This multi-post series discusses recommended gear, supplies, and skills for backpacking in the Mountain West in early-season conditions. These normally prevail in May/June, and in July after exceptionally snowy winters.
Outdoor clothing brands and retailers present backpackers with a paralyzing number of options. The situation is exacerbated by marketing hype and the infusion of “outdoor lifestyle” clothes, which perform relatively poorly in the field.
Two years ago I published a series on Core 13 Clothing, and those posts remain as relevant as ever. These items can be mixed-and-matched to create appropriate systems for the full range of three-season conditions, whether that be in the Blue Ridge Mountains in March, Glacier National Park in July, or Alaska’s Brooks Range in September.
Within the Core 13 Clothing framework, let’s discuss early-season conditions in the High Sierra.
What is a normal summer day in the High Sierra? Sunny with bluebird skies. So during prolonged sections of snow travel (e.g. for a few hours, on the climb to and descent from an alpine pass), you will feel like you’re in a solar oven — the sun cooks you from above, and the snow reflects the rays back at you from below.
It rains occasionally, mostly in July and August, as part of the North American Monsoon. The storms usually follow a pattern: steady cloud build-up during the day, and intense but short-lived rain/hail in the afternoon.
Daytime temperatures are normally comfortable, and warrant shorts and a t-shirt (maybe a long-sleeve) in the absence of a relentless sun and biting insects. Lingering snowpack causes nighttime temperatures to be lower than they would be otherwise. Normally, expect high-10’s/20’s in May, 20’s/30’s in June, 30’s in July, and 30’s/40’s in August. Learn to find relatively warm campsites.
The mosquitoes normally hatch in early-July, after the snowpack has melted and temperatures become warm enough for survival. They fade in August as the ground dries up. After a wet winter, they will hatch later in the month, and stick around until the first frosts of September.
These items should not be afterthought, so I will put them above the clothing systems. In addition to the Core 13 items specified below on this page, you will want:
- Polarized sunglasses, e.g. Julbo Dirt (long-term review)
- Hat that covers your head, ears, and neck (if your hair does not), e.g. Headsweats ProTech
- Sun gloves, e.g. Glacier Glove Sunglove
- Insulated headwear for hiking in brisk conditions, e.g. Wool Buff
- Rain mitts to preserve finger dexterity during cold-and-wet storms, e.g. REI Rain Mittens
- Headnet once the bugs hatch, e.g. Sea to Summit Head Net. In heavy bug pressure, I would recommend a backup, especially in a group setting. They are easy to lose.
Recommended clothing systems
I have three clothing systems for the High Sierra:
- and Late-summer/early-fall
More than any other factor, the bug pressure influences my clothing choices: once they hatch, you must be prepared for them. Sun exposure is the runner-up: early in the season, when the sun is high and the snowpack reflects the sun’s rays, I am less willing to leave skin uncovered.
Normally I would not consider July through mid-August as being “early season.” But I know that many hikers who will read this series have trips planned for this time. So here you go:
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