The snow-masking effect of vegetation exerts strong control on albedo in northern high latitude ecosystems. Large-scale changes in the distribution and stature of vegetation in this region will thus have important feedbacks to climate. The snow-albedo feedback is controlled largely by the contrast between snow-covered and snow-free albedo (Δα), which influences predictions of future warming in coupled climate models, despite being poorly constrained at seasonal and century time scales. Here, we compare satellite observations and coupled climate model representations of albedo and tree cover for the boreal and Arctic region. Our analyses reveal consistent declines in albedo with increasing tree cover, occurring south of latitudinal tree line, that are poorly represented in coupled climate models. Observed relationships between albedo and tree cover differ substantially between snow-covered and snow-free periods, and among plant functional type. Tree cover in models varies widely but surprisingly does not correlate well with model albedo. Furthermore, our results demonstrate a relationship between tree cover and snow-albedo feedback that may be used to accurately constrain high latitude albedo feedbacks in coupled climate models under current and future vegetation distributions. © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.