Although garter snakes at communal overwintering dens on the Canadian prairies have attracted considerable behavioural ecology research, previous studies have relied upon sampling of active animals to describe broad patterns of distribution and abundance of snakes within the den population. We conducted a mark-recapture study to directly quantify temporal and spatial variation in the phenotypic traits (sex, size, body condition) of snakes at the den itself, and those dispersing through woodland 50 m away. Captures of 909 snakes on the days they emerged, and 6653 snakes as they dispersed, revealed massive spatiotemporal heterogeneity in phenotypic traits among samples. Day-to-day variation in weather conditions affected numbers and sex ratios of emerging and dispersing snakes; for example, small females dispersed in greater numbers after unusually cold nights, when harassment by courting males was reduced. Most snakes stayed at the den only briefly (<5 days) prior to dispersal, so that sampling at the den itself (the only evidence available from most previous studies) underestimates the number of animals in the population, as well as the proportions of females, of small adult males and of juvenile animals. Overall, the heterogeneous and temporally dynamic distributions of phenotypic traits (such as sex and size) among our samples are predictable on the basis of the central roles of male-male competition and sexual conflict in the mating system of these snakes. Surprisingly, however, many of the snakes that overwinter at this den play no part in den-based breeding aggregations.