The last few steps to Zealand Falls Hut are steep and can be taxing. With each push up the stone staircase, your legs seem to grow heavier while your knees and joints whisper a plea for mercy. Motivating you at every turn? A cooling breeze sweeping down from Mount Hale, the warm sun breaking through the afternoon clouds, and the soothing sound of Whitewall Brook. But the ultimate reward after the journey: Resting your weary bones in a warm, well-appointed hut powered by the same elements that kept you inspired every step of the way—wind, sun, and water.
Perched on a mountainside deep in the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) of New Hampshire, Zealand Falls Hut is one of eight off-grid alpine huts spaced roughly a day’s walk apart on the Appalachian Trail and operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). Ranging from altitudes of 2,700 to 5,050 feet, and built to accommodate anywhere from 36 to 90 people, the huts host more than 40,000 guests each year.
For the past 120 years, since the first hut was built at Madison Spring, these mountain refuges have imparted backcountry hospitality to hikers in the White Mountains. AMC staff assist hikers and maintain the facility year-round. During the busy full-service season from late spring to early fall, an enthusiastic crew prepares warm meals. The rest of the year, three of the huts, including Zealand Falls, stay open on a self-service basis, staffed by a caretaker.
In the past, the huts relied on propane and kerosene for water heating, cooking, and lighting. But in recent decades, the AMC has come to embrace renewable energy systems as part of its mission to “promote the protection, enjoyment, and wise use of the mountains, rivers, and trails of the Appalachian region.”
Today, a variety of RE strategies and energy-efficient appliances help provide comfortable accommodations for guests and crews. Although propane is still used for cooking, some refrigeration, and backup generators, solar and wind systems now generate electricity for the huts’ emergency radio systems, water pumping, most refrigeration, and lighting. At Zealand Falls, a microhydro system also lends to the cause.
The operating context of the AMC high-country huts gives new resonance to the term “off grid.” Each hut is 2 to 5 miles from the nearest road, nestled deep in the forest or squatting high on exposed ridges, in an area that gets some of the worst weather in the country. Moving supplies to such remote locations is costly and difficult, especially since there are only two ways to bring provisions in and out—by helicopter or on the sturdy backs of AMC staff.
“With the remote location of our huts and operations, we need to work with what we have to make sure the huts operate comfortably for our guests,” says Eric Pedersen, the AMC’s huts manager and a former hut crew leader. “That means we have to be creative in how we get energy.”
In the past, helicopters made dozens of trips each year to fly in full propane tanks and fly out empties, in addition to ferrying food and other supplies. Referred to as “bombs” by AMC hut crews, the tanks are heavy and unwieldy, and loading and unloading them from the helicopter’s net can be a delicate process. Hiring the helicopter and pilot costs about $1,250 per hour, and rising fuel and insurance costs are driving this number higher each year. Some propane is necessary to operate the huts, but minimizing its use made sense both for the budget and risk-management. The risk, coupled with the close proximity of the huts to federally designated wilderness areas, was a key factor in the AMC’s decision to invest in renewable energy systems.