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I Don’t Let the Weather Determine When I Hike

Heavy Weather
Heavy Weather in the White Mountains

I saw someone write “I don’t let the weather determine when I hike” on a hiking message board recently, and it’s got to be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen. The weather in the White Mountains kills people all year round because people don’t take it seriously enough or understand the dangers it can pose.

The hikers at greatest risk are non-locals who don’t know how to find out the local weather or don’t understand the potential consequences of thunderstorms, getting struck by lightning above treeline, flash floods, high water crossings, wind chill, and hypothermia, and can’t grasp the difficulty of launching a rescue operation in the White Mountains if someone gets in trouble.

If you’re visiting the White Mountains and plan to hike, add a few extra days to your schedule in case you need to postpone your hike for bad weather to pass through. I’m a seasoned White Mountain hiker and I postpone or cancel day hikes and backpacking trips year-round when several inches of rain, ice storms, heavy snow, sub-zero temperatures, or high winds are in the forecast.

Forecast a year later...
Forecast a year later…

At the time this Darwin nominee wrote “I don’t let the weather determine when I hike”, the forecast was calling for 3 inches of overnight rainfall in a mountainous areas where the ground was already saturated by spring snowmelt. The stream-crossings were already running very high and the trails were ankle-deep with running water. I remember that day well, because I cancelled the day hike that I’d planned with two other very experienced hikers because it would have been unsafe, and also extremely unpleasant.

If you’re backpacking and get caught out in weather like this, my advice is simple. Find a lean-to or trail shelter and hang out for the day under cover. If a trail shelter is not available, pitch your tent or tarp on higher ground that won’t get flooded out by water and avoid densely packed tent sites or platforms where water is likely to pool underneath you. The best surface to camp on in this kind of weather is loose forest duff like pine needles and leaves because they absorb a lot of water and drain well.

Mt Washington Valley Forecast
Mt Washington Valley Forecast

Mt Washington Observatory Weather Forecast Links:

Avoiding bad weather is simple: just check the weather forecast before you take a hike. In the White Mountains, your best source of information are the weather forecasts published by the Mt Washington Observatory. Their Higher Summits and Mt Washington Valley forecasts always indicate extreme conditions using the red box shown above. This weather forecast is also posted in all of the Appalachian Mountain Club Huts, which is why I always stop in and check the latest weather conditions posted there.

If you don’t have access to a weather forecast, you can also become skilled at predicting the weather, particularly extreme weather conditions, by carefully observing cloud formations. 

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26 comments

  1. We find the LATS method of weather forecasting to be much more reliable than those put out by professionals. Look At The Sky.

    This past Sunday we took a chance on driving 3 hours each way in order to hike a ridgetop along the PA AT, as we’re closing in on the NJ border, and finally finishing Rocksylvania. The forecast for that area (we did check it) was thunderstorms, and the sky on the way up looked threatening. However, looking North and East, the sky looked clearer. Had we seen lightning, or encountered any thunderstorm activity, we would have cancelled the hike. Our plan was to explore the small local towns if we got all the way there and then couldn’t hike.

    We do hike in the rain, sometimes even somewhat heavy rain (not continuous major downpours), but we have gear and we are prepared for it. Thunderstorms with lightning are quite a different matter. Hail would be a show-stopper, as would a heavy ice-storm that would just make the hike downright unpleasant, and dangerous — even with spikes. Nothing makes me happier than a blizzard, but white-out conditions would be just plain nuts to hike in. Less severe snow than that . . . well, it depends on the length of the hike, the gear we have with us, and the forecast.

    I have very fond memories of our first time on the AT. We just happened to be driving over Peter’s Mountain, and thought it would be a fun walk in the woods, wearing street clothes. It was a beautiful day, and we actually were on our way back to the car, a couple of miles away, when a sudden heavy rainstorm blew up out of nowhere. Winds blew so strongly that the rain fell practically horizontally. It lasted about 15 or 20 minutes, and in that short length of time several inches of rain fell, from PA to Baltimore, flooding some areas, with a lot of wind damage to others. We were soaked, needless to say! BTW, just before the rain hit, some tiny yellow wasp also appeared out of nowhere and stung me on the arm, which blew up from my elbow to my hand (that’s when I found out I’m allergic to bee stings, and I now carry an EpiPen on every hike). Believe it or not, that was the beginning of our love affair with the AT and with hiking in general (although I had been hiking and camping a few times, years before that).

  2. Here in the UK we have an expression “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” This never ceases to infuriate me, as what was originally something said to encourage people to not shy away from a bit of moderate rain, gets used almost to denigrate those who make a sensible decision to stay off the hills due to the conditions. A great waterproof coat won’t protect you from hailstones the size of your fist, from a wind that is strong enough to knock you off your feet, from lightning, or from what these do to the ground under your feet. Sometimes, the weather is so bad that it is insane to be out in it, and there are no macho bonus points for pretending otherwise. Indeed whenever I hear someone put out this phrase, I know they’re either inexperienced and ignorant of the potential dangers of the mountains or just plain stupid.

  3. Great subject.

    I often hear from people who say “We’re coming up in two weeks to hike Mount Washington.” I tell them about the Higher Summits forecast and suggest that if they’re smart, they’ll wait until Mount Washington “invites” them up. I also suggest a back-up plan.

    As you well know, Philip, the weather determines everything up here.

    If you are hiking with a dog, this compounds the importance of proper choices. Some weather, some trails, are simply not good (or safe) for dogs to be out in or on. And it’s not always the weather you would think of.

    About a month ago a friend of mine took her dog up Mount Adams under a cloudless blue sky. Temperature was in the mid-eighties. The woman had a ball. She loved it. The dog ended up in the emergency room later that night after being baked by the sun above treeline. There was no sign of difficulty for the dog, other than some ordinary panting.

    I remember hiking Mount Liberty and Mount Flume the first summer we did the forty-eight. It was nine years ago. Atticus was only three and was full of bounce. We did okay, even though the temperatures reached the low nineties. I look back now with two questions:

    1.) How did we do that?

    2.) Why did we do that?

    The answer to the second question is simply “ignorance.” I didn’t know better. But the more we hike, the more sites like this one, the more information and experience we gather, the easier it is to make better decisions.

  4. I hike in a Faraday Cage suit and don’t care about lightning. The extra 30lbs is totally worth it.

  5. I remember one weekend when I was out hiking and we had a huge thunderstorm roll in. I sat in the tent for the afternoon, and I’m really glad I did. That hail was probably a good thing to get out from. No one likes to get hailed on. I’ve seen and heard of people who just think it is a good idea to push through, and yes I’ll admit hiking in a light rain is no big deal, a little bit of water never killed anyone. But a lot of water has killed people. If it looks like rain, and sounds like thunder, it’s probably rain.

  6. I was up in Franconia July 2-4 this year and hoped to at least get one day of hiking in, but brought lots of books just in case since the weather was sort of crazy. I was talking to a guy at the Inn I was staying at and he told me his plans to hike Franconia Ridge on the 3rd (with that lovely forecast you pictured.) I mentioned the forecast and he announced proudly “I haven’t looked at computers or tv in days, I just came here to hike.” Ok, buddy.

    I did manage to get a nice dry hike up Waumbek in and then all the guests sat on the porch and watched the storms roll in after dinner.

  7. There was a discussion about this very thing recently on Backpacker.com —

    http://forums.backpacker.com/cgi-bin/forums/ikonboard.cgi?act=ST;f=852107219;t=9991172242

    I think the guy who said “I don’t let the weather determine when I hike” is actually right on for this reason—

    Suppose you’re dropped off for a 20 day trip and have 40+lbs of food in your pack and start out on January 1 with 40F and blue skies. Two days later you begin a 4 day straight butt cold rainstorm so you pull some zero in-tent days and wait for the creeks to settle. Then by January 8 it’s 50F and sunny. Then on January 12 you’re hit with a blizzard with spindrift and night ambients at -10F with 60mph open bald winds. (The reason we carry Hilleberg tents).

    Point is, you have to take everything Miss Nature throws at you because you can’t bail since you won’t be picked up in 20 days. In other words, a backpacker on a long trip can’t avoid bad weather.

  8. I agree with Tipi Walter. I think context is everything. I just completed the JMT recently and experienced some particularly nasty weather. Most of the time it was great, but we had several thunderstorms, one of them particularly bad. Bailing out meant hiking 15 miles or more over difficult passes which was even more dangerous.

    I’m not sure what that individual meant, but I don’t think it is as black and white as Philip suggests. Was he even referring to the White Mountains specifically? Above treeline? Peakbagging? We, the readers, don’t know. There are several situations where one can be safe hiking on trails when a thunderstorm rolls in. Obviously if one is summiting Mt. Washington/Whitney/Rainier/any mountain above treeline during a blizzard/lightening storm they are not using sound judgement. I think using one’s head when certain conditions arise is the best course of action.

    To be honest, I’m a little surprised that this blog framed the whole issue on bad weather around some anonymous person’s blog post, saying it is the “stupidest thing” they’ve heard. I am a long-time reader of this blog, but I think language like this undermines and discredits what this website is about. To me, it seems to have a strong educational bent, which is great, but when you start blasting people out of context, it lacks professionalism.

    Most often, the content on this site is great, but good quality writing is often lacking. I know I am being blunt, but this post in particular really got to me. Weather is obviously such an important issue in the backpacking world, and I just think framing it this way was poor judgement and unprofessional.

    Also, I’ve backpacked all over–the West, Midwest, and out East–and I actually think that the vast majority of backpackers in the Whites know what they are getting into–non-locals included, especially compared to some other national parks in this country where some real education initiatives may be necessary.

  9. I didn’t see the message board comment which inspired this blog post and in that context then maybe you’re completely right with the Darwin candidate thoughts. Probably this topic will also be approached differently in other contexts like locations and skill-sets.

    Generally speaking, though, I think I’m more in the camp of Tipi and Mark for what I do. Based where I am in New Zealand, multi-day trips without communications are common and reliable forecasts for more than a day or two out aren’t always available. Even with that, learning how to interpret isobars on weather charts and apply them to exactly where you’re going can be far more useful than simply getting a general written forecast.

    I don’t like to let the weather determine when I do something. There are few places I go on any significant trip without carrying portable shelter and full storm gear, even when I don’t expect to need it. But it will very possibly have an impact on what I choose to do at the time, even if that means locating a point of safety, sitting in shelter (portable or otherwise), and waiting things out. I blogged more about this attitude a few years ago. But hey, there are so many geographically-influenced pockets of weather around here that the wind could drop and the sun come out when you least expected it, and you can end up seeing and appreciating the wilderness in a way which very few people do.

  10. I just finished deleting my original post. I’m glad I read a few of the recent comments above, as Tipi Walter posted about the exact thread I was going to post. I am more in line with agreeing with the three or so posters above my reply, because this whole weather thing depends on WHERE you are hiking and how far into the trip you are, etc. Philip, I know you mostly hike in the Northeast, because that’s where you live. You know the White’s well. That in itself, though, doesn’t make what you read stupid, necessarily, unless you have knowledge of more background to the story than what was shared in your post. A lot of planning for the weather is obviously trip-specific. For example, if someone waits to go on a week-long summer backpacking trip until there are no chances of thunderstorms for a week, they’d probably never get to go.

    • It was a person who posted on the 4000 footer (White Mountrains facebook group) and ignored the advice of dozens of more experienced hikers to take the day off. It was an above treeline day hike and not a backpacking trip, and I still think the person is stupid for not using common sense and postponing his hike for a day until fairer weather blew in. But that’s just my opinion.

      • And I agree with you, Philip, knowing this additional information regarding where the hike was. That is obviously poor judgement by that particular hiker. However, reading your post this morning, I didn’t find anywhere that stated this person was day hiking above treeline in the White Mountains. You just started talking about the White Mountains right after you stated that the comment was one of the stupidest things you’ve ever seen. I’m guessing that you have a readership that spans most of the globe, and although most of us know that you hike in the White Mountains a lot, we can’t necessarily assume that everything you write about takes place in those mountains. The weather in MANY parts of the world “kills people all year round because people don’t take it seriously enough or understand the dangers it can pose.” Thank you for adding the additional, and very important, information in your post above!

      • Understood. My bad for being ambiguous.

  11. Here in Maine, Mt Katahdin is often closed to hikers if the weather is poor. Folks have died from lightening strikes, hypothermia, falls, etc. there is a spectrum of people seeking the outdoors. Some may be worse than inexperienced, they may have big egos that put them in harms way. There is a photo posted at ranger stations in Baxter state park Of two teenage boys above tree line smiling as their hair is standing on end just minutes before being struck and killed by lightning I do appreciate the spirit of getting outside even if the weather is not calm and sunny but I have seen plenty of folks heading out into dangerous conditions unprepared or ignorant of the risks.

  12. It was written above, “I actually think that the vast majority of backpackers in the Whites know what their getting into-non-locals included”. Based on the fact that there has been over 140 fatalities on/near Mt. Washington, many due to weather combined with ignorant decision making, the above statement isn’t exactly on target.

    I believe that Philip did an effective job in conveying his point. No matter how tough or fit you think you are, the weather in the Whites can humble you in a blink of an eye. Failing to act with any sense of reason not only puts your life at risk but the lives of the SAR volunteers that will brave the weather that “won’t determine when you hike” to save your ass.

    Keep up the great work Philip, the quality of writing you produce is just fine.

    • John W.: Just to be clear, I stated that, in my experience, it seemed to me that most backpackers–not dayhikers, tourists going up washington, etc.–in the whites know what they are getting into. Those were backpackers that I had run into and met on my trips through the whites. That was just a general impression. I know that a lot of people die on washington from dangerous weather, but I wonder how many of those are experienced backpackers. And if not, and they are simply inexperienced, then I think calling them stupid, or their actions stupid, lacks empathy. What they really need is education on the risks involved in such endeavors.

      I think that this blog strives toward that goal of disseminating great content to be used for educational purposes. My only gripe was how Philip began the article with a statement that was out-of-context and using the word “stupid”. If I had known that this individual was hiking specifically in the whites, posting on the 4000 footer page and was being cavalier about pushing to summit when the weather was nasty, then my response would have been different. I just think the article could have been framed differently.

      Don’t get me wrong, I really like this blog, and I definitely don’t think Philip is a lousy writer or anything. I’m a loyal fan. I was originally just taken aback by Philip’s response towards that person’s statements, which, as has been mentioned above, can be highly situational and relative. Now that it has been clarified and I know he was specifically referring to peakbagging in the whites, I feel differently.

  13. I’m a day hiker, and I often tell people that my I’m not proud when it comes to hiking. I keep an eye on the weather and will slide down a trail on my butt if that’s the only way I can be safe.

  14. As a private pilot, I have a personal motto: “I love to fly and I’d like to do it again, so sometimes I won’t.”

    Most of the bad situations I’ve gotten myself into in life have been when I felt pressured by a deadline and didn’t think things through or consider the bigger picture. In most cases, the urgency was in my self imposed–I could have easily changed course but I didn’t want to disappoint or inconvenience someone. The trouble caused by not wanting to be trouble was usually much greater than what I feared in the first place.

    I realize ones who are on the trail for long periods of time away from information or more established shelter don’t have as much flexibility but I strive not to allow artificial schedules to compromise the safety of those with me or myself.

  15. There’s a confusing sentence in my comment above. I started to write “the urgency was in my mind” and tried to change it to “the urgency was self imposed” but I didn’t follow my own best advice and I hit “Post Comment” before taking the time to proof read.

    Silly artificial “get back to work” deadlines!

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