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Safe Hiking Weather:
What You Need To Know

  What is your ideal hiking weather?

Safe hiking weather and perfect hiking weather are very much alike:

  • blue skies,
  • puffy white clouds,
  • a gentle southerly breeze,
  • and plenty of daylight to spend on the trail.

Ah! Perfection!

Unfortunately, those days are few & far between in the Pacific Northwest, my stomping grounds.

Gray drizzle, or wind, or low scudding clouds obscuring the mountains are more likely (you KNOW Mt. Rainier is right over there, but haven't seen her in days).

In your neck of the woods, you may run into thunderstorms every afternoon in the summer, or sudden snow squalls at high elevation year round.

High winds, lightning, sudden temperature swings... hiking safety can get dicey on the trail.

That's exactly why it pays to know how to hike through any kind of weather patterns.


Know where safe hiking weather comes from: meteorology

A hiker should be motivated to learn more about meteorology (the study of the ocean of air surrounding Earth).

It's the best way to understand  what safe hiking weather entails.

Not really a do-it-yourself person?

A fabulous company called The Teaching Company ferrets out the best college professors, and records them giving lectures.

Their Meteorology series has 24 lectures in all, 30 minutes each.

There's a booklet which summarizes the main points of each lecture, too.

It's a great way to incorporate weather preparedness in your hiking plans.

Tip: Spend 30 minutes per week over the winter, and you'll be all set to hit the trail in safety when spring rolls around.


Check the weather forecasts
before you hit the trail

One of the best habits a hiker can form is to check the NOAA website for the probability of safe hiking weather, prior to hitting the trail.

  • NOAA = National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

I highly recommend looking at this weather site the day before, and the morning of, your hike to give yourself the best shot at safe hiking conditions.

This is especially true when seasons are turning and unstable weather patterns occur.

The beauty of this site, beyond its reliability and accessibility, is that you can type in the location of your hike and get a local forecast. (NOTE: North America only)

Even more safe hiking weather information, too:

  • You can check satellite images of the area.
  • You can see weather alerts for extreme conditions such as wind, heat, and storms.


And you can get even geekier!

Check out these:

  • wind speed charts,
  • cloud cover projections over a 24 hour period,
  • precipitation forecasts that show you 24 hours of likely hiking weather conditions.

Can you see how all of this data helps you plan the type of hike you want?

Example: If you're a photographer looking to score a big vista, and the cloud cover is predicted to be 80% all day, maybe you should plan a different hike.

Bookmark the NOAA site, and make it a habit to consult it before each hike.

And if you're going to stay out for longer than just a day hike, FOR SURE you should be checking on developing weather conditions.

This is especially important during unstable times of year: spring & fall come to mind in the Midwest, or summer monsoons in the Southwest United States.


Have a weather plan

Once on the trail, you're on your own in terms of hiking weather safety.

How often do you pay attention to the sky when you hike?

On your next hike, try this: Pay attention to what Mother Nature is up to as you hike along.

For example, a sudden burst of wind that blows off your hat means a pressure system is passing through, possibly bringing trouble in its wake.

This should lead you to ask yourself:

  • Do I have a place to take shelter during a down pour?
  • Is that thunder I hear? What to do??
  • Am I in terrain where sudden run off could sweep me away?
  • Do I have my waterproof gear handy?
  • Am I under tree limbs which could harm me if they snap in the wind?
  • Is it time to assume the "lightning position"? (This link is an automatic pdf download giving you valuable safety info.)
  • You see what I'm getting at: Use your knowledge of safe hiking weather to size up the situation and take immediate action to ensure your safety.

    Another hiking weather example: If you're at higher elevations, you need to be prepared for sudden precipitation - including snow-  year round. Watch the skies and know when to take cover (if there is any).

    Or turn around earlier than planned to ensure your safety.

    • I've been caught in snow in June, July AND August, and if I hadn't been prepared, I'd have been miserable, or hypothermic.
    • I've also baked on exposed terrain when the weather turned hot.

    If you like to hike in dense forest, the weather may get a little hard to read - that's why the forecast (previously discussed) is so important.

    My advice? If you feel raindrops on your hat, it must be raining :)

    (Sometimes a sense of humor is needed to endure hiking weather challenges.)


    Become a dedicated sky watcher, day and night

    Seriously, you need to watch the sky, read the wind, and learn what cloud types mean.

    I've learned that high clouds don't usually bring trouble right away, but watch out for those low scudding clouds on the horizon.

    Clouds can tell you a lot about what's going on in the atmosphere, and what it holds in store for you as a hiker.

    Aren't clouds fascinating? So many questions...

    • How do they form?
    • What do they say about approaching weather systems?
    • Do they promise safe hiking weather, or storms?

    I found lots of answers about safe hiking weather in books by Richard Hamblyn.

    My current favorite gives an incredible amount of information packed into a small space, and you gotta love the title, right?

    The Cloud Book!

    The best part of this book is the color photos.

    I must admit, I never realized how many types of clouds there are.

    And who knew they had elaborate names such as "altocumulus stratiformis"?

    And even better: "cirrus spissatus cumulonimbogenitus"!

    If you can cram all those words into your skull, there's no stopping you in the quest for safe hiking weather!!

    Seriously, the photos alone are worth the price of the book.

    Tormenting your friends & neighbors with those absurdly long words: optional fun.

    His other books are worth a look, too. Seems he's a bit of a weather geek.

    Safe hiking weather includes cirrus, or what I like to call "swirly" clouds

    If you're really into cloud images, this sequence illustrates how to read changing cloud patterns.


    More trail clues to
    safe hiking weather

    Another environmental clue to safe hiking weather that you can use on the trail: Animal and bird behavior.

    Have you noticed that the trail gets very quiet before an impending thunder storm? There's very little cross chatter from the birds, and the small mammals make themselves scarce.

    When it gets quiet, you should think about taking cover, or cover up.

    The best defense against wet weather any hiker has is being prepared.

    Carry appropriate gear: waterproof jacket & pants, gaiters, hat.

    Have them handy in an outside pocket of your backpack so you don't waste precious time digging around when you need to stay dry.

    It's also a bummer if your other gear (and sandwiches) gets wet as you scramble.

    And here's when you will find out the difference between these terms:

    • water repellent,
    • water resistant,
    • and water proof.

    You also want to avoid getting your entire pack wet, so carry a pack cover.

    Some day packs come equipped with them.

    For instance, each of my Deuter packs has a rain fly tucked into a zip pocket on the bottom of the pack. The brightly colored cover, made of water repellent fabric, is tethered to the pack so it can't blow off or get lost when I set the pack down.

    You can buy a pack cover from an outdoor retailer, and I highly recommend that you do so and carry it on every hike, regardless of season.

    Or you can go the "garbage bag" route.

    • Be sure you carry more than one bag because they snag and rip open, and make them the heavy duty variety. Duct tape wrapped around a water bottle will help with field repairs.


    Bottom line?

    OK, class, what's the take home message on safe hiking weather?

    All together now:

    Don't let less-than-ideal weather keep you inside!

    Fair weather hikers miss out on some great experiences.

    A handful of my most memorable animal encounters have been on rain hikes, probably because the big mammals didn't expect humans to be roaming around in the rain.

    Believe me when I tell you that with the proper gear, and most importantly, the proper attitude, you can hike all 4 seasons through everything Mother Nature throws at you!

    So do yourself and your trail buddies a big favor:

    • Read up on safe hiking weather, because if Mother Nature cannot catch you by surprise, your hiking trips will be safer, warmer and drier.

    Bonus: cloud watching is very relaxing (until the hail hits).


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