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Understanding Weather When Hiking

You’ve likely heard how important it is to check the weather forecast before heading out on a hike, regardless of the season. This allows you to put the right hiking clothes into your pack, as well as any other gear you may need, and ultimately makes for a much better hiking experience.

However, when you’re hiking, the different ranges in elevation or temperature throughout the day can lead to abrupt weather changes that could catch you off guard. This may result in anything from a slight chilly breeze to a 10-minute downpour. But even these abrupt changes always come with some form of warning, so if you can read the clouds and sky right, it could help keep you prepared on the trail.

Understanding Weather

Cloud Formations

You don’t have to have years of experience in the outdoors to be able to spot some of the most common cloud formations that typically signal changing weather. How clouds form is a direct result of atmospheric changes, so they’re an excellent indicator of things to come.

Picture this: You’re hiking along a ridge with blue sky all around you, but when you look to a peak in the distance, you see an oval-shaped cloud hovering above the summit. Some have said this cloud formation, known as a “lenticular cloud,” looks like a UFO. Often, you’ll see multiple lens-shaped formations that appear to stack on top of each other, creating a ripple. These clouds are a sure sign that the wind is picking up in the distance, and that moist air is building up, too.

If you’re headed toward the summit with this type of cloud over it, foul weather could be anywhere from six to 18 hours away. This gives you plenty of time to throw on your fleece, men’s or women’s rain jacket, or any other wind and rain gear you may need.

Thunderstorms

One of the most recognizable and telltale signs of a dangerous thunderstorm is the classic thunderhead. Known as “cumulonimbus clouds” to meteorologists, these clouds are flat at the bottom and have huge blooms rising vertically. At the top, they typically resemble an anvil.

If you’re out on a day hike, you may want to turn around and head back to the car or camp when you see such a cloud formation. These typically result in heavy rains and dangerous lightning and thunder, and can even spawn more serious weather threats, such as tornadoes.

Lightning

If you see lightning in the distance, you can estimate how far the strike was from you by counting the seconds between the flash and the first crack of thunder. Every five seconds that passes equals about a mile, so if you count 10 seconds, the lightning struck two miles away. If you do see lightning, it’s extremely important to get off a peak or ridge immediately.

Look to the Sky

In addition to cloud formations, you can tell what kind of weather is approaching by how the sky looks overall. If you see clouds that appear to be extremely high in the sky, wispy, and far from each other, it could indicate a cold front or low-pressure system is headed your way. If moisture is in the air, it can sometimes look like a ring around the sun or moon, and could signal that rain is on the way.

If all of this is followed by thick, low clouds over the course of 48 hours, there’s a good chance that it could start to rain in the next half day, making it a great time to pack up the camping tents.

Barometric Pressure

You’ve probably heard your local meteorologist talk about barometric pressure, and it’s actually easier to understand than you may think. Try throwing an altimeter into your hiking gear, even if the trail doesn’t call for major changes in elevation.

These devices use changes in air pressure (which occur any time you change elevation) to factor your altitude. Rapid declines in air pressure are a sure sign of changing weather conditions, so if your altimeter plummets unexpectedly, you can take note of this and look for any changes in the clouds or skies.

Don’t Forget to Prep

Even if you enter the wilderness armed with extensive knowledge of clouds, storms, and cold fronts, if you don’t take the right hiking gear, then that knowledge will just go to waste.

Even on summer hikes, always keep at least a lightweight fleece and waterproof, breathable rain jacket in your hiking backpack. This is especially true for any hikes that take you up in elevation, as it will nearly always be significantly cooler at the top of the mountain than it is at the base. It’s in these areas, too, that weather tends to shift most dramatically.

It’s always best to check the official weather forecast before you go, but knowing what the changes look like can be a great skill on any hiking trip.


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