The trail is just a tool: Navigation skills, resources & gear for early-season backpacking

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.

In early-season conditions, the trail is just a tool. If it’s there, great. If not, oh well, you can manage without it.

Even if your itinerary is entirely on-trail, you should expect an occasional off-trail experience when backpacking in the Mountain West in early-season conditions.

On trade routes like the John Muir Trail, a continuous boot-track across lingering snow will develop by July, especially where the terrain funnels the foot traffic (e.g. at a pass). In less popular areas and earlier in the season — when there is less foot traffic and more extensive snow coverage — navigation will be wholly your responsibility: no other hikers may have passed through yet, or their tracks may have melted away to the point of being unrecognizable.

A solid boot-track below Selden Pass in the High Sierra, late-June 2006. The track became less concentrated further down, when the terrain no longer funneled the traffic.

Even when there are some tracks around, be distrustful. You have no guarantee that they are going where you are going, or that they aren’t “Star Trekking,” or going where no man has ever gone before.


In the early-season you will encounter three types of trail conditions.

1. No snow coverage

When the trail is completely snow-free, follow the trail, of course. Lower elevations and sunny aspects will melt out first.

2. Complete snow coverage

When the trail is completely snow-covered, abandon the trail and take the path of least resistance to the next landmark, like a pass or a lake outlet. Continue to hike landmark-to-landmark until you can consistently follow the trail.

Snow will linger longest in the higher elevations, on north-facing aspects, and on leeward slopes.

Congratulations, you have just become an off-trail backpacker. Some dislike it, but others embrace the new challenge and skill set.

On Bighorn Flats in Rocky Mountain National Park, the CDT was completely snowbound for miles. This forced us to navigate as if we were off-trail, by hiking landmark-to-landmark.

3. Intermittent coverage

When snow coverage is intermittent, loosely follow the trail. Especially in the alpine and in open woodlands, snow-covered trails can be difficult to follow. Be a detective and look for signs:

  • An unnaturally open corridor,
  • Chopped/sawed trees that had fallen across the trail;
  • Cut lower branches on one side of the tree only,
  • Old tree blazes;
  • Rock work, and
  • Man-made cuts across a slope.

If you look carefully, you can see a small section of trail in the distance, where the slope has melted out enough to reveal a trail cut. Without that clue, it would be difficult to follow the trail here.

Even if you’re “on” the trail, always know (1) where you are and (2) where you are ultimately going, so that you can continue to make progress even if you completely lose the trail. This happens easily, like if the trail enters a meadow or flips to the snowy north side of a ridge.

You will lose the trail, even with attentive detective work. When I’m unsure where the trail goes (e.g. Direction A or Direction B), I follow the most promising direction, say Direction A. If it peters out, I cut over to Direction B. If Direction B fails, too, I’ll circle back to where I was last on the trail, and start over. Or, I just carry on my way to a distinct landmark where I can pick it up again.

Resources & gear

In addition to navigation skills, you will want good topographic maps, specifically:

  • Detailed topo maps
  • Overview maps
  • Digital maps stored on a GPS

For an in-depth description of my map system, read this. Here, I will just review, and provide some trail/route-specific info.

I would also recommend having a magnetic compass and an altimeter watch — and the know-how to use both!

Detailed topographic maps

The gold standard are the USGS 7.5-minute quads, the native scale of which is 1:24,000 (1 inch on the map = about 0.4 miles). I create my maps in CalTopo, export them as multi-page PDF’s, and print them at my local FedEx Office. View my preferred exporting & printing specs, e.g. paper size, scale, shaded relief, paper weight, single- or double-sided.

The natural scale of 7.5-min quads is 1:24,000, so topographic detail is much clearer. This series is the gold standard for topographic maps in the US, and ideal for precise navigating.

For the PCT, Halfmile’s Maps should be okay for early-season. They use the 7.5-min maps as base data, but then compress the image by 32 percent, to a scale of 1:31,680 scale (1 inch on map = .5 miles). If you are visually impaired, keep your reading glasses nearby for the extra-small print.

Unfortunately, the readability is made even worse by the print quality: the maps are made using discontinued National Geographic TOPO desktop software, which has relatively low-quality map scans and which loses image clarity due to JPG export.

To be clear: Halfmile’s Maps are a huge asset to the community and represent a huge amount of work.

A screenshot of Halfmile’s PCT Maps (left) versus the Caltopo scan. Both maps are at a scale of 1:31,680 and are zoomed 400%. Caltopo’s image quality is notably better.

For the JMT, both the Tom Harrison JMT Map Pack and the Trails Illustrated JMT Topographic Map Guide are at a scale of 1:63,360 (1 inch = 1 mile). For hiking well maintained trails, this scale is adequate for the High Sierra. But for navigation in the early-season, the scale has insufficient detail.

Furthermore, both maps have shaded relief, which makes them difficult to read from any direction besides south.

On a computer screen, the map with shaded relief (left) is easier to read.

But in the field, when I often want to view the map at an angle different than south-to-north, the shaded relief (left) inverts the topographical features.

Overview maps

A small-scale overview map is useful for at-home route-planning and in-the-field improvisation, like if you need to bail out or circumvent trail closures. These maps are also sufficient for snow-free trails that are well maintained and signed.

For this purpose I like the Trails Illustrated maps or similar. At about $10 each, the cost adds up, but they’ve proven their value time and again for me.

Digital maps on GPS

The ultimate navigation tool is a GPS unit. It will tell you exactly where you are (within a few feet of accuracy) and the distance and direction to your next landmark.

The drawbacks: they are expensive and need batteries, and they can’t tell you the best way to travel from A to B. They will tell you the distance and direction, but not the path of least resistance — that, my friends, is an art that must be learned.

Personally, I use my GPS as a backup only. I’m very skilled with map and compass, and I like that it’s fast, unbreakable, and battery-free.

You have a few GPS options:

Of these, the inReach and GPS app are the most practical, because you are carrying an inReach or smartphone anyway for their other functions, e.g. satellite communication, telephone, email, entertainment.

With some additional software, a smartphone makes a superb GPS unit. Here, it helped to explain why we were confused about our location: according to the map, we should been standing on hundreds of feet of glacier ice, but instead the glacier appeared to be another mile or two upstream. When we looked at the Landsat imagery, which had been downloaded before we left, it showed how outdated our maps had become in the last 40 years.

Magnetic compass

I really like the Suunto M3-G Global. Read my long-term review. At a minimum, have a compass with which you can roughly find north, like the Silva Starter.

Don’t know how to use a compass? Watch these videos:

Altimeter watch

With a correctly calibrated altimeter watch, you know your altitude, and can therefore limit your possible locations.

For example, if I’m standing by a lake and my altimeter reads 11,000 feet, I can be certain that I’m not at the 11,500-foot lake that the trail also passes.

While descending out of the snow, the altimeter becomes useful for re-finding the trail. For example, if the map shows the trail crossing the creek at 10,800 feet, I can loosely follow the creek downhill, and start looking for it as I approach 10,800 feet.

I believe that the altimeter watch has be made obsolete by the GPS sport watch. Read why. For backpacking and ultra running I recommend the Suunto Ambit3 Peak.

Have questions or additional tips about navigating in early-season conditions? Please share.

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1 Comment

  1. MarkL on April 3, 2017 at 10:45 am

    A couple tips from someone who teaches navigation for a backcountry ski patrol:

    Snow-related hazards are still in play. Avalanche hazard can persist deep into the spring and early summer. The primary hazards late in the snow season are a) cornice collapses, either above you from warming and weakening, or from walking on them along ridges. The weak point can be shockingly far back from the edge; b) wet slides which occur on steeper slopes when they get warmed up and can run a very long way. Creek crossings and braided streams can also be hazardous and difficult to navigate with very high banks and very weak or non-existent snow bridges.

    Using maps and GPS, make sure you understand what the map datum is. If you are using a USGS map with an NAD27 datum (very common) and your phone GPS app uses WGS84 (also very common), a coordinate can be several hundred meters different between the two, which is a real bummer if there is a creek, cliff or other obstacle in between.

    Printing maps on waterproof paper is a little expensive, but totally worth it, especially here in the Pacific NW, where it can be damp and rainy. Rite-In-The-Rain makes laser paper Do not use laser paper in an inkjet printer. Ask me how I know. 🙂

    That said, the freedom to travel and camp on snow without worrying about erosion can e very liberating.

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