How to Navigate the Sierra in a High Snow Year
Hi, I’m Zebra. I thru-hiked the PCT in 2017— which just so happened to be a high snow year on the PCT, with the snowpack in the Sierra 200% above average. It was also my first thru-hike and my first real backpacking trip besides one over-nighter. So naturally, I started with all the wrong gear, made lots of mistakes along the way, and learned many hard lessons.
You are probably reading this article because you are getting ready to hike the PCT this year with the possibility of it being another high snow year, and you want to start preparing now. Or you’re like I was: you are already on your thru-hike, you’re almost to Kennedy Meadows South, and you just realized you have no idea what you are about to get yourself into.
Well, don’t fret! If a gal (me!) who started off the PCT with a 50-pound pack, one night of backpacking under her belt, and zero alpine backpacking experience can make it, so can you.
To Go or Not To Go
You will be on such a high when you finally reach Kennedy Meadows (KM). The end of the hot desert. The beginning of the beautiful high Sierra. But if your hike is anything like mine was, there will probably be at least 100 hikers holed up at KM when you get there.
While not the most ideal spot to get vortexed due to the extreme lack of amenities in the middle of nowhere, a lot of hikers arrive in KM and simply don’t know what to do. If it is a high snow year, many thru-hikers will decide to spend a few days or weeks at KM to “wait for the snow to melt.” Some will decide to skip the Sierra and jump ahead to Tahoe, Sierraville, Burney, or Ashland. And some will decide to push through.
Seeing Past the Fearmongering
There is no right or wrong decision. Everyone has different hiking abilities and is comfortable with different amounts of challenge and discomfort. There will be a lot of fearmongering, especially on social media. (And often, it comes from non-thru-hikers, unfortunately). Don’t let anyone else’s opinion of whether or not it is safe to hike the Sierra in a high snow year influence your decision. Only you can decide that.
Talk to locals. Talk to other hikers. And if you are not sure what to do, test it out and hike from KM to Lone Pine. This is a good warm-up for the Sierra and will not be quite as challenging as the next few hundred miles. So if these 40ish miles are too much, that might be a good indicator that you are better off skipping ahead. This is also a good chance to test out all your new snow gear and see if it works for you. If not, you can go into Lone Pine to supplement or change out your gear.
Editor’s note: Per the Pacific Crest Trail Association, “if (PCT Long-distance) permit holders skip any portion of the Southern Sierra and wish to return to travel through the area they must obtain new permits from the local land management agencies. PCT long-distance permits will no longer be valid for travel through the Southern Sierra as travel is no longer continuous. The permit remains valid elsewhere.”
The Gear You Need
Speaking of gear, you will need to have a few extra things if you decide to hike the Sierra on a high snow year. In 2017, I added a bear canister, an ice axe, microspikes, rain pants, and thicker gloves and socks to my pack when I reached KM.
You have a few options for how to acquire this gear:
- Ship it to the KM General Store.
- Buy it from the local outfitter in town, depending on what they currently have in stock.
- Purchase it from one of the outfitters in Lone Pine. A bear canister is required from Lone Pine until Sonora Pass.
Bear canisters are awkward, heavy, and a pain in the butt, but you have to have one, so just suck it up. And they do make nice seats! Depending on your backpack, you can pack it inside your pack (usually vertically) or strap it to the top (horizontally).
In 2017, I had an Osprey Exos 58, so I chose the first option. Carrying the canister inside the pack worked out well, although landing on your back after slipping in the snow is best to avoid if at all possible.
In 2018, I thru-hiked the PCT SOBO and had a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400. That year, I strapped the bear canister to the top of the outside of my pack, laying it horizontally. I took my food out of it and stored it inside my backpack during the day so that my pack wasn’t top-heavy. I got quite a few laughs from passing hikers who inquired if I was out of food when I informed them that I was resupplying at the McDonald’s on top of Mt. Whitney.
If it is a high snow year, an ice axe will be your new best friend. I used mine to climb over all the high mountain passes (most of which had zero footsteps cut into them). I literally would not have made it over them without it. My method was “step, step, dig ice axe into the ground, step step, dig ice axe into the ground” over and over to safely climb these passes and provide stability.
The purpose of an ice axe is to stop yourself from sliding down the mountain by self-arresting. The goal is never to have to use your ice axe this way. Still, you must be prepared to prevent sliding thousands of feet or—even worse—sliding into rocks below.
I remember Googling self arrest YouTube videos in my hotel room in Lone Pine the night before heading out into a massive snowstorm in the Sierra and freaking myself out. I would advise researching these techniques a bit ahead of time. Better yet, find some not-so-steep slopes to practice the different techniques before entering the Sierra.
You will also need some kind of traction device or crampons. While I decided to use microspikes on my 2017 thru-hike, I definitely should have had crampons in such a high snow year. Spikes are convenient because you can get away with walking on a mix of snow and rocks. Crampons, in contrast, have to be taken off anytime you are not on the snow.
However, crampons will give you more security while climbing the steeper passes. This is especially true if you are hiking after a recent storm or before many others have entered the Sierra, when there might not be many footsteps cut into the passes.
Trekking Pole Baskets
You know those little baskets that your trekking poles came with that you tossed in your closet months ago? Those are for the snow. You might want to ship them to KM or dig through a hiker box for some because those will be a big help to keep your poles from sinking into the deep snow with every step.
While it will most likely still be warm during the day (I hiked in shorts and a t-shirt most days), nights will be cold, as you are sometimes camping above 10,000 feet and might have to camp on the snow. A base layer is a necessity, along with a puffy, beanie, warm socks, and gloves.
Definitely bring a rain jacket, as freak rain, snow, and hail storms are not uncommon, even in the summer. Unless you want to rub your butt raw while glissading, I also suggest rain pants. Your socks and shoes will be soaked by the end of every day, so having a dry pair to put on at night is necessary.
I would suggest a 20-degree sleeping bag or quilt if you are not already carrying one. I had to sleep on the snow a couple of times, and I was only carrying a 30-degree bag and a Z Lite SOL sleeping pad. Those were some of the most miserable nights of my life. A sleeping pad with a higher R-value is a good idea.
READ NEXT – The Suggested PCT Thru-Hiker Gear List
Satellite Communication Device
While I did not carry any kind of satellite communication device, I did encounter quite a few hikers who did. These devices are GPS enabled and allow a user to activate an SOS beacon in an emergency. Multiple companies make these devices, and some of them also have options to send out messages and do other fun things. They are handy because they do not need standard cell service.
The only downfall I see in carrying one (besides the price and the few ounces of weight it adds) is the ability to justify taking more risks or doing things outside of your skillset. The hikers who unfortunately perished in the stream crossings in 2017 would not have been saved even if they had activated such a device.
Find a Partner
Unless you have a good amount of alpine backpacking experience, find someone to hike with. If you don’t already have a partner or group, find one in KM or wait a day or two to find people to head out with. High snow years in the Sierra are not the time or place to “go find yourself” in a solo expedition.
You are most likely going to be experiencing situations that you haven’t encountered thus far on trail. It’s invaluable to have someone else to help calm your nerves, work through tough situations with, and ultimately be there to save your life should things go awry.
A lot of hikers chose to skip the Sierra the year I hiked. My partner and I had four entire days when we didn’t see another person. We talked each other over scary mountain passes, helped calm each other down when our anxieties about the conditions arose, and encouraged each other when we were exhausted from another day of post-holing / trying to navigate never-ending snowfields. He ultimately saved my life a couple of times, pulling me out of rushing creek crossings that I simply did not have the bodyweight to ford against the strong current.
How to Cross Rushing Creeks
While the high snow-covered mountain passes are what most hikers are scared of, the creek crossings proved to be the most challenging and scariest aspect of the Sierra. Luckily, there are techniques to minimize the risk of falling while crossing creeks.
First off, don’t plan to cross all creeks at the actual trail crossing. Two solo hikers died in 2017 because they attempted to cross at the trail crossing. Spend time looking around for a shallower or slower area to cross if you don’t feel comfortable. Or find a log to cross on or hold onto for balance. Most of the time, walking upstream will provide a rock-hop, log, or easier crossing.
Be careful using logs, especially in the early morning. They can be much icier than rocks, and slipping off one can be fatal. Use your poles to provide extra stability when crossing and take slow, methodical, small steps to keep as much of your body in contact with the ground as possible. Here is a good article about crossing creeks as safely as possible, especially utilizing groups to do so.
One of the main things to remember is to unstrap your hip belt in deep water so that you won’t get pulled under or get stuck if you fall.
Wait until the morning if you come to a creek crossing that you don’t think is crossable. As more snow melts during the day, the volume of water increases. Morning will have the least amount of flow.
Test out all snow/ice bridges with your poles before crossing. Slowly make your way across them as running across will put more pressure on the thin layer of ice left and will increase the likelihood of it breaking. I crossed multiple snow bridges knowing that the bridge would likely not be there the next day.
Become a Morning Person
The best time to hike in the snow is in the morning while it is still frozen, and your spikes or crampons can have something to grab. Once the sun hits it, the snow will turn to unstable slush, which can be very dangerous. You will be spending most of your days above treeline, which means that the snow can start melting as early as nine a.m.
Our goal was to be hiking by five a.m. or earlier every day in the Sierra. Plan to camp below the steep mountain passes so you can climb them first thing in the morning.
Your biggest miles will come early in the day. Afternoons, we were sometimes only hiking one mph due to deep postholing. Start your day early and end early.
Dealing with Wet Feet
Your shoes and socks will be soaked by the end of the day. Having a couple of hours of direct sunlight to dry them out will make you a much happier hiker the following morning. But there were still multiple days that we could not dry our shoes out and were forced to put on wet or sometimes frozen shoes the next morning.
Just do it. It’s only cold for the first 15 minutes, and then you will be so hot from climbing in the snow you will forget about your wet feet. Basically, just expect your feet to be wet the majority of your time in the Sierra.
We entered the High Sierra out of Lone Pine from Cottonwood Pass just as a storm rolled in. Our first day was a white-out blizzard. Thus, we had no footsteps to follow for the next few days on the trail, let alone a trail. We spent almost the entire time in the Sierra not seeing the trail, besides a few times in the low valleys when snow runoff flooded the trail and we were basically just walking in a creek. Navigating became a constant chore.
Use Your Mapping App
GPS is a must. Utilizing an app like FarOut will save you from wandering around like a lost puppy. We basically had to hold our phones out in front of us all day and try to stay as close as possible to the trail.
Don’t worry about following every switchback up all the mountain passes. This is an easy way to miss a turn and get way off-trail. Instead, try to figure out which pass you are heading for and aim to slowly climb towards that point.
When climbing up a single pass, eliminating unnecessary switchbacks can be a big time saver. That said, don’t try to shortcut the trail too much. A couple of times, we tried to shave some time by eliminating what looked on the map like unnecessary climbs and roundabouts, only to end up having to backtrack from steep cliffs. There’s a reason the trail is where it is, even if the map sometimes looks like a child’s art project.
Don’t trust other peoples’ footprints.
Even if you are lucky enough to have footprints to follow, don’t assume they lead the correct way. We were excited one day to find footprints to follow up Pinchot pass after not seeing any for a couple of days. We assumed they were going in the right direction. So we took a break from staring at our phones, only to be led up to a sheer drop-off and realize that the trail was three ridges away from us. This ended up adding a lot of time and risk to the endeavor.
There is one way that you can make up for lost time and miles in the snow: glissading. Besides being one of the most fun and exciting parts of hiking the Sierra in a high snow year, glissading allows you to bypass long descents off some of the passes.
Definitely watch a couple of YouTube videos on how to safely glissade before you head out. However, it’s pretty easy once you try it a time or two. Using your ice axe as a rudder, you basically just sit on your butt and slide down the snow slopes! Avoid doing this on ice—unless you want the ride of your life—and make sure that you can always see the bottom of the slope so that you don’t end up sledding into rocks or an icy lake.
Glissading is a great way to celebrate making it up and over the tough mountain passes. It’s almost impossible not to scream with delight while you sail down the mountain and pretend you are five years old again.
I did not personally experience any avalanches during my hike (and I hope you don’t either!), but it is a good thing to be aware of because they do happen! Check out this great article for some tips on avalanche safety.
Slow Down (and Plan Your Food Accordingly)
Whether you like it or not, you are going to slow down. We were consistently hiking 20-25 miles per day in the desert. In contrast, even with getting up early and pushing hard, were only able to accomplish 15 miles max most days in the Sierra. Everything is harder in the snow, and some creek crossings can take up to a couple of hours to find a safe place to ford or cross. Your body will be destroyed walking uphill in the snow, sliding back a step for every two steps up.
Your daily mileage will drop and your caloric needs will increase, so plan your food accordingly. The Sierra is hard enough in a normal year, as you are hiking above 10,000 feet much of the time. Adding in snow only intensifies the calorie burn. Your hiker hunger will also be kicking into full force probably around this time, so expect to be consuming insane amounts of food.
Muir Ranch, VVR, and Tuolumne Meadows might not open as early in high snow years. Do your research before assuming you can resupply or send yourself food there. Know your exit points should you need to get out to resupply or avoid a bad storm. Kearsarge and Bishop Pass are long extra miles even without snow. Snow can add an entire day of hiking just to get in or out on these side trails. Plan for more food than you think you will need.
Be Your Own Boss
The Sierra in a high snow year will test you in ways you can never imagine. Just when you think you have it all figured out after hiking 700 miles in the desert, you will be thrown into a whole new element.
While sometimes downright scary, my time in the Sierra in 2017 was the most rewarding I had on the PCT. It taught me the most important lessons I learned on the trail, pushed me harder than ever, and made me the strongest, most confident hiker I have ever been.
Having to make decisions all day that had the potential to affect my life taught me to access risk vs. gain, know and trust my body, and hike smarter instead of harder. If you take your time and think logically and analytically about each tough situation you encounter, the Sierra is 100% doable on a high snow year. Leave your ego back in KM. Realize that this portion of the trail is a whole new kind of hiking.
No one can decide what is best for you besides yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable doing something, take a break, calm down, and analyze all your possibilities. If you don’t feel comfortable with the people you are hiking with, wait for a new group. Practice with your snow gear so that you feel safe using it. Have exit strategies and plan Bs should things come up. In 2017, the rangers were not even allowed in the Sierra when we entered at the end of May. We were responsible for our own safety.
Don’t be too proud to wait or turn around if you have to. No amount of miles is worth losing your life over. It is almost always safer to travel in groups, but you have to make your own decisions at the end of the day. If your gut tells you something is off, listen to it.
I am not going to lie. There were multiple days when I woke up praying that I would live to the end of the day. I cried almost every day. My legs burned with the weight of my heavy pack and the struggle to climb uphill in the snow. We camped below Mather Pass, which was one of the most glorious camping spots on the trail, but I spent the entire night waking up in anxiety about how the hell I was going to make it over the pass the next day.
But every day that I accomplished something I was terrified of doing, I learned to trust myself and my gear more and more. I learned to read the terrain and conditions better. I gained confidence that made the rest of the trail a breeze in comparison and allowed me to be grateful for every non-snow-covered step I took.
And honestly, seeing the Sierra completely covered in snow is still the most beautiful and mesmerizing experience of my life. Most thru-hikers will never get a chance to see the Sierra on a high snow year, and the beauty of endless miles of nothing but white is out of this world. Having one of the most coveted hiking places on this planet mostly to ourselves was nothing short of miraculous. I SOBO hiked the PCT in 2018. Going through the Sierra in the fall that year was still gorgeous but didn’t come close to the amazing and soul-enriching experience I had in 2017.
You have a choice and a chance to also experience this wonder. Take it slow, do your research, find a good group to hike with, trust your gut, be OK with adapting and changing plans, and cry and scream it out if you have to. Just keep putting one step in front of the other, and you too will get to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
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