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Trail Snow vs Snow Pack

March 30th, 2019

Trail snow and snow pack are wildly different.

Trail snow looks at snow amounts within a 1,000 feet of the trail, every halfmile, resulting in thousands of data points. Snow pack looks at a several dozen snow amounts miles away and hundreds or thousands of feet above or below the trail.

For instance, the PCT/JMT rarely goes below 10,000 feet for about 200 miles. How does snow information collected 3,000 feet below the trail benefit a hiker? It doesn't. It's misleading. That what snow pack does.

A Stark Example

On June 7th, the most critical time of the year for northbound hikers departing Kennedy Meadow, trail snow shows half the trail still covered in snow. The bottom graph is snow pack and it is showing no snow!

PCT SWE KM to Echo Lake 2017
Credit: Top graph: postholer.com, Bottom graph: cdec.water.ca.gov

Further, the snow pack chart above shows a well below average year. However, for trail snow the chart below shows a very average year.

PCT SWE KM to Echo Lake 2016
Credit: postholer.com

Snow pack can be a handy and widely available measure of how the winter is shaping up. It doesn't tell the whole story. Given above average precipation and warmer than normal temperature snow pack may show below normal, but at trail altitude, snow can actually be above normal. By virtue of being higher, the higher terrain is less affected by warmer temperature. This is a the heart of the difference.

We hope this was informative and wish you the best on your hike!

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