Tutorial: Backpacking in early-season conditions || Recommended gear, supplies & skills

From Muir Pass on May 18, 2007, after a “dry” winter. Travel was excellent in the morning, when the snowpack had a solid crust. But by early-afternoon I would badly posthole; this was a better time to rest or hike at lower elevations, which were snow-free.

Recently I explained how an exceptionally snowy winter in California will affect summertime backpacking conditions throughout the Sierra Nevada, including in Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, and Desolation Wilderness, and along the John Muir Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Sierra High Route, and Kings Canyon High Basin Route.

For all the details, read the post. In short, expect:

  • Extensive lingering snowpack,
  • Saturated ground and flooded meadows;
  • Hazardous fords; and,
  • A delayed and prolonged mosquito season.

I think the information helped readers to set their expectations. But it actually instigated another round of questions, to the effect of:

What gear, supplies and skills do I need to safely manage these early-season conditions?

So, here we are.

Early-season tutorial

Rather than publishing one 2,500-word post that will challenge attention spans (mine included), instead I have broken it up into more digestible parts.


The impetus for this post is California’s exceptional winter, on the heels of five years of drought and one average winter. Essentially, come June and July, many backpackers — notably, thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail — will confront conditions that they have never before experienced. Since recent thru-hiking classes did not experience these conditions either, sound advice may be in short supply.

But the information in this tutorial is relevant every spring and throughout the Mountain West. This year the timing is just different, and it will overlap with more of the traditional backpacking season.

Usually early-season conditions are a May/June phenomenon, and by July — when traffic in the high country really picks up — everything is back to “normal.” Thru-hikers on the PCT and CDT usually experience early-season conditions in June in the High Sierra and San Juan’s, respectively, but this year it will be more intense.

Leading a group in Rocky Mountain National Park near Haynach Lakes, at over 11,000 feet on June 16, 2016.

Snowpack updates

Since my original post on February 21, the High Sierra’s snowpack has continued to grow, nearly on pace with the record-setting winter of 1982-83. For the latest, refer to these snowpack plots.

Elsewhere in the West, it’s also been a bountiful winter, with most regions experiencing snowfall that is well above-average. For non-California states, use SNOTEL data, which is produced by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture.

Posted in , on March 13, 2017


  1. BCap on March 13, 2017 at 7:35 am

    “Since recent thru-hiking classes did not experience these conditions either, sound advice may be in short supply.”

    Yes. Even in the low snow year that was 2016 the amount of idiotic advice other PCT hikers gave us about snow travel and such was insane. There is a group mentality that as long as someone in front of you thought something was a good idea then it must be fine. Most people simply never stopped to consider whether what they were doing something that carried substantial risk (i.e. glissading in mixed rock/ice areas, crossing steeps snow slopes without means of self arrest, crossing snow bridges, fording creeks right above rapids, etc).

  2. Alex on April 4, 2017 at 10:07 am


    As someone who has decent experience with 4×4 offroading and car camping and day hiking I’ve been wanting to get into backpacking. I’ve been reading through your book and it is a great wealth of information specifically with being on the trail and how to plan for your trail.

    My issue is finding appropriate places to backpack in different time frames, specifically early season. I will be going to Estes Park for a vacation first week of may. Before arriving in Estes park I would like to find something for 2-3 nights if possible as I’ll be driving a good ways from Texas to eventually get to Estes park.

    Any suggestions?



    • Andrew Skurka on April 4, 2017 at 10:15 am

      After a normal winter, which has been the case in 2016-17, most of RMNP is still snowbound. If you look at this campsite availability sheet, you’ll see a “Snow Free” column that refers to the average date on which it becomes snow-free. This would help you plan a trip in early-May. In short, you will be very limited with where you can go.

      • Alex on April 4, 2017 at 10:37 am

        Thanks for the quick reply!

        Looks like RMNP just isn’t going to work for this time of year for me. Are there any options that you could recommend in southern Colorado, I’ll basically be coming up I25.


        • Andrew Skurka on April 4, 2017 at 6:45 pm

          Try the Great Sand Dunes.

  3. Spencer on May 11, 2017 at 10:57 am

    Skurka! You’re the man!

    Been planning a JMT hike and could only do it beginning in late June. It has been so hard to find good information on early season conditions and what to expect. Your recent posts have been a goldmine. Thanks so much for all the good info you share. Oh, and especially proper techniques for a backcountry bidet 😉

    Also, your killing it on Strava!

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