Can my Dad and I do a Presidential Traverse in three nights?
July 1, 2016 7:38 PM   Subscribe

My father and I have a growing tradition of doing a hike in the White Mountains each summer, and we try for the biggest trek we can find time for. We're both experienced, but our condition isn't great. We've hit upon the idea of doing a Presidential Traverse—a 23-mile hike that summits ten(ish) of the Whites' tallest peaks. We think we're up for it if we take it slow (three nights) and plan carefully. Difficulty: we want to camp in the backcountry each night.

If you'd like some additional background about the Presidential Traverse, here you go. ("Go" links to a PDF.)

We plan to do this in the last weekend of July. The plan, such as it is at this stage, is to drive up very early in two cars, leaving one at the AMC's Highland Center, and get to the trailhead while it's still mid-morning at latest. We would plan to spend all of Day 1 hiking up Mt. Madison, which has a lot of elevation gain and is reputed to be the most strenuous part of the hike. (We like the idea of doing this part while we are fresh.) We would backcountry camp (which involves climbing back down below treeline, among other things) that night and get up early in the morning of Day 2 and make for Mt. Washington. Somewhere around the mid-point of the traverse (we're not exactly sure where yet) we would hike down again and spend another night in the backcountry. The next morning (Day 3) we'd finish the traverse, backcountry camp a third time after our final descent below treeline, and then take the morning of Day 4 to get to the car at the Highland Center.

We're confident that through experience and planning (this Ask is part of the pre-planning—it's a feasibility check) we can do this hike safely. However, we're not 100% sure that it's possible for us physically right now, which is where you come in. I'm hoping that somebody here will be familiar with this hike, and be able to tell us whether it's within our bodily capabilities.

I'll start with myself. I'm in my early thirties, with lots of experience camping and hiking, but am a bit overweight and out of shape. (I'm male, 5'6", 180 lbs.) I've done long, strenuous (even arduous) hikes before in similar condition. I've done hikes longer and more vertical than the first day of this traverse, and I've spent longer periods of time in the backcountry than this hike would entail. However, when you take into account our desire to backcountry camp rather than staying in shelters, this hike probably has more overall elevation change than any hike I've done before. I'll probably use trekking poles on this hike, something I've never done before.

My father is 60, and in good shape (he's an avid cyclist) but has bad knees. He is also an experienced camper and backpacker, though he doesn't go very often anymore. He'll definitely be bringing trekking poles. His most recent overnight hike was with me, two years ago, a two-nighter up Mt. Bond and back. We both had a fantastic time. He brought trekking poles then too, and says they made a big difference for him, that he was glad he didn't try to do it without. He says his knees haven't gotten any better since then, nor are they likely to.

We think we can manage this because we're reading that many people do this hike all in a single big day. We won't be able to do that (Dad's knees wouldn't do that) but we plan to compensate by stretching it out to three-and-a-half days of hiking at a more leisurely pace. However, both of us strongly prefer camping in the backcountry over camping in shelters, and since both of us are committed to being responsible hikers and will be following all the rules regarding backcountry camping in the White Mountains, that means we are going to have to hike down below treeline each night and find a campsite that's in an appropriate location, then hike back up the next morning. This will add both mileage and elevation change to the traverse. We have lightweight gear and plan to keep our packs as light as possible.

What do you think, folks? Is this reasonable? We're very excited about the idea of this hike. It looks pretty glorious, and if we can do it I'm sure it'll be a time to remember. We're prepared to make other plans though, if the consensus is that it's a bad idea for us to attempt it. If we do go, we'll be prepared to bail out down one of the many escape trails should it become necessary. We're both very interested to hear what you have to say.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (4 answers total)
What are you going to do for water if you're not staying in huts?
posted by rtha at 8:43 PM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

That's only 6 miles a day, I think you'll be fine. If you need to can you cut out early via another trail across cross country? If you're worried about being tired just build in another day or two of time if you need it to chill along the way and bring a communication method to let people at home know (borrow a spot with text capabilities or a sat phone or whatever).
posted by fshgrl at 9:12 PM on July 1, 2016

Best answer: I've done this a few times, but not in at least 9 years (as my son is 8). It is absolutely possible to do; however, this is a major amount of up and down and it is wicked hard on the knees. Adding an extra day is akin to adding additional vertical elevation change, because basically you've got to get below treelike every time you sleep. Here's the thing: the backpacking spots on Madison are really the initial campground, an early morning rise and then an all out sprint up and across. I usually push all the way past Mt Washington on a North-South route. The good news is there are lots of people on the route, the bad news is there are lots of people on the route fighting you for a tent site. The impact of that really is that oh so much more miserable mileage is usually tacked on to day 1. That isn't to say 'just use the huts' either because those things in that area are overcrowded sleep outdoors hope it doesn't rain festivals that honestly, I'm with you - I'd much rather plan on not using them.

So it's busy, tenting sites are hard to come by, adding an additional half day is semi meaningless as really that's just adding a lot of additional vertical.

I haven't even hit on the water thing, which yes, is a thong on the north to south trek ( less so south to north, but you finish pretty dehydrated and messed up with a lot of heavy down on that direction).

In all. I am in favor of the north to south route that you have planned. For places to tent, go Valley Way to the tent site near the Randolph Mountain Club to finding a spot along the Crawford Path to finish.

Lastly, spend some time using those trekking poles beforehand. I mean - go up and down some staircases with them. Don't take them out of your hands. Using them has an adjustment period, but I'd hate to be adjusting to them on the scree of Mt Madison.
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:40 AM on July 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

My go-to sites for the Appalachian Trail are and

You've got your guidebook? Your maps? Some bail-out routes? Do you have the Appalachian Mountain Club phone number in case you want to make bad-weather reservations at a hut (large and expensive) or information about a shelter/tentsite/campsite (some have a small fee with a caretaker)? The volunteer trail maintainers will have information on current trail conditions and alternative routes. Randolph Mountain Club maintains a little more than two A.T. miles and has four shelters in this area (for a fee).
The A.T. can surprise the strongest hikers, and this area is known for it. Be prepared.
Good luck with your adventure!
posted by TrishaU at 3:42 AM on July 3, 2016

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