Crossing some snow is practically a given during the course of a thru-hike or thru-ride. Just how much snow will be found in the mountains varies widely from year to year. Hikers and riders may encounter snow in the early-season, especially in the shade and north side of passes. In the shoulder seasons, fresh snow brings new challenges and dangers. These pages will help you become better prepared.
This information is primarily for the Pacific Crest Trail hiker. Snow usually makes the trail impassable for equestrians.
It’s important to be prepared. Proper research, planning and training can go a long way towards helping you manage snow on the PCT. Snow, and the attendant flooding snow-melt, can easily ruin your trip. Either avoid these problems by waiting for the snow to melt, or prepare with proper training, physical fitness, knowledge and attitude.
Snow changes the nature of your trip. It shifts the Pacific Crest Trail from a normal summer backpacking trip, to something closer to mountaineering. There are few absolute truisms on the trail. Other’s prior experience should be used merely to inform. Introduce yourself to snow travel slowly, cautiously and be sure that you have options. Just because someone else did it, doesn’t mean that you’ll be ok.
Fundamentals of snow travel
Prepare and you’ll be safer, less anxious and have more fun.
- Build personal experience. If you expect to be on the Sierra or Cascades when there is snow on the ground, it is wise to go there the preceding year to see what it’s actually like. Reading about it or looking at photos is not the same as being there.
- Obtain in-person training. Take a class or learn from an experienced friend. Snow travel is complex, skill intensive and risky. Don’t assume that other hikers will train you. They might lack skills, or you might find yourself alone and exposed.
- Plan for the worst: nasty storms with horizontal, wind-driven rain or snow, steep pitches of slippery snow, out-of-control snowy descents, horrifying whitewater creek crossings, snow-blindness, deep post-holing,…
- Always have options. Never put yourself in a situation where you have to do something dangerous. Having options lets you operate within your own personal levels of risk tolerance.
Traveling the PCT when it’s covered in snow means exposing yourself to potential avalanche risk. The PCT was not designed for travel when snow is on the ground. In many places, it’s unwise to travel the trail during these conditions. Areas along the trail are well known for their avalanche danger. Seasonally, specific snow travel and avalanche preparedness skills are critical. It’s highly unwise to unknowingly expose yourself to this hidden danger.
Cold temperatures, freezing rain and early winter snowfall compete with many hikers’ desire to complete the Pacific Crest Trail in one season. We’ve seen the results, when “summit fever” outweighs rational thought. Your decisions may not only put you at risk of serious injury or death, they can put the lives of rescuers in peril as well.
Real-time snow information
We recommend these websites for snow data along the trail:
- PCTA.org interactive map; Turn on/off snow depth right on this website.
- PCTA.org trail conditions and closures page; Look at the reports flagged ‘snow conditions’.
- SNOTEL sensor data; These sensors provide important information on existing snow-pack. The sensors are large “pillows” that weigh the snow and collect temperature data in places along the trail. They relay data hourly via satellite. It is available in multiple formats:
- Wunderground.com SNOTEL tables (CA, OR, WA)
- Google Maps SNOTEL visualization
- Google Earth SNOTEL visualization; must have Google Earth installed and download file daily
- Google Earth snow analyses layers; must download file daily – displays snow depth, snow water content, snow cover and other useful information.
- California snow water content graphs; This interactive tool lets you compare snow water content between years. It can show the current year in comparison to the prior year and past record dry and wet years. The three graphs are: North (Trinity through Feather and Truckee); Central (Yuba and Truckee through Merced and Walker) and South (San Joaquin though Kern and Owens). These regions are roughly equivalent to north of Lake Tahoe, Tahoe to Yosemite and Yosemite to Mt. Whitney. The same data can be seen on a static graph.
- Historical snow pack maps; These maps show percent of average totals for winter and spring months. Spring data is especially relevant to PCT travelers.
- Backcountry ski forums; The Pacific Crest corridor is a playground for backcountry skiers. They are usually the most knowledgeable people about snow on the Pacific Crest Trail. Telemark Talk and Teton Gravity have active condition report threads for many regions along the trail. Look for threads with titles like “Sierra Ski & Snow Conditions”. They are usually the best source for photos of the current snow pack.
We recommend weather.gov for forecasts. Use the interactive maps to click on the location that you want a forecast for. Be sure to read any weather warnings or alerts that appear. Many people will want to read the Forecast Discussion and Zone Area Forecasts that are found under the “Additional Forecasts and Information” header.
A few places along the trail have snow-focused meteorologists who provide localized predictions for skiers and snowboarders. They generally stop forecasting in the spring.