Whether you’re getting ready to strike out on the Appalachian Trail for a few weeks, or the Grand Canyon for a day, the weather is just as important as the scenery. Things can go south in a flash. Surprisingly, day hikers are the most likely to get into difficulty, either through getting lost or finding themselves poorly prepared for changing weather conditions such as sudden thunderstorms. Follow these well-tested hiking safety tips to make sure your trip doesn’t fall afoul of the elements.
Check before You Go
No matter if you’re traveling to a different state or hitting a local trail, go further than just looking out the window for a weather report. Conditions can change significantly according to altitude or the time of day, so prepare yourself with an extended forecast from your local TV meteorologists or your local National Weather Service Office. Check the Storm Prediction Center outlooks too for a head’s up on any potential severe weather activity. If it looks like bad weather is expected, take a rain check.
Know the Seasonal Patterns
Certain parts of the country present predictable conditions according to the season. A little local knowledge goes a long way:
- April to June is the most active season for tornadoes in the Midwest.
- The Gulf Coast is prone to hurricanes in late summer/ early fall (although they rarely arrive unexpectedly).
- Mid-summer to early fall is the most dangerous time for flash flood activity in desert canyons.
- Hot summer afternoons lend themselves to thunderstorms almost anywhere.
- Winter in Alaska is not for the uninitiated, with subzero temperatures standard.
Anticipate the Big Risks
Thunderstorms and lightning are a particular danger because they can form quickly (in half an hour in some cases) and affect a wide area. Look out for darkening skies, cumulus clouds growing vertically or shaped like a tower, and cooling gusts of wind as the air columns rush toward the ground. Flash floods associated with thunderstorms are particularly dangerous, killing more people every year than tornadoes, hurricanes and lightning combined. Bear in mind that the storm could be miles away and the sky above you clear, but a torrent could be hurtling through the canyon in your direction. If your trail takes you up into the mountains, be aware that hail, snow or even fog can sweep in suddenly, even in summer.
Natural Signs to Observe
The natural world will send you plenty of signals that bad weather is approaching if you know what to look for. Insects, birds, and animals are all sensitive to changes in air pressure or humidity that you may not notice. If you see that bees and butterflies suddenly disappear, flowers are closing up their petals, and birds flying closer to the ground, it’s a good sign that a storm is coming. Even the color of the sky offers a hint: a red sky in the early morning really does indicate that low pressure — thus bad weather — is rolling in.
Hiking Gadgets for the Backpack
Remember that the shorter your hike, the statistically more likely you are to find yourself caught out by the conditions. Few of us would follow a trail up into the mountains without cold weather protection, yet many people find themselves ill-prepared for sudden wet weather. That’s why New Mexico is one of the worst states for hypothermia-related incidents. Even a trash bag in the pack can keep you dry in an emergency. Never rely on just a single piece from your kit without back-up, but consider the following: