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Backpacking in a Hurricane

I backpacked the northermost section of Vermont’s Long Trail during Hurricane Ike in 2008. I didn’t realize that I was hiking through a hurricane at the time, since that kind of weather is the norm on the Long Trail not the exception.  It was only when I’d finished my section hike, that I learned that Hurricane Ike had passed overhead.

Hurricane Ike, September 2008
Hurricane Ike, September 2008

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. Northern Vermont is way off the grid, with spotty cell phone access to this day.

Mountain Weather
Mountain Weather is a great book about backcountry weather forecasting and weather safety for hikers and backpackers.

Hurricane Dangers

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 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.

Getting off the Trail

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.

Blown down trees
Blown down trees
  • 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.

Weather Forecasts on the Trail

The world had gotten a lot smaller since I hiked through Hurricane Ike in 2008, when people rarely carried cell phones on backpacking trips. Today, it’s usually easy to check the weather every couple of days on a smartphone when you pass near a town. Plus satellite devices, like the Garmin InReach, can receive weather forecasts when you’re out of cell phone range, something to consider when you’re way off the grid need to take extra precautions to stay safe.

What’s the worst weather you’ve ever backpacked in?

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4 comments

  1. Pilot and I were doing a section of the AT in Maine in 2012 when the remnants of Hurricane Isaac passed. Several inches of rain fell, and we took an extra day at a motel in Stratton. When we set out, the branch of the Carrabassett River we had to cross was raging, so the motel owner drove us around it. We heard several hikers had to hunker down on the trail, waiting for water levels of other streams to drop so they could safely cross. Pilot and I were fortunate to have access to weather reports, enabling us to stay out of the weather.

  2. I’m so happy I live in a country with practically no hurricane risks. Better side of the ocean, I guess… But I think storms like 8 or 9 on the beaufort scale are nasty enough!

  3. Suggest: Don’t do it.

  4. Good tips on finding a relatively safe sit to hunker down in! Long time ago (early 80s?), though i can’t remember the name of the storm, i was caught in the middle of a trip when a hurricane blew through. Spent a day and a half in a soggy tent somewhere near Ethan Pond (White Mountains) until the worst had ended. Fortunately, i was coming down from elevation when things kicked up, and there was a relatively protected spot to camp in, and no branches came down on me.

    Biggest challenge was trying to keep most of the mud and water confined to the end of the tent near the door. Even minimizing the number of times to go out to pee, it was hard to confine the mess.

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