Avalanche hazard evaluation relies in part on representative snowpack stability observations. Thus, understanding the spatial patterns of snowpack instabilities and their environmental determinants is crucial. This case study integrates intensive field observations with spatial modeling to identify associations between incoming radiation, surface hoar development and its subsequent shear strength across an inclined forest opening. We examined a buried surface hoar layer in southwest Montana, USA, over five sampling days, collecting 824 SnowMicroPen resistance profiles and performing 352 shear frame tests. Spatial models of incoming long- and shortwave radiation were generated for the surface hoar formation period using modeled hemispheric sky visibility, physically based parameters and the Bird Clear Sky Radiation Model in a Geographic Information System. Before burial, the surface hoar persisted despite moderate winds and relatively high air temperatures. The buried surface hoar layer thickness varied between 3 and 21 mm within a distance of 30 m. Modeled incoming radiation explained spatial variations in layer thickness and shear strength. In areas exposed to large amounts of radiation, the surface hoar layer was strong and thin, while areas with limited incoming radiation (due to high sky visibility and shading) possessed a thicker surface hoar layer that sheared more easily. This demonstrates the usefulness of microclimate modeling for slope-scale avalanche hazard evaluation. We also identify that over the 3 week sample period, strengthening occurred without thinning of the surface hoar layer.