We had a big hurricane pass through New England this weekend and it reminded me of Hurricane Ike, which I walked through in 2008 while hiking the northernmost section of the Long Trail on the Vermont – Canadian border. At the time, I was unaware that a hurricane was headed my way, and by that point in my hike I was used to hiking on Vermont’s notoriously rainy and muddy trail. I only learned that I’d walked 51 miles through a hurricane after I got back to my car and drove home.
While hiking through a hurricane is probably a bad idea, my experience raises an interesting question. How are you supposed tell whether a heavy rain event is a hurricane or not, when you’ve been on the trail for a few days and are completely out of touch with the media?
None of the hikers I met on that section said anything about a hurricane and I doubt they even knew about it. Heavy, sustained rain like that is pretty normal for Vermont.
Hiking in hurricane force winds and heavy rain can be very dangerous because:
- Dead tree tops or branches (called widow makers) can break off and injure or kill you
- Hiking all day in the rain can be a recipe for hypothermia
- Lightning strikes can hit you directly or travel across sodden ground and zap you
- Whiteout conditions and fog can made above treeline hiking very dangerous
- Tornadoes associated with the storm can make open country hiking treacherous
- Stream and rivers can flash flood and sweep you away or drown you in high water
If you do know that a hurricane is on the way, it’s probably a good idea to postpone your hike for a few days, take a zero day in a backcountry shelter or head to town for a resupply stop and a motel room.
After the Storm
Of these dangers, the one that persists well beyond the event itself is high water. Stream crossings are particularly dicey on the Maine Appalachian Trail which has few bridges and requires a lot of stream crossings. These can become so dangerous, that AT thru-hikers will camp at the side of a river for a day or two, waiting for the water level to drop so that they can cross safely.
Two or three inches of “normal” rain are enough to cause streams to rise to dangerous levels along parts of the AT, so you can imagine what six to ten inches of rain will do and how long the impact will persist.
Shelter from the Storm
Whether you know you’re in a hurricane or not, it’s probably a good idea to think about the kind of weather conditions that would cause you to take a day off from hiking and hunker down to wait for a storm to blow over. Assuming it’s not winter:
- How strong do the winds have to be to get you off the trail?
- Would you retreat to safe ground if tree tops and branches started to rain down all around you?
- Where would you to seek shelter if you’re not near a town or a backcountry shelter?
If it were me, I’d want to find a spot below treeline, on the lee side of a hill that’s still high enough to provide me with some protection from the wind. I’d look for a site without a lot of tree cover overhead but still shielded by young trees, a root ball or large boulders to provide additional wind protection. Camping alongside the shore of a pond or lake would be out because it’s too exposed to the wind and is a lightning risk, since sodden ground is an excellent conductor of electricity.
I’d want a site with water nearby but well above flood level and with good drainage, slightly higher than the ground around it, to prevent water from pooling underneath me. Since I mainly use a tarp, I’d want to be able to tie it to at least two trees and not rely soley on tent pegs that can pull out of soggy ground.
What kind of weather conditions would make you stop hiking and wait out a storm?
What kind of shelter would you seek if there are no shelters or towns nearby?