Tips for Encountering Emergency Weather

Be it on a short day hike, a long excursion, or a quick trip to the grocery store, we’ve all found ourselves caught up in nature's wrath from time to time. As I sit in my living room now there is an unexpected storm rolling over the bluffs and across the Mississippi with strong winds putting the tensile strength of my tree branches to the test. This blog post is not intended to be an all inclusive guide to surviving in the wild when you find yourself caught in emergency weather, but rather some helpful tips from a guy who has found himself in some hairy situations that could have easily been avoided.

The first thing I want to mention when it comes to emergency weather is probably the most basic, and yet what I seem to struggle with the most - know your potential of encountering inclement weather before you’re even caught up in it by actually checking the weather forecast! So often I’ll be so excited for the arrival of a long awaited trip or to actually have a few days off of work to be able to take my bike out that I’ll completely forget to check the weather altogether. Then, as I’m getting my gear together my wife kindly takes the initiative to check the weather for me and informs me that there is going to be an average temperature of -30° over the weekend (true story), or that there are nonstop torrential downpours forecast. Inclement weather doesn’t always mean that your trip or ride needs to be cancelled, but you’ll need to weigh the risks and know how to plan accordingly - this could mean bringing extra food, water, and clothing. The most important thing is knowing your limitations and being smart. Trips can be rescheduled if need be and there will be other days to ride.

Sometimes our trips extend out beyond the 10-day forecast, or unexpected storms manifest right before us. It happens. Fortunately, there are some long forgotten ways that can help you identify when adverse weather might be coming your way that I’ll share with you now.

Let’s go back to elementary school science class and look up to the sky! Clouds are an extremely good indicator of what kind of weather might be headed your way. I won’t get too in depth and list every single type of cloud, however, there is one cloud I want to be sure to mention and that’s the cumulonimbus cloud. Remember that one? That’s the huge, dense cloud that extends vertically upwards. Cumulonimbus clouds indicate atmospheric instability and are an ominous sign that should not be ignored. They are quite frequently associated with heavy rain, flash floods, snow, hail, lightning, and even tornadoes. If you spot this bad boy floating around up in the sky, immediate preparatory steps should be taken.

Now, let’s talk about couple sensory signs that you might encounter that will make you want to consider battening down the hatches. The first being wind! Specifically when the wind you feel comes in gusty, swirling breezes that are cool in temperature, that’s usually a good indicator that there is some weather coming your way. The other being the changes we can feel in our bodies when there is an abrupt change in barometric pressure. If you’ve ever heard grandpa or grandma (or maybe you, yourself) say that they can can feel a storm coming in their bones, it turns out they (or you) may not be all that crazy! What they’re feeling in their sensitive joints is the subtle change of barometric pressure that accompanies changes in weather. Changes in barometric pressure will have an effect on everyone a little differently, but if you get an overall sense that the air around you feels more heavy than normal and your energy is zapped, that typically signifies that a change in weather is coming.

Some of you may also be familiar with the old adage “Halo around the sun or moon, rain or snow soon” or the classic “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning”. While these may not be the most reliable means of predicting weather, science has shown that there actually is some truth behind these old sayings.

While it is always my goal to never be caught off guard by emergency weather, sometimes it happens. So, you find yourself caught in the snowstorm of the century, a monsoon in the Midwest, or whatever it may be! What do you do now? Take a deep breath, keep your wits about you, and remain calm. And how do you do that? Have a plan, know your exit points, don’t forget about the basics in trail safety, and actually know how to use what’s in your pack.

You can really run into trouble when you find yourself caught in emergency weather as navigation can become more difficult, you’ll be at an increased risk for injury, and starting a fire to stay warm and dry can seem next to impossible. If you’re a serious backpacker, hiker, bikepacker, or camper, I’m sure you always pack a map and compass, a first aid kit (for those of you trying to save weight, this is NOT a luxury item), and fire starting supplies - but how well do you really know how to use them?

I was born in 1990. No one appreciates the invention of the GPS as much as I do. One thing I’ve learned in my short years, however, is that a piece of technology is something that will ultimately fail you in your time of need. GPS is great, but it is imperative that you not rely on it too heavily and still know how to use a map and compass properly when GPS fails. And for those of you that don’t know, using a map and compass can be extremely complicated! If you mix up your orienting needle, compass needle, or direction of travel needle, you can find yourself walking for miles in the opposite direction that you intended to. If you don’t know how to adjust your compass to account for magnetic declination or don’t know the declination value of the area you’re in, you can quickly find yourself grossly off course.

Moving on I’d like to add the disclaimer that as a paramedic I fully admit that I might be bias, but I truly believe that most people carry far too few first aid supplies for the sake of saving weight. I’ve also found that many people's understanding of the first aid supplies that they do carry and when and how to use them is very limited, especially in emergency weather situations when proper use and adequate training is going to be most important! A well tied sling and swathe with some triangular bandages for a shoulder, arm, or wrist injury or a stabilizing leg split properly applied might be the difference between being able to hike out when bad weather strikes, or having to wait for weather to clear up so rescue is able to locate you.

Finally, something I wanted to touch on that is of the utmost importance if you find yourself stuck in an emergency weather situation is finding a way to stay warm and dry. A shelter is usually a good start, but a fire really takes it to the next level. There are a plethora of techniques you can use to start fires in rainy, snowy, and windy conditions. I’m not here to tell you which way is best, but moreso to encourage you that whatever technique and means you intend to use to start a fire in nasty weather, it is incredibly important that you practice them regularly. You might have read an article or watched a Youtube video on how to build a windbreaker and start a fire with some Vaseline coated cotton balls, but you don’t want your first time trying to do so yourself be when you’re soaked in the middle of the forest with gale force winds at your back. Practice at home in your yard! That way, if you can’t get a fired started at least you can go inside, dry off, make a hot chocolate, and try again later. That’s a technique you’re going to want mastered before you’re relying on it to save your life out in the woods.

In summary: check the weather before your trips so you have a idea of what to expect, know the signs of imminent inclement weather, remain calm, have a plan, know your exit points, don’t neglect common sense and basic trail safety, and know how to use the emergency supplies in your pack. Ultimately, the more you practice for emergency situations, the more prepared you feel if you find yourself in one. The more prepared you feel, the more calm you’ll stay. The more calm you stay, but better outcome you’ll have.