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Snags: Camp, Trail, Cross Country and River Crossing | High Sierra Backpacker

Snags: Camp, Trail, Cross Country and River Crossing

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 12 June 2018


Mountain Safety


June 2018
The High Sierra Tree Mortality situation induces me to repost this at the top of the list as Summer Backpacking season gets started. Snags are presenting heightened dangers this year, as is the related threat of fire.


Snags are standing dead trees. Backpackers interact with snags in a number of ways. The most common is hiking by or through them. Next comes camping in proximity to snags, and finally we find fallen snags providing bridges over narrow necks of surprizingly wide rivers. Occassionally we find ourselves climbing a wall of downed snags like a jungle gym. That generally happens while hiking cross country or after bad storm seasons where snags are swept down canyons. A freshly fallen snag also provides the best firewood if you are into making fires.

The only truth is snags constantly and always fall, maybe blown down by wind, swept away by water, or when their internal structure rots to the point it can no longer support its own weight, or yours.

A snag may be rotted to a "hair trigger," where the least stimilus will bring it down, or a snag may be a solid post deeply rooted. Our degree of trust depends on the nature of our contact with particular snags.

Our most constant danger from snags is in camp. All camps must be scouted for nearby snags, their potential trajectories calculated, and the positions of our sleeping, kitchen, and gear storage spaces properly situated.

We constantly encounter snags while hiking through forests. These snags require we maintain a general awareness of the status of the surrounding forest. The rule is simple: When we hear what sounds like a rapid series of gunshots, very similar to a medium or light machine gun firing rapidly, but  irregularly, we instantly key on the location of the sound, identify the direction the snag is falling, then take any necessary evasive action. Or no action.

Ha-ha- I was thinking about running under a falling snag, rather than away... haha. The "don't freak out" rule always applies, and especially with falling snags. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to scare you: falling snags are rare events. Well, they are rare events for hikers passing by.

The odds of a snag falling are 100%. The odds of a snag falling as we walk by are astronomical. I've hit the snag lottery twice in twenty years.

Over the last couple of decades I've seen two snags fall, one right next to me at night, and the other a quarter mile from my camp. Both were quite shocking. The fact is that trees are constantly falling in the forest, if we are there or not, and our awareness of this fact will keep us out from under them.

It is a lot easier to stay out from under snags if we are aware of their location as a matter of our routine observation as we hike through forests. Taking the proper action to save your ass in various dangerous situations requires some "pre-thinking." Snag awareness is a necessity, not a luxury. Situational awareness is a necessary joy of backpacking.

My point here is that breaking snags make a fairly uniform set of "snapping" sounds as they collaspe. We must not "freeze," but instantly identify the threat and the proper response. 

Always being aware of surrounding snags shaves time off of our response time.

Once snags fall they might actually become more dangerous for backpackers than when threatening to fall. That's because fallen snags often provide bridges over rivers.

The main threats of fording over fallen snags are rotting and slickness. Rotting snags break underfoot, tumbling the backpacker into the drink. It may be safer to wade than cross the snag. This generally depends on the season. Spring and early Summer river flows demand snag crossings, while later in the season we can easily wade.

A snag slicked with frozen dew in the morning may require some waiting time to melt before we tightrope our way across.

The final threat I can think of is climbing snags, either to pass a narrow gorge stuffed with the timber remnants of an ancient flood, or a swath of snags swept down across a narrow passage of trail.

Old rotten snags have the structural integrety of toothpicks held together by Elmer's Glue: about none! I've seen people try to hurt themselves a couple of times by unwisely climbing too quickly up jumbles of snags without properly testing the intergity of the position. This always has the potential to end badly.

The underfoot snag breaks, tumbling the unfortunate backpacker into the snags and rocks below. Both times I've seen this happen the hiker was scraped, lightly cut up, and bruised, but not too badly damaged. Don't depend on luck to replace common sense safety practices.

Sometimes the wood that looks perfect to the eye disintergrates under the foot.

Snags are not all bad! Snags provide the best firewood in the forest. I don't make fires, but I have been known to carry a few cubes of snag heart wood for emergency fire starting situations. That shit burns like crazy...

Post up your snag stories below!


2019 Update

Distinct Trajectories in Play
The significant, "megafires," of 2018, when added to ongoing the ongoing tree mortality event underway in the High Sierra that we are, and have been experiencing for near a decade, have dramatically increased the amount of standing dead timber, "snags," or, "hazard trees," as known by timberland firefighters.

Awareness coupled with excellent observation skills are our best defenses.

Hiker Response
The dead tree dangers are increasing every year, as are the risks of fire, so we're going to have to keep our eyes very wide open this Summer for dangers from nearby snags, as well as the sights and smells of fire.




Forest Service
California Tree Mortality
Our forests are changing


High Sierra Tree Mortality


Forests, Parks, Fires and Smoke Page



Bad News

Dead Branch/Snag Death,
Upper Pines Campground, Yosemite Valley.



All Mountain Safety Topics

All Mountain Safety News


Current High Sierra Hazards






Originally Published
2013-11-25 11:53:34 -0700 

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