In many parts of the world, snowmelt energetics is dominated by solar irradiance. This is particularly the case in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, where clear skies dominate the winter and spring. In mountainous regions, solar irradiance at the snow surface is not only affected by solar angles, atmospheric transmittance, the slope and aspect of immediate topography but also by shadows from surrounding terrain. Accumulation of errors in estimating solar irradiation can lead to significant errors in calculating the timing and rate of snowmelt owing to the seasonal storage of internal energy in the snowpack. Gridded methods, which are often used to estimate solar irradiance in complex terrain, work best with high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs), such as those produced using Light Detection and Ranging. However, such methods also introduce errors caused by the rigid nature of the mesh as well as limiting the ability to represent basin characteristics. Unstructured triangular meshes are more efficient in their use of DEM data than fixed grids when producing solar irradiance information for spatially distributed snowmelt calculations, and they do not suffer from the artefact problems of a gridded DEM. This paper demonstrates the increased accuracy of using a horizon-shading algorithm model with an unstructured mesh versus standard self-shading algorithms. A systematic over-prediction in irradiance is observed when only self-shadows are considered. The modelled results are diagnosed by comparison to measurements of mountain shadows by time-lapse digital cameras and solar irradiance by a network of radiometers in Marmot Creek Research Basin, Alberta, Canada. Results show that, depending on the depth and aspect of the snowpack of the Mount Allan cirque, 6.0 to 66.4% of the pre-melt snowpack could be prematurely melted. On average at a basin scale, there was a 14.4-mm SWE difference in equivalent melt energy between the two shading algorithms with maximum differences over 100% of the total annual snowfall. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.