Weather Basics for Backpackers

Weather Basics for Backpackers

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It’s a fact of life when venturing into the backcountry that weather conditions can change rapidly and unexpectedly. Even in the height of summer, snowfall can occur at higher elevations, or you may find yourself caught in a sudden and heavy downpour on a ridgeline while the sun is still shining in the distance. Coastal areas can also be prone to fog and cloud cover, even when the sun is blazing just a short distance away. These unpredictable weather patterns pose a risk to those exploring the wilderness, making it essential to come fully prepared for any eventuality.

When heading into the backcountry, it’s important to always be prepared for changing weather conditions. While it’s impossible to predict the future, you can take some common-sense steps to ensure you’re ready for whatever comes your way.

First and foremost, adopt a cautious attitude and be ready for anything. This means bringing reliable rain gear and a range of clothing layers that you can add or remove as needed. It’s also a good idea to research the historical weather patterns of the region you’re planning to explore. For example, if you’re hiking in Colorado’s Never Summer Wilderness, you can bet that you’ll need more than just a tank top for your trip. To get a sense of what to expect, talk to park rangers, call ranger stations ahead of time, ask locals once you’re in the area, or seek advice from other hikers in online forums or guidebooks.

During your trip, stay informed about the weather by tuning in to local forecasts on a portable AM radio. Even in remote areas, you may be able to pick up signals that cover the region you’re exploring. Forecast updates are typically broadcast near the top of each hour, giving you up-to-date information that can help you plan your next moves. By taking these proactive steps, you’ll be better equipped to handle whatever weather surprises come your way during your backcountry adventures.

Keep an Eye on the Sky

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Wise When you’re out in the wilderness, it’s crucial to keep a watchful eye on the weather. The shapes and movements of clouds can offer valuable insights into the arrival of warm fronts and cold fronts, which can bring unpredictable weather changes.

Warm Fronts

Warm fronts occur when warm air masses replace cooler bodies of air, and they often bring persistent precipitation. These fronts move slowly and are typically accompanied by thin, high-level cirrus clouds, which may appear up to 48 hours before the front arrives. Next, cirrocumulus clouds appear as small puffs or rippled rows, followed by cirrostratus clouds that spread across the sky in thin, bright sheets. Altostratus and nimbostratus clouds come next, often bringing precipitation ranging from light drizzles to heavy rain or snow. Low-hanging stratus clouds also carry moisture and can resemble ocean fog.

Cold Fronts

Cold fronts involve cold air masses wedging under warmer pockets of air, causing temperatures to drop rapidly, wind directions to shift, and barometric pressure to fall. These fronts can develop quickly and move swiftly, and they’re typically preceded by white, puffy cumulus clouds. If these clouds continue to build upward, rain may come later in the day. Cumulonimbus clouds are another sign of severe weather, as they rise vertically and can expand dramatically, producing thunderstorms in the afternoon.

Tips for Staying Safe

If you’re on a trip where late-day storms are becoming a pattern, try to cover as much ground as possible during the day’s more stable hours. Additionally, if you carry an altimeter or wear an altimeter watch, you can use it to gauge the approach of a cold front. When a front is coming, your elevation reading may rise even if you’re not moving, as the air pressure drops and the air becomes thinner at higher elevations. This can be a warning sign that bad weather is on the way.

Remember, always be prepared for unpredictable weather conditions by carrying appropriate gear, such as reliable rain gear and assorted layers of clothing that can be worn according to the needs of the moment. By staying informed about historical weather patterns, talking to rangers, and consulting guidebooks, you can also better prepare for the unique weather conditions of the region you’re exploring.


Lightning is a dangerous and common occurrence during thunderstorms, with an estimated 100,000 thunderstorms happening annually in the United States. Lightning is present in all thunderstorms as it causes the sound of thunder through the forceful expansion and contraction of the air around it.

The National Weather Service reports that over the last 30 years until 2008, there were an average of 62 reported lightning-related deaths and 300 injuries per year in the United States. Lightning can send an electrical current through the ground over a large area, which is often the cause of fatalities during storms.

It is crucial to take immediate action if lightning threatens while in the backcountry. It is best to move away from tall, solitary trees or any lone, tall objects, as they are likely to be struck by lightning. Additionally, descending from ridgelines or peaks, as well as staying away from water and metal or graphite objects like external-frame packs, ice axes, trekking poles, and crampons is advisable.

One should also avoid shallow caves or overhangs as lightning can jump across gaps and harm someone standing near the entrance. To insulate oneself from the ground, it is best to sit on an internal-frame pack or sleeping pad or crouch on the ground with feet close together, as lightning’s current is most likely to travel through the feet. Lying down should be avoided as it increases contact with the ground.

It is recommended to have members of the group spread out by at least 25 feet, if possible, and victims of a lightning strike can be revived by CPR. The best place to be during a storm is within a group of trees of roughly uniform height in a low-lying area, or alternatively, in a low spot of an open meadow. To estimate the distance of lightning, one can time the interval between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder using a watch. Thunder travels approximately a mile every five seconds, so if the interval is 10 seconds, the storm is two miles away. If the interval is shorter, the storm is drawing closer.

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