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Planning and Preparing for a late Winter-Early Spring snow backpacking trip in the High Sierras | High Sierra Backpacker

Planning and Preparing for a late Winter-Early Spring snow backpacking trip in the High Sierras

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 29 September 2019

Climbing to the Headwaters of the East Fork of the Carson River, Feb 2014.
Climbing up to the Headwaters of the East Carson.

Preparing and Planning for a Snow Backpacking Trip in the Sierras

(Well, although it is Fall, the principals explored below apply to Fall as well as Spring....)

Video Prep Guide
I have constructed this four-part video guide to preparing for a High Sierra backpacking trip. Though it is designed for a Winter-first day of Spring trip, the basic principals discussed are applicable to backpacking during any season.

NOTE: Site Video Links Broken. See these Backpacking Food Prep videos on YouTube.

Factors of Success or Failure
Part one covers the range of factors you may encounter and must prepare for when backpacking in High Sierra snow. These considerations will control your preparations. These considerations are interrelated, and your measurement of each will affect the others.

Your main considerations in preparation are route, weather, duration, food, and gear. Your analysis of the weather will determine the snow conditions you can expect to encounter, which will control how long you will take to cover your route. Weather will also determine your gear selection. These considerations will determine how much your gear and food will weight. 

The Winter HOPP
(Harness of Pleasure & Pain)
In my case this works out to a 55 pound backpack that is good to -30 degrees F, when properly deployed, not including the weight of snowshoes and poles. As these will be worn more than carried, I do not include them in pack weight. But the heavy Winter boots, combined with the weight of the snowshoes, should be considered when figuring daily mileage. Five pounds of weight on each foot, combined with the work of traveling heavily-laden through soft snow, cannot be omitted or underestimated when you plan your trip.


A Sample Backpacking Trip: A Late Winter Snow trip in the Sierras

Let's Hike Out the Basin
For the purpose of explaining how all of these factors operate together we will examine the trip I just took into the Sierras during March 2010 from Meyers to the Carson Pass. This trip will be a  laboratory for testing the accuracy of my considerations and preparations, to better help you wisely plan your Winter, as well as your Summer backpacking trips the High Sierras.


 Backpacking from Lake Tahoe at the South Upper Truckee trailhead in Meyers to the Carson Pass

Pre-Trip Considerations
The first video, above, encompasses my pre-trip considerations. Though I am considering what's necessary for basic snow backpacking in the High Sierras, all of the factors I consider about weather, route, trip duration, and my basic food needs should be the fundamental factors that guide your trip planning independent of the season. Though the results of considering these factors will differ with the seasons, the factors you consider are constant.

Route & Schedule
I decided my trip's route would start in Meyers, spending the first night at Round Lake. The second day I would head to Round Top Lake to the Southwest of the Carson Pass, where I would spend night two. From there I planned to head to Showers Lake for night three. From there I would head back to Round Lake, via Meiss Meadow, to spend my fourth night before exiting early on day 5. The USGS maps put the route at around twenty-five miles. As the trails are buried under between four to fifteen feet of snow, my route's distance will depend on how accurately I navigate.

Weather & Temps
A look at the weather revealed that the temps were generally up, and thus the snowpack would be wet and soft. A look at the recent temps revealed that earlier in the week the nighttime lows were in single digits. These weather conditions indicated that travel in snow would be difficult, as the surface would not hold up, causing me to sink into the soft snow with every step. This would increase both the difficulty and the time it would take to cover a given distance. Yet I still had to consider and prepare for the possibility of single-digit temps.

Gear & Time
As the weather indicated the snow conditions I could expect, it also determined both the specific gear I would pack, and these factors together determined how many days it would take to cover my proposed route. This information gave me a pretty good idea about how much food I I would need to pack.

The Proper Gear...
As the temps were up, and this trip crossed the Vernal Equinox from Winter into Spring, I decided that a cross between a lighter Spring Snow set-up and a very heavy Winter kit would work. My gear goal is to be comfortable wearing all of my clothes in my sleeping bag inside of my tent set up in an exposed position at 10,000 feet.

Unexpected Potentials
In mid-Winter I am always concerned that a Continental Cold Air Mass could drift West and engulf the Sierras. These dry frigid flows are both beautiful and dangerous. Their extreme low temps create a crystal wonderland. At higher elevations either you have the proper gear setup to handle these temps, or you don't.  At lower elevations you can bury your tent in a snow trench or dig a snow hole, and bring your temp up to 45 degrees, regardless of outside conditions. As my trip was in late March, the chances of experiencing extreme low temps was decreasing.

Seasonal & Gear Transition Points
Towards the end of every Winter there is a point when the temps rise, and you can begin to lighten up your Winter pack with lighter Spring gear. In my estimation we had crossed this point prior to my trip, and I could therefore replace elements of my Winter gear for lighter Spring insulation.  

Here's what I brought for insulation:



Medium upper shell: The heavy shell stayed at home.

Down Coat: Every night.

Fleece Coat: Much of the day and all of the night.

Thin Poly Tank Top and Long Sleeve: The Base Layer +1; used both almost all the time.


Thin Poly Lowers: Stayed in pack, they were unnecessary.

Zip to shorts pants: The base layer.

Fleece Pants: Evenings and all night.

Heavy Lower shell Pants: Very Heavy North Face. They stayed in the pack and were not used.

Head Gear

Sun/Wind hat: Day and night.

Tank commander's Wool Russian-style head wrapper: Stayed in the pack and was not used.

Earband: Almost never came off.

Quality Sunglasses: On all day long.


Light and Heavy gloves: Light gloves almost all day and night, Heavy gloves unused.


Super Heavy Zamberlin mountain boots: excellent workers in snowshoes, crampons, and unstable surfaces.

Down Booties: Zamberins began to freeze when hiking ended, down booties were a blessing.

Heavy Wool Socks: Two Pairs. One was sufficient, but I always bring two pair.

Fleece socks for down booties: Every night in camp.

Thin poly socks: for emergencies, unused.

Gaiters: on until I layered up.

Snow shoes: All travel was on snow shoes

Snow sticks. I carry poles and I still fall down!

Additional Resources

Check out my gear list

Check out my boot buying guide.


About Snow in the Sierra...


The videos below cover the pre-trip considerations and preparations.

Pre Trip videos

#1>Basic Considerations before starting a Snow Trip in the Sierras

Route, Weather, and Gear

#1>Route, elevation, and exposure


#3>Gear Selection





#2>Food Part 1: Determining your daily Calories and Menu

#3>Food Part 2: Selecting Snacks. This also has a calorie counter for typical backpacker snacks.

#4>Food Part 3: Packing your food.


To the White Wilderness
After determining the route, mileage, elevation, weather, time, gear, and food elements of our snow trip, we will head up to the Southwest edge of the snow plowed roads on the South Upper Truckee Road in Meyers.

Trip videos

 Mini-embeds of all the snow trip videos and links to full-sized videos on background pages like this one are available on the TahoetoWhitney.com homepage.


 Post Trip videos

I'll post it soon. Here:

Spring Snow Video Playlist

Planning a Winter Snow Backpacking Trip




 Tahoe to Whitney on Youtube



Waddaya think?

Post up your reflections on backcountry Winter experience through the comments links below...


Originally Published
2010-03-22 14:43:36

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