How to prepare for bad weather during a hike

August 22, 2014, 1 p.m.
stormy landscape

Photo: Tony Carado/MNN Flickr Group

Stormy skies can be enjoyed, if you're ready for them.

One of the biggest mistakes a hiker can make is not being prepared for a change in the weather. A clear blue sky can be covered with storm clouds in a surprisingly short amount of time, warm days can turn cold, a light rain shower can turn into a thunderstorm, and so on. The safest hiker is the one who expects the unexpected changes and is ready for them. Here's how to be that hiker.

1. Pack smart
Always bring layered clothing, including hat and gloves, an emergency blanket, and depending on where you’re going perhaps even a pop-up tent just incase you get stuck on the trail as night falls. High calorie food, like protein bars or nuts and dried fruits, is a must along with more water than you think you’ll need. It doesn’t hurt to take twice as much food and water as you think you’ll want. A first-aid kit with moleskin and band-aids is also important, and be sure to bring all-weather matches, a small flashlight and a whistle. They don’t add much weight to your pack and could be life-saving.

2. Research the trail and weather conditions for that day as well as several days in advance
When readying for your trip, look at the weather reports. Expect worse than what the weather says. So, if it says “chance of shower” then prepare for a spat of heavy rain and pack rain gear. Ask a ranger when you arrive at your hiking destination about the weather that day. This is especially important in mountain areas, where weather can change dramatically in no time. Rangers know the conditions of the area better than anyone and can clue you in on the characteristics of the weather in the area you’re hiking.

3. Know your clouds
Clouds reveal so much about what the weather is doing, and different clouds indicate different conditions. The type of cloud formation and how quickly clouds are moving across the sky (and in what direction) can reveal possible impending changes in weather. If off in the distance you see an oval-shaped lenticular cloud, then it’s a sign the wind and moisture levels are picking up. Or if you spot cumulonimbus clouds, also known as anvil clouds or “thunderheads,” then you can guess that a thunderstorm is coming. That doesn’t mean just rain, it also means lightning and it could be your signal to turn around and head back for home. If you know what which clouds signal what type of weather, then you’re ahead of the game in being prepared for bad weather before it hits.

4. Know what to do in case of lightning, snow, tornadoes and other severe weather conditions
Even casual day hikers need to know the basics of how to react to severe weather in their area, especially if the area is prone to things like thunderstorms, tornadoes or snowfall. For example, if you know you’re hiking somewhere with a chance of snow, even if you’re just planning a short half-day hike, make sure you know what to do should it start coming down. Packing an extra sweater isn’t enough preparation; know how to find shelter, how to stay warm, how to get your bearings in a landscape that might have lost important landmarks under the white canvas of snow, and how to signal for help. It is particularly important to know what to do in case of lighting, since this is possibly the most common bad weather event a hiker will encounter.

5. If in doubt, turn around
You may have a goal of reaching a summit, but if the weather hints that it will turn on you, then that summit is likely not worth the risk. A trail that seems easy enough to traverse could turn to deep slop in the rain and be difficult or even impossible to use. Weather conditions, terrain and your own fatigue all add to the amount of time it will take you to get back to the trailhead, so if you think an hour up the trail equals an hour back down the trail, think again. And if the weather hints that it is going to shift for the worse, consider cutting your hike short and heading back.












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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Google+, and Facebook.