your Limits

When Lentini says he’s led nearly 500 winter ascents up Mt. Washington, that’s not to suggest he’s summited each time.  Changing weather, decreasing visibility have forced him to turn his groups back on many occasion. His advice: Don’t let your ego or an obsession with reaching the top create unnecessary danger for yourself. “I always tell people,” says Lentini. “You can come back again.”

Baby Steps

It’s good to have goals, says Lentini, but it’s also smart to be realistic. If you’re new to hiking, or even new to the Whites, don’t make a rugged peak like Mt. Washington your first climb. Start with something more modest to get accustomed to what you’re asking your body to do. “Hiking uses completely different muscles than what you may be used to,” says Lentini. “I’ve had marathoners with me who’ve found it really hard. They’re in great shape but it’s completely different than what they’ve been doing.” Lentini’s recommended lineup includes Mt. Jackson, 4.7 mile out-and-back climb in the Presidential Range and the Boulder Loop Trail, a 3.4-mile trek near the Kancamagus Highway that leads to several different ledges and scenic outlooks. “I also like Hedgehog Mountain [in Albany]”, he says. “It’s got beautiful views and reasonable terrain,” he says. “There’s some elevation gain but it’s not like you’re going up Mt. Washington. It’s a great mountain for getting used to the region.” And all the beauty it can deliver.

See More:

Trouble on Mount Washington | A Missing Hiker, a Dangerous Rescue, and What Came Next