USFS WMNF Trailhead Steward Program

By Fawn Langerman

2024 is my third year volunteering with the USFS WMNF Trailhead Steward program, and we are off to a great start! I was drawn to this volunteering as I have sometimes encountered poorly prepared hikers on the trails and wanted to help them: I think that one of the roots of this problem is the fact that the word “hike” is such a broad term. If you are from a city (like I am, originally), the word “hike” can often mean walking on a non-paved surface. Preparedness in a city is vastly different than preparedness in the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF).

In hiking here, we encounter a multitude of hazards, including loose and slippery footing, rock scrambles, and water crossings. And, we need to consider weather when we set out on our adventures. It is not just the temperature, it is also the wind. Not only do we need to know the forecast, but we need to have contingency plans in place, in case something goes wrong— If the weather changes, if the footing is less than optimal, if we have a gear problem or, worst case, if someone in our group gets hurt. Prior to hiking, thinking through what to do in each of these circumstances is extraordinarily helpful. Out of town visitors might not know the extent of our hazards, and having a trailhead resource for information and guidance is incredibly beneficial.

I love Trailhead Steward volunteering. In response to my question, “Where are you headed?” I get an incredibly diverse set of answers. When I am at the Appalachia trailhead (which is my typical choice), the most likely answers are Madison and/or Adams, and “just taking a look.” For the hikers headed above treeline we have two major resources at our USFS tent: We have the MWOBs Higher Summits Forecast written out on a large whiteboard, and we have a map of the area with an infographic about Leave No Trace.  Depending on the hiker’s plans I get to talk about trail selection, bailout options and recent known conditions.  Although it is a ton of fun to talk to the people headed above treeline, I have just as much fun talking to people that stopped at the trailhead because they were in the area, and want to just see something neat. Wow, do I have a lot of options for those visitors! Not only does the WMNF have beautiful summits with eye-popping views, there are waterfalls and forest walks of many different varieties. I really enjoy helping visitors to plan their route based on their available time, interests, gear, and skill level!

Spending a morning at Appalachia trailhead.

My understanding is that the program originally started 9 or 10 years ago for hiker education and safety, to talk about Leave No Trace, and to reduce Search and Rescue (SAR) calls (also known as Pre-SAR).  Although we do not have a directly measurable variable to prove success, the USFS does send us our season stats every fall.  And they are impressive!  Here are the 2023 stats:

Across our five trailheads (Appalachia, Ammo, Falling Waters/OBP, Champney Falls and Welch/Dickey) in 2023, our Trailhead Steward volunteers talked to 26,377 hikers. Of those, 13% (3,475) changed their plans as a direct result of our conversation. At the Appalachia trailhead, the most frequent plan changes that I see have to do with trail choice for Madison and/or Adams, and with plans for a Prezi traverse (here is where the definition of the word “hiking” comes in). In looking at a Prezi traverse, and without prior experience hiking above treeline in the WMNF, a very experienced hiker from another state might have experience hiking 20+ miles with around 9,000 feet of gain in a single day. That person might be therefore confident that they can complete a Prezi traverse before nightfall.  And, while it is definitely likely that they can, it is best to have all of the up-to-date information available in making that final determination.  There are specific dangers here and the footing can significantly slow down even the fastest experienced hiker, making their projection for finish time unachievable.

In some of these conversations I find that the hiker had access to this information prior to arrival, and sometimes they do not. In the latter case, I get a chance to talk through everything about the amazing Prezi traverse day– water sources, bailout options, safety gear, local resources for shuttles if they end up at the wrong trailhead, and the route options. We also make sure that the hikers have the MWOBS text phone number 603-356-2137. This service provides the most current forecast (it is updated every 12 hours), current summit conditions, and can even provide a radar animation if the hiker can get enough cell service for a data connection. This is an invaluable resource for a full day above treeline! When we have a conversation with a hiker and they alter their plan in any way, we count that toward the tally of “changed their plan.”  Last weekend, at Appalachia, we talked with 73 hikers and changed the plans of 7 of them!

Consulting a trail map with a hiker.

John Marunowski, USFS Forest Partnership and Volunteer Coordinator, says “the volunteers of the WMNF are the lifeblood of our operations throughout the national forest, in many different capacities. Those volunteers associated with the Trailhead Steward Program are knowledgeable about local trail conditions and passionate about keeping hikers safe by providing them with critical safety information.”

As a Seek the Peak Steward, I’m also excited to share that USFS WMNF Trailhead Stewards will be at the above listed trailheads during Seek the Peak weekend to ensure hiker safety and improve decision making through shared resources.

This type of volunteering is incredibly gratifying.  If you are interested in getting involved, let me know! Feel free to message me on Instagram at @bikecamphikegirl, and learn more in the fun feature below with Ford Bronco!

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