Picture this: You’re backpacking your way through the mountains, the air starts to cool and the clouds start to darken. You assume rain is coming, but you aren’t sure when and all you’re stuck with is a rain jacket and the rest your gear.
What do you do? You examine the clouds, look at their patterns, and if there are thunder and lighting, you time it. All of these things can help you determine what type of weather and when it may be approaching without the use of an app! Incredible right?
No matter where you are, you can always anticipate an unexpected change in the weather, especially if you’re in the backcountry. There are ways to tell when and which type of storm may be approaching, and we’ve got it all covered, so remember to keep your head in the clouds (just this once).
How to Prepare for Unexpected Weather
- Think ahead. Always, always, always. Remember to check the weather before you leave and try to stay informed during your trip.
- Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Make sure you are carrying reliable rain gear so you’re prepared if and when the weather hits.
- Have a cautious attitude (and some common sense). Don’t let the weather get the best of you.
- Stay informed. A tiny AM radio can pick up some stations after dark, even in the backcountry. You might be able to tune into a station in the region you are exploring. Local forecasts are typically announced near the top of each hour so keep an ear out.
- Keep your eyes on the sky. You can often see storms rolling in from the distance, especially if you’re keeping an eye on the shapes and patterns of the clouds. Read on for more.
Clouds and Storm Patterns
Whenever a storm's rolling in, everyone looks at the sky, right? While they may just be looking at the colors of the clouds, you can actually look for patterns that will give you a better idea of the kind of storm coming and when it will reach you.
The shapes and movements of the clouds often foreshadow changes in the weather like warm fronts and cold fronts.
Cloud Patterns - Warm Fronts
Warm fronts are when warm air gradually pushes out and replaces the cooler air. They move at about half the speed of cold fronts and don’t typically produce any violent weather, but it may rain for a longer period of time. Warm fronts progress from thin, high-level cirrus clouds to low, dense stratus clouds.
- Cirrus clouds are thin, streaky clouds. They may precede the front by as many as 48 hours.
- Cirrocumulus clouds are the next to arrive and resemble small puffs or rippled rows. They float high in the sky and are followed by cirrostratus clouds.
- Cirrostratus clouds are very thin and bright. They also float high in the sky and are filled with ice crystals, which causes a halo to form around the sun.
- Altostratus clouds are dense and smoky looking, while nimbostratus clouds are gray and thick. They both carry the precipitation, whether it’s just a drizzle, a rainstorm, or snow.
- Stratus clouds look a lot like fog. They are low hanging and carry moisture.
Cloud Patterns - Cold Fronts
Cold fronts happen when cold air is wedged under warmer air. They develop very quickly and move swiftly, which causes temperatures to drop.
- Cumulus clouds are white puffy clouds.
- Cumulonimbus clouds are very dense and typically foreshadow potential severe weather such as lightning or even tornadoes. They rise vertically and expand.
Lightning can be very dangerous in the backcountry, especially since you’ll have little to no shelter. A lightning strike sends an electrical current through the ground that usually covers a large area and it can even cause fatalities, so listen up.
Here’s what you should do if you find yourself stuck in the backcountry when lightning strikes.
- Head for lower ground. The best place to be is within a group of trees of about the same height in a low-lying area. You can also head to a low spot in an open meadow.
- Spread out. If you’re out there with a group spread out by at least 25 feet or farther, if possible.
- Insulate yourself from the ground. Sitting on an internal frame pack or sleeping pad should do the trick. You can also crouch down on the ground with your feet close together if a ground current reaches you it will likely only travel through your feet, which isn’t life-threatening. Whatever you do, do NOT lie down, this expands your contact with the ground, leaving you at a greater chance of getting struck.
Here’s what you should stay away from:
- Tall, stand-alone objects (including trees)
- Shallow caves
- Ridgelines or peaks
- Metal objects (including external frame packs, trekking poles, and crampons etc.)