Photos provided by Mike Unger, a double Triple Crowner who has thru-hiked the PCT 3 times, and whose first thru-hike of the PCT was in 2006 — a huge snow year, but not as big as this year!
This year, Western trails like the PCT, JMT, Tahoe Rim Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Colorado Trail are seeing historic levels of snow, and with this big snow comes extra challenges for thru-hikers.
On the PCT, SNOTEL sensors show snow levels at more than double average levels. Throughout the Sierra, especially the southern Sierra, snowpack is at more than 250% of average, highest level since recording began 70 years ago.
Thru-hikers, section-hikers, and backpackers alike need to learn skills, pack extra gear, and be smart about staying safe on trail this year. I asked thru-hikers from previous big snow years on the PCT and Continental Divide Trail for tips on how to travel more safely in such a high snow year.
Before you go: be honest about expectations and your goals for the hike
First, it’s important to set expectations for what is even possible for thru-hikers in the Sierra this year. The South Fork of the San Joaquin River bridge was washed away in this year’s big snow melt, meaning a end-to-end hike through the Sierra is not possible. Numerous other rivers and creeks will also be experiencing high levels of snowmelt, making river crossings challenging.
Hikers should mentally prepare themselves for the need to exit the trail and skip around impassable sections, as needed.
Remember: there are many ways to have a successful and rewarding hike, including friendships formed, photos taken, or even peaks climbed. You’ll be happiest if you set goals for yourself beyond simply trying to walk from one point to another uninterrupted.
To paraphrase trail angel Sandy “Frodo” Mann, don’t let concerns over the Sierra get in the way of enjoying being in the present moment.
Learn and practice skills before you go
This year’s thru-hikers should take as many classes and workshops as they can on snow skills, including snow navigation and self-arrest. Some years, thru-hikers may be able to get away without carrying much extra snow gear. This year, that is not the case.
Thru-hikers will want to carry ice traction devices such as crampons or microspikes and an ice ax and have experience practicing with them. Take a class if you can. If you’re already on trail, take a zero or near-o day to practice with hiker friends who are more experienced. If you can, try to take a swiftwater rescue class and practice safely crossing rivers. If you don’t know how to swim, learn before you go.
Hike with a group through the high snow sections and river crossings
Statistically, the most deadly part of thru-hiking is crossing creeks and rivers solo. Having a group means that in case of an emergency, there will be people around who can administer first aid or get help through a satellite messenger device.
Wilderness First Aid educator Danielle O’Farrell explained to me how to choose good group members and how to assess risk to make safe decisions with your group. A well-functioning group of hikers can navigate risky decisions based on shared goals, the conditions, the gear you have, and shared skills and experience. You don’t have to stick with your group forever, but plan to do some recruiting around Kennedy Meadows on the PCT or Chama, NM on the CDT.
Gear up for camping on snow
Hiking in a big snow year means that you may not be able to find a snow-free campsite. You may need to melt snow for drinking water. If you’ve been stoveless, pick one up before you head into the Sierra or San Juans.
Setting up your tent and sleeping on snow can sap warmth from your sleep system. Amiththan Sebarajah, a Triple Crowner and frequent winter camper in the Kootenay region of British Columbia shared the winter camping tips he uses on his thru-hikes. For example, many thru-hikers pick up a better insulated sleeping pad before heading into the Sierra or San Juans. Others may use a ⅛” thick foam pad under the sleeping pad they’re already using. You may even want to add a sleeping bag liner for some extra warmth.
Expect slower days
Hiking on snow can be a lot slower than on dry trail. Sun cups create uncomfortable and uneven ground, which can impact your gait. Postholing, sinking knee or thigh deep in soft snow, is sure to impact your pace. Even without snow, just walking at altitude over days with huge elevation gain in the Sierra or San Juans can drain energy. Carry extra food and accept that everyone’s daily mileage is down. Snowshoes or even skis may help make those miles go faster, but they do add weight and, depending on conditions, you may end up carrying them instead of using them.
Take care of your feet
As in any year, footcare is crucial for thru-hikers. Some thru-hikers find that walking for hours or days straight in snow can make their feet numb from cold. Many thru-hikers wear waterproof socks and waterproof shoes for snowy sections so their feet are more comfortable.
If opting for thicker or waterproof socks, be sure to size up your shoes! More than any part of the trail, good footcare practices like massaging, elevating and drying out your feet, and cutting toenails will help keep morale up through challenging days.
Don’t let your gear freeze
It’s common for temperatures to dip below freezing at night, even in June in the San Juans. If your shoes are wet at the end of the day, protect them from freezing solid overnight by bringing them in your tent. Water filters break if frozen. Many thru-hikers put their water filters in a waterproof bag and then in their sleeping bag to prevent them from freezing. Similarly, below freezing temperatures are not good for the longevity of electronic equipment, including phones and batteries.
Monitor conditions to inform decisions
Remember that conditions can change. In Danielle’s article on risk, you can learn about an extensive list of places to check weather, snow, and river melt levels. Always have a back-up plan, including maps downloaded to your apps for side trails in the very likely case you need to go down to town to get around an impassable section.
Learn more about hiking safely in a high snow year
This article from the Pacific Crest Trail Association explains some common risks of high snow years.
You can learn more about what to expect and strategies that worked (and didn’t!) from past thru-hikers in big snow years on the PCT and CDT in this video recording of the panel.
You can learn more from Danielle about how to prepare for a big snow year as a hiker here, including what gear to pack, tips for snow travel, UV exposure, structuring your hike, and more.
Liz “Snorkel” Thomas is a thru-hiker with 20+ long trails on her feet, including the PCT, CDT, and AT, for which she held an FKT. Her trail experiences led her to co-found Treeline Review, an outdoor gear review space dedicated to buying right the first time to reduce waste on the planet.