The trail is just a tool: Navigation skills, resources & gear for early-season backpacking

This multi-post series discusses recommended gear, supplies, and skills for backpacking in the Mountain West in early-season conditions. These normally prevail in May/June, and in July after exceptionally snowy winters

In early-season conditions, the trail is just a tool. If it’s there, great. If not, oh well, you can manage without it.

Even if your itinerary is entirely on-trail, you should expect an occasional off-trail experience when backpacking in the Mountain West in early-season conditions.

On trade routes like the John Muir Trail, a continuous boot-track across lingering snow will develop by July, especially where the terrain funnels the foot traffic (e.g. at a pass). In less popular areas and earlier in the season — when there is less foot traffic and more extensive snow coverage — navigation will be wholly your responsibility: no other hikers may have passed through yet, or their tracks may have melted away to the point of being unrecognizable.

A solid boot-track below Selden Pass in the High Sierra, late-June 2006. The track became less concentrated further down, when the terrain no longer funneled the traffic.

Even when there are some tracks around, be distrustful. You have no guarantee that they are going where you are going, or that they aren’t “Star Trekking,” or going where no man has ever gone before.


In the early-season you will encounter three types of trail conditions.

1. No snow coverage

When the trail is completely snow-free, follow the trail, of course. Lower elevations and sunny aspects will melt out first.

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