Home / Advanced Backpacking Skills / Hiking in Hurricanes

Hiking in Hurricanes

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.

Storm Runoff - The Long Trail
Storm Runoff - The Long Trail

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.

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 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?


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  1. One of our hiking freinds had hiked Mt Cube two days before Irene hit. She passed several AT hikers. There were several that were unaware of the impending storm.

    I wondered if the Parks Department had someone posted at the AT junctions or if they posted closings at the junctions to get the hikers off the trails.

  2. Being caught in a vast, shallow bowl in the Pyrenees as a thunderstorm swept in comes to mind, but I could only see sheet lightning so survival seemed likely. I pressed on because there was no alternative.

    Waiting out storms is standard fare in Scotland. I postponed a long traverse of the Blackmount from Kingshouse to Inveroran for a day. Next day, the weather was still poor, but the temperature had risen enough to turn what had been falling as snow to steady rain. Temperature is definitely part of the decision making process.

    My most memorable weather event was in NZ, in the Tararuas, near Wellington. The river had risen, cutting away a bank where the path had been. Walking in the river to get past was questionable – one of the trickiest I've tried. I met a party of teenagers going the other way in the company of a guy who was 6' 8'' and soon after came to a side stream they had managed but which had become suicidal since. I headed back. The river was now way too big to get past the undercut bank so I had a very difficult climb around. Back at Totara Flats (?) hut, I discovered the kids were all serious criminals getting typical NZ rehabilitation and the big guy, whom they clearly respected, was very Christian. We had a great evening together. They insisted on feeding me and next day the watercourses were all right down. The Tararuas don't seem to have much humus so the rivers fall and rise very quickly.

  3. Yeah, Back in 1985 or so (I forgot the exact year) we were out during a hurricane. Windy and wet for two days. We had followed a beaver damed stream up for a bit of fishing and it was flooded over. The rains kept comming. We paddled up to a low lying ridge (about 40-50') and pulled the boat up early. We had a tent which we covered with a tarp. We had a small second tarp over the fire. The trees crashed down around us and the wind was blowing over the tarp.

    As you say, stay away from big/older trees. We had a smaller fire going that required constant attention for all the wet wood. We knew when the storm had passed because the temp dropped about 20F. (From about 65F in the afternoon, though you wouldn't know it was still afternoon) to about 45F.) We were soaked…right down to the underwear. I hated to put on my night cloths to get them all wet too. So, we shivered making coffee and soup…later stew, for warmth. That night the rain & thunder kept us awake till about 0200. It finaly quit as suddenly as it was violent. Silence, water dripping, the stream roaring. We got up the next morning to sunny skies, birds calling, and a deer helping herself to some small wild, red apples about a hundred yards off. (We didn't even notice the apple tree.) I picked a couple for breakfast and fired up the stove for oatmeal. My pants were wet, and my two shirts, but it was warm enough. We also caught a couple fish and cooked these up.

    And the water had dropped about 2 feet. The boat would barely float with our packs in it. We lined it down about 2 miles to find navigable water. When we got back we found the beaver dam had breached on one side. It was hard lining down strem around all the slippery

    rocks. It took us about 5 hours. We headed out.

    On the way out we found a tree down on the road. Rather than waiting, I pulled the pack saw and cut 2 sections away after about a half hour of work. I hooked a larger rope to an end and pulled it back with the truck. Two years later, that tree was still there, though, denuded of branches and a third piece had been cut off. We left at about 1900, just as the sun was setting.

    We were about 15mi back in and the post-hurricane weather was nice. But we were picking up pieces of damage, two days later…trying to drive out. I wish we had a shelter. Cold wet, and hungry as heck….we ate ALL of our food and some trout, too. A long drive back for two exhausted souls.

  4. I was definitely thinking about AT hikers when I wrote this, especially after my 6" rain experience in the 100 mile wilderness in 2009. I somehow doubt that park service goes out of their way to inform AT thru-hikers, though I'd expect them to be pretty well plugged in just because there is so much hiker to hiker communication on the trail and many carry cell phones these days. Still, good she told them what was up.

    Guy – your other stories – well far worse than I've ever experience. I guess it can be pretty bloody obvious when a hurricane hits.

  5. Hurricane Ike? Was that sometime in July and August of 2008? Because that's when I was leading a trail crew in Southern VT and getting deluged with rain throughout the summer.

    Every time I've been on a long hike I've found that the news is surprisingly easy to come by. On the AT in 07 I found out about the Blacksburg shootings a few days afterwards. A section hike in 08 I found out about the vice presidential nominations between Caratunk and Monson. On the PCT last summer I got the news about the big oil spill and other big things. I think Irene would be big enough news that the hikers this year would get the news.

    Green Mountain Club website said they had people putting signs at road crossings and shelters. AMC took out all their caretakers and hut crews, so I'm guessing they must have put signs up. The AT Grapevine is a pretty phenomenal information source. I bet a lot of the through-hikers knew what was going on.

  6. I'm trying to finish a thru hike of the Long Trail in VT right now with just 43 miles left to reach Canada. Going back out today, and check the Trail out. Everyone on the Trail knew about the hurricane, there were postings on the trailheads up here, and even ran into a trail maintainers watching out for hikers. I'll be posting a report tonight on my blog website. 400 roads are closed. That's a fact.

  7. Vermont got whacked – lots of serious flooding.

  8. AMCLTHIKER (Mark War

    We were on the AT on Friday. We were doing the stretch from the Vermont border south over Greylock and intending to finish near the Mass. Pike. It was a fantastic day, but almost everyone we ran into told us there was a hurricane coming on Saturday. The trailheads were posted with warnings that all facilities would be closing at noon on Saturday. We decided to get off the trail on Friday afternoon, after about 20 miles, in Cheshire.

  9. Glad you got out ok Mark. That's a very nice section to do in autumn – you should go back and keep going down into CT if you get a chance.

  10. Holy cow. I'm beginning to think my planned LT hike (planned start this saturday) isn't going to happen. Take a look at the Inn At The Long Trail's facebook site. The video of the flood on route 4 is impressive.

    Dang it. Why does nature always keep me out of Vermont when I'm trying to enjoy it?

  11. Wow – that is awful. Maybe you should push things back a bit just to be on the safe side.

  12. Yeah. That's exactly what will happen. Hopefully by only a week or two. Possibly next summer.

    Went to Ascutney today for a day hike. The trails were almost untouched– the waterfalls were flowing a little hard, but otherwise it looked like things were fine. Looking down at the Connecticut River, however… amazing.

  13. I got stir crazy around eleven AM yesterday. It was still blustery and rainy, and the Mt. Tom reservation was closed. But I hiked in and around some of my favorite trails. Hiking in water events like hurricanes is a unique experience. The sound of the wind and the rain is different than a usual rainstorm. There is an aggregate ambient roar as water collects and cascades off the mountains. It's quit exciting. Any experienced hiker knows how to navigate a forest in the wind by listening and watching. Later in the afternoon, I crossed the valley to hike along the range near Mt. Holyoke. I caught the heavier winds at the back of the storm. All in all, a great day for me, but a terrible one for many others.

  14. In June, 2010, my brother in law and I planned to hike the Eagle Rock Loop in Arkansas, starting at Albert Pike Campground. Our plan was to leave my wife and granddaughter in the RV at the campground while my brother in law, grandson, and I hiked the thirty mile loop. I had emergency surgery just before our planned trip, which cut us out of the plans. My brother in law went anyway and it started to rain… and rain… and rain… He packed up and left, just before the flash flood washed down the river canyon, killing twenty people.

    Sometimes, on fourth down, it's best to punt. If my brother in law had tried to tough it out, he might not have been alive to make that hike with me four and a half months later.

    I've got about a thousand hours piloting small aircraft. My attitude toward weather is, "I love to fly, and I'd love to do it again, so sometimes I won't."

  15. Great article Phil. I took a course on how to interpret weather conditions and make that part of my outdoor experience. My wrist watch has a barometer and I also carry a thermometer. While not NOAA accurate they do what I need. Better to plan around danger than react to it. I have a weather day(s) built into my hike plan so I can sit it out in a shelter or town.

  16. Thinking about Connecticut section of AT in a few weeks. Anyone have any info on how it did with Irene?

  17. Whoa Ralph! I had no idea that you ventured so far east. The best way I've found to check on Connecticut AT conditions is to ask on Whiteblaze.net or search for the rivers that cross the Connecticut AT on youtube. Hope that helps.

  18. The Widow Makers can happen at any time. Here is a sad story i just came accross of one falling in Ohio in just a regular thunder storm.

    Woman killed when tree uproots, falls on tent

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