What kind of weather will we have before we start backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail? That is a question we are frequently asked. The amount of precipitation above or below normal for the season and, especially the amount that falls a few months prior to departing, will be a good indicator of the snow levels in not only the Sierra Nevada region but also southern California. High snow levels in the early miles will require extra gear and will slow down anticipated mileage. Most hikers prefer to start in mid-to-late April to avoid this potential early slowing from the border.
With 3 years of extreme drought, thru-hikers may have gotten complacent in their preparation, preferring to leave earlier because previous reports have not indicated a problem during these early weeks. We prefer to leave at an earlier date anyway, but will be watching weather reports to see if snow gear is required even before reaching the Sierras. So far, for the 2 months of the season starting in October, the precipitation in the northern Sierra Nevada is at 18.3 inches or 145% normal! Lake Shasta, in northern California, is still only at 33% normal, but up from 23% three weeks ago after recent heavy rainfall in the area. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have issued a forecast of 75% chance of average or above average precipitation for January to March. Over the last 5 years the organization’s precipitation forecasts have been significantly lower.
El Niño has yet to be declared but remains a high possibility for the coming year. The warmer waters of the Pacific Ocean affect the jet stream causing it to come ashore in California instead of the Pacific northwest, bringing with it moisture and storms. Increased rainfall means more snow on the PCT, more gear worn and in packs for longer stretches, and potentially unprepared hikers. Will we be hiking or snowshoeing in the southern Sierra Nevada? Only time will tell for sure, what is to come, but we will be keeping our cold weather gear close at hand.