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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Traditional handheld GPS, like the Garmin eTrex 20x
- Satellite communicator with GPS functionality, like the Garmin inReach SE+ and Explorer+
- Smartphone with a GPS app, like GaiaGPS or Backcountry Navigator
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.
Don’t know how to use a compass? Watch these videos:
- Part 1: Adjust for declination & orient the map
- Part 2: Find & transfer bearings in the field & on a map
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.
Have questions or additional tips about navigating in early-season conditions? Please share.
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