When planning for any trip into the backcountry, even a day hike, you can’t be sure of what kind of weather you may encounter. Backcountry weather is notorious for being unpredictable and unforgiving to hikers who didn’t leave home prepared. As with many other aspects of backpacking and camping, good preparation can make your life on the trail a much easier and a whole lot more enjoyable.

Preparation

As you pack your gear, think about the worst possible conditions you may encounter in the backcountry, and prepare for that. This means carrying solid rain gear and enough warm clothes with you, so you’re sure to be protected if it gets cold and wet.

Be aware of what the normal temperatures are for the region, around the time you plan to visit, so you can pack accordingly.

If you can, bring a small weather radio or weather station with you for updates on weather changes for different regions. They’re both very lightweight and valuable tools.

Watch the Sky

If you watch the sky, it can give you a heads up on what may be coming, so you can take precautionary measures, before the weather changes in your area. Take the time to learn a little about what the visible changes in the sky may mean.

Warm Front – A warm front is a warm mass of air that replaces cold masses of air. They are very slow moving, almost half the speed of cold fronts, and they don’t usually create big storms. But, the precipitation that comes from a warm front can last a very long time. Clouds that predict warm fronts include:

  • Cirrocumulus clouds which look like tiny puffs, almost like sponge painting.
  • Cirrus clouds, the thin wispy clouds that look like cotton balls when you pull them apart. They can show up two days before an actual warm front.
  • Altostratus clouds look like dense smoke and are usually the ones that carry the precipitation.
  • Cirrostratus clouds are high up in the sky. They can appear to make a rainbow around the sun.

Cold Front – Cold fronts are large bodies of cold air that move under warm fronts, and cause quick drops in temperature, changes in wind direction, and declines in barometric pressure. Expect cold fronts when you see the following clouds.

  • Cumulus clouds resemble white puff balls and are present during fair weather. If they grow tall, it could mean rain later on in the day.
  • Cumulonimbus clouds occur when cumulus clouds expand and grow tall. This is usually a sign of impending bad weather. Sometimes they expand and get flattish shaped tops.

Lightning – If you hear thunder or see lightning, it’s always important to react quickly. Get away from anything that is extending up from the ground; a tree, a flagpole, anything that is higher than the surrounding terrain is dangerous. If you’re on a peak or a high elevation, retreat to lower ground. If you’re with a group of people, you should keep distance between each person of about ten feet or more.

Many things you have with you when backpacking and camping can act like a lightning rod; get rid of all of them when you take cover. Potentially dangerous items include your pack (which may have a metal frame), trek poles, ice pick, and anything else that’s made of metal. Take cover at least 25 feet away from metal items and other people. The best place to take cover is at a lower elevation, under a group of trees that are about the same height.

If you are in an open area, to decrease you chance of getting hit by lightning, take the lightning position. Crouch with your knees bent and your hands on the back of your neck. If you can, add an extra layer of insulation between you and the ground, like a sleeping pad, that’s even better. Do not lie down. It’s important to be low to the ground, but laying down, increases your contact with the ground, thus, your chance of getting struck. If someone does get struck by lightning, immediately attempt to revive them by using CPR.

To determine how close lightning is, estimate the time between the visible lightning and the audible thunder. For every five seconds you count between the two, the storm is another mile away.

With these weather tips, and a little preparation and some vigilance, you can kick back and enjoy your outdoor adventure with the knowledge that if inclement weather does come your way, you’re prepared. For more on using clouds and the sky to predict the weather, we suggest you learn more about cloud types and then view a forecasting cloud chart.