Estimating snow mass at continental scales is difficult, but important for understanding land-atmosphere interactions, biogeochemical cycles and the hydrology of the Northern latitudes. Remote sensing provides the only consistent global observations, but with unknown errors. We test the theoretical performance of the Chang algorithm for estimating snow mass from passive microwave measurements using the Helsinki University of Technology (HUT) snow microwave emission model. The algorithm's dependence upon assumptions of fixed and uniform snow density and grainsize is determined, and measurements of these properties made at the Cold Land Processes Experiment (CLPX) Colorado field site in 2002–2003 used to quantify the retrieval errors caused by differences between the algorithm assumptions and measurements. Deviation from the Chang algorithm snow density and grainsize assumptions gives rise to an error of a factor of between two and three in calculating snow mass. The possibility that the algorithm performs more accurately over large areas than at points is tested by simulating emission from a 25km diameter area of snow with a distribution of properties derived from the snow pit measurements, using the Chang algorithm to calculate mean snow-mass from the simulated emission. The snow mass estimation from a site exhibiting the heterogeneity of the CLPX Colorado site proves only marginally different than that from a similarly-simulated homogeneous site. The estimation accuracy predictions are tested using the CLPX field measurements of snow mass, and simultaneous SSM/I and AMSR-E measurements.