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Backpacking clothing for early-season conditions in the High Sierra

Young and dumb. While I was most comfortable hiking in shorts, t-shirt, and visor in Yosemite in late-May, I should have protected more of my skin from the intense sun.


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.

Conditions

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.

Moderate mosquito pressure in mid-August in 2011, after a very wet winter. My hiking partner’s shirt was made of knit merino wool and was not treated with permethrin, and the bugs easily bit him through it. During rest stops he would put on his windshirt to keep them off.

Recommended accessories

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:

Recommended clothing systems

I have three clothing systems for the High Sierra:

  • Late-spring,
  • Early-summer,
  • 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.

Early-summer clothing, with full-coverage clothing and permethrin-treated shirts, prepared for biting insects and intense sun exposure. Photo: Buzz Burrell

Late-spring

high-sierra-1


Early-summer

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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21 Responses to Backpacking clothing for early-season conditions in the High Sierra

  1. PStu March 13, 2017 at 11:39 am #

    What is your perspective on treating clothing with Insect Shield (either by hand or via their mail-in service) rather than buying separate L/S and bug shirts? Apologies if this answer is in your new book, which I am still making my way through.

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2017 at 12:35 pm #

      You can definitely consolidate the Core 13 into a Core 12 by merging the L/S knit shirt and the bug shirt. I scoured the marketplace for options while writing this post, and the best I found is the ExOfficio Bugsaway Sol Cool Zip Neck.

      I have tried DIY permethrin treatments, and they just don’t seem as effective or as long-lasting. It’s okay for light or moderate pressure, and short-term. But for thick bug or long trips with regular pressure, definitely get a factory-treated shirt or send in your clothes to InsectShield for treatment.

  2. Matt March 13, 2017 at 3:34 pm #

    Do you know if anyone makes pants that are built like running shorts? Specifically the ultra thin synthetic material they typically make running shorts out of, and optionally a liner? All the hiking pants I’ve seen use heavier nylon fabric, and the only running pants I’ve seen use thicker material since they are designed for cold weather. I just want sun protection on warm days with maximum breathability and low weight.

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2017 at 9:18 pm #

      I have not found them yet, but I’m always on the lookout at OR or on various trips to REI. I’m hopeful that the RailRiders Eco-Mesh or Tradewinds Pants will be better than what I have now — I’ve eyed them for a few years but have never seen them in-person until a box landed on my doorstep yesterday.

    • Brad R March 14, 2017 at 6:33 pm #

      Matt you might try a pair of windpants like the Mont-Bell Dynamo or Patagonia Houdini pants if you want them like running shorts. I have been using the Rail Riders Eco Mesh pants since 2011 and have found them to be the most breathable and “shorts like” pants I have found.

    • J Ramos March 16, 2017 at 6:07 pm #

      Take a look at the Solumbra pants. Elastic/drawstring waist and I don’t think they make any with a liner but they are super light weight and breathable unlike wind pants. Several colors available. John Abuelo (I think?) is a fan of them and wrote about his experiences wearing Solumbra on his website.

  3. Dean (Bug Juice) March 13, 2017 at 8:58 pm #

    I didn’t realize mosquitoes can bite through typical long sleeve merino/poly shirts. Are there any non-treated weaves that would perform better than others against these pests…I had planned on using a Patag. siilkweight T and OR sun sleeves in the Sierras.

    FYI…my trail name Bug Juice refers to the red sugary drink from sleep-away camp, not a propensity to be feasted on by mosquitoes 😉

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2017 at 9:09 pm #

      Oh, yeah, you will suffer badly if you wear an untreated knit shirt in the High Sierra during bug season. Look at my hiking partner’s back after just a few hours on the JMT in Lyell Canyon, (last photo) http://andrewskurka.com/2017/reader-question-california-winter-snowfall/.

      The only non-treated fabrics that perform okay during bug season are the “safari shirts” made of tightly woven nylon. Their drawback is the lack of airflow through the shirt — they are very stuffy, even if they have mesh vents along the torso or in the armpits.

      • Dean March 13, 2017 at 10:12 pm #

        Thanks for the quick response and insight. I sent a couple items I owned to InsectShield last year for the AT…I was more concerned about ticks. Luckily, I didn’t have much of an issue with ticks or mosiq…but, kind of hard to tell if it was because the clothes were treated.

        If you have any thoughts you’d like to share on how this year’s big Sierra snowpack might effect the bugs I’m sure folks would be interested. A later hatch because everything is buried in snow? Then Bigger hatches because of all the additional moisture?

        • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

          The hatch will probably be delayed, because the ground will be snow-covered later into the season. I’m not sure that it will be an exceptionally buggy summer — even in a drought year, there is enough moisture in the High Sierra to create environments favorable to mosquitoes. What will be different is that the season will last through August, because the ground is still plenty wet (especially in pockets). The bugs will not be as horrible in late-August as in early-August, but they’ll still be out. It will probably take the first frosts of September to end the season, whereas normally the dried-out ground does this in August.

  4. Warren Geissert March 14, 2017 at 9:04 pm #

    A wide-brimmed hat with a mosquito head net can be very useful.
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000NSZ3WY/ref=oh_aui_search_detailpage?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    • Andrew Skurka March 14, 2017 at 9:13 pm #

      Wow, how did I miss that one. Thank you, will add.

  5. June March 16, 2017 at 12:17 pm #

    Do you think the Helium pants could hold up in extended rain? I fear that the rain will get through the fabric too easily, given how thin it is.

    I understannd Im likely to get wet from my own sweat (though there’s less coming from my lower half I guess), Im just trying to avoid getting mildly hypothermic from 40F rain like the last few times when I decided spending on rain pants wasnt worth it…

    • Andrew Skurka March 16, 2017 at 4:41 pm #

      The water-resistance of the fabric is unrelated to its thickness. It is much more related to the waterproof/breathable membrane and the integrity of the DWR finish. In that respect, a new pair of Helium pants will be sufficient. Over time, as the DWR finish degrades, the waterproofness will, too. They can be partially restored with DIY treatments.

      Another option you might look into is a rain skirt. Vents better than pants, but less protection.

  6. Ola March 18, 2017 at 10:12 am #

    You recommend a merino buff for early season, but in your new book you suggest to use a polyester buff and switch to a balaclava when it gets colder. Can you please explain the difference?

    • Andrew Skurka March 18, 2017 at 10:18 am #

      Minor differences, and you’ll be fine whichever way you go.

      Polyester dries faster but is chillier when wet. Wool retains more water but is warmer when wet (but not warm).

      A Buff is best for cool or brisk conditions; when temps are colder than that, the full coverage of the balaclava gives it the win.

  7. Haiku March 20, 2017 at 7:37 pm #

    Thanks for these articles, very useful as I am planning my PCT thru. One thing I am trying to suss out is my pants situation. I hiked the AT in a dress and also plan to do this until Kennedy Meadows. I think I will switch to running shorts there because of anticipated deep stream crossings. But not sure what to do about pants- I have As Tucas wind pants (so excited about these, check them out. 2oz custom pants!) made of Schoeller®-ftc fabric. Probably need some other sort of layer but I’m not sure whether to go with something like a Cap 2-3 bottom or just running tights (and if tights- just normal?)

    Do you recommend to go with something that dries more quickly and better for day use? Or just reserving something more insulating for camp/night wear? I’m thinking it will make more sense to wear the wind pants when things get cold during the day so that the other layer will stay dry, since wind pants are easier to take on/off, but what is your experience?

    • Andrew Skurka March 21, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

      If you are thru-hiking the PCT you will be going through the High Sierra in June-ish. This year you will encounter extensive snow coverage, and will therefore be subjected to mega sun exposure: bluebird skies, 10-12,000 feet, and a highly reflective ground surface. I don’t think sunscreen cuts it in this situation.

      I would wear a long-sleeve shirt at all times. On bottom, I would alternate between running shorts and running shorts + pants, depending on temperature and sun exposure. The pants MUST be comfortable to hike in: good fit, lightweight, quick dry, and highly breathable.

      At night I would definitely at least have a puffy jacket. The need for warm pants depends on the length of your camps: I normally got away without them because I was moving or sleeping, but if your camps or longer they are nice to have so that you can hang in camp without getting chilled.

      Your daytime pants are not a substitute for warmer pants at night. Imagine standing around camp in 35 degree temperatures in just an airy 2-oz pair of pants. Brr.

  8. Dean March 24, 2017 at 8:09 am #

    Thanks for being so helpful with answering everyone’s questions. Wanted to get your thoughts on a couple specific Sierra snow travel questions:

    1) would you recommend PCT nobos send ahead bigger pile baskets for the snow in June (mine have a small basket but also come with much bigger baskets for winter use…powder snow)

    2) have you ever tried an after market glacier glasses type blinder to stick on your regular sun glasses ?

    3) lastly, any experience or strong opinions on a Black Diamond Whippet in lieu of an ice axes for the type of snow conditions one would expect this June? (seems, generally more useful but obviously not as appropriate for seriously hairy terrain one might need to self arrest on).

    • Andrew Skurka March 26, 2017 at 7:14 am #

      1. For early-season snow I don’t like snow baskets. First, they’re generally not necessary, because the snow is fairly consolidated and will support the weight of a pole (assuming you don’t jam it in). Second, a baseket-ed tip can’t be used to test the depth of snow bridges or to plunk into a steep slope as an anchor (because the basket won’t let it be). Third, if I’m not using skis or snowshoes, I’m sinking into the snow, and I want my pole to sink in about the same, or too often my pole grip gets close to the height of my shoulder (or above it if I posthole deeply and my pole does not).

      2. No, I have not. For early-season conditions I have a pair of Julbo’s that protect my eyes fully and that have polarized lenses with 11% VLT. They’re not as good as true glacier goggles, but they have more applicability outside of snow travel.

      3. The issue with the Whippet is that you have to use the BD pole, which you may or may not like and which you may or may not already own. Besides that, the performance should be okay for any early-season backpacking.

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