The layered structure of a snowpack has a great effect on several important physical processes, such as water movement, reflection of solar radiation or avalanche release. Our aim was to investigate what factors are most important with respect to the formation and persistence of distinct layers in a subalpine environment. We used a physically based numerical one-dimensional model to simulate the development of a snowpack on a subalpine meadow in central Switzerland during one winter season (1998–99). A thorough model validation was based on extensive measurement data including meteorological and snow physical parameters. The model simulated the snow water equivalent and the depth of the snowpack as well as the energy balance accurately. The observed strong layering of the snowpack, however, was not reproduced satisfactorily. In a sensitivity analysis, we tested different model options and parameter settings significant for the formation of snow layers. The neglection of effects of snow microstructure on the compaction rate, and the current description of the water redistribution inside the snowpack, which disregard capillary barrier effects, preferential flow and lateral water flow, were the major limitations for a more realistic simulation of the snowpack layering. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.