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.
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 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.