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How to Read Clouds and Predict the Weather

How to Read Clouds and Predict the Weather

Cloud shapes, altitude, density, and color can help you predict the weather when you are hiking and don’t have access to a weather forecast. This is particularly true in mountainous areas, above treeline, or areas prone to flash floods where getting struck by lightning, flash floods, falling due to high winds, or slipping on wet rock slabs can result in serious injury.

If you can’t commit all the cloud shapes below to memory, here’s  simple a rule of thumb:

  • High-altitude wispy clouds are an indication of good weather.
  • Towering, dense, and dark clouds are an indication of rain, thunderstorms, and high wind. If the wind is blowing them toward you, take precautions.

Knowing just that can keep you high and dry and out of harm’s way.

1. Cirrocumulus Clouds

Cirrocumulus Clouds look like ripples of water on the surface of a lake. They are a sign of good weather and often dissipate to a blue sky.

Cirrocumulus Clouds

2. Altocumulus Clouds

Altocumulus Clouds are fair-weather clouds. They usually occur after a storm.


3. Cumulonimbus Clouds

Cumulonimbus Clouds are towering thunder clouds that bring hail, strong wind, thunder, and lightning. They have a characteristic flat, anvil-like top.

Cumulonimbus Cloud

4. Cumulus Clouds

Cumulus Clouds are easily recognizable, large, white, fluffy clouds. They indicate fair weather when they are widely separated, but if they are large and many-headed, they are capable of bringing heavy showers.


5. Cirrus Clouds

Cirrus Clouds are high altitude, wispy clouds, seen in fine weather.

Cirrus Clouds

6. Cirrostratus Clouds

Cirrostratus Clouds are made up of ice particles and form a halo around the sun. If a Cirrus-filled sky darkens and turns to Cirrostratus it is a sign of rain or snow, depending on temperature.

Cirrostratus Clouds

7. Altostratus Clouds

Altostratus Clouds form a greyish veil over the sun or moon. If they get darker and thicken, it is a sign that rain is on the way.

Altostratus Clouds

8. Nimbostratus Clouds

Nimbostratus Clouds form low blankets of cloud and indicate rain or snow, lasting for several hours.

Nimbostratus Clouds

9. Stratocumulus Clouds

Stratocumulus Clouds can form a lumpy mass covering the entire sky and may produce light rain, but usually dissipate by the late afternoon or evening.

Stratocumulus Clouds

10. Stratus Clouds

Stratus Clouds are low clouds that form a fog-like layer and may produce drizzle. If they form thickly at night and cover the morning sky, they will usually burn off and produce a fine day.Stratus Clouds

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 8500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 10 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 560 summits in all four seasons. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.

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