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Mountain Weather: Backcountry Forecasting for Hikers and Backpackers

Mountain Weather

“Mountains make their own weather.” I’ll never forget hearing that from the friend who introduced me to trip planing and accident analysis. It’s a sobering and important lesson for anyone who climbs above timberline across exposed terrain on backpacking and mountaineering trips.

Written by Jeff Renner, Mountain Weather explains how mountains influence weather patterns and what to look for when planning your own trips. “Life in high places exists by meteorological consent.”

The book begins with simple introduction to understanding warm and cold fronts, how they influence weather patterns on the ground, and how to recognize pending atmospheric conditions based on cloud formations. Illustrated with easy to understand diagrams, you can quickly understand the significance of cloud observations in the field.

Renner pays considerable attention to thunderstorms, the most frequent weather related hazard experienced by outdoor adventurers. He explains the mechanism that cause lightning and thunder, the different stages in the development of a thunderstorm, how long they last, where they occur relative to mountains, and how to arrange your travel schedule to avoid them…”Move high in the morning. Get low in the afternoon.”

What should you do it a thunderstorm is moving toward you? How long do you have to act before it overtakes your position? How can you mitigate your risk if the thunderstorm is on top of you? How should you treat a victim if they are hit by lightning? If you’ve ever been caught out in a thunderstorm, had lightning strike a tree or ground near you, or been hailed-on by a black cloud directly overhead, you’ll understand the significance of this information. It’s happened to me a handful of times and not something I ever want to experience again.

Thunderstorms are not the only weather related danger faced by hikers and backpackers. Renner explains how to avoid and escape flash floods, wildfires, avalanches, high winds, and hypothermia – which are all weather-related dangers and phenomena.

Armed with this knowledge, how does one apply it when planning a trip and before you set out on day one. Renner advocates compiling a pre-trip “weather briefing” and walks you through how to interpret the forecast information available from NOAA and other information services.

This is the best explanation of how to interpret the forecasts that meteorologists share with one another, weather radar, satellite photos, and avalanche forecast in the context of trip planning risk assessments that I’ve found anywhere. Combined with local weather wisdom, these weather briefings provides an excellent basis to make go-no go decisions about trip objectives and plans. Renner also includes chapters on weather patterns region by region across the U.S., highlighted by reference maps.

If you lead trips for outdoor clubs, work as a professional guide, or you want to expand your backcountry skill set, Mountain Weather is a highly readable guide to understanding backcountry weather forecasting and risk assessment. Renner has also recently published a shortened laminated fold out field reference called Mountain Weather Pocket Guide: A Field Reference which you may also find useful.

Written 2017.

Disclosure: The author purchased this book with his own funds.
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3 comments

  1. I go by the old adage:

    “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute.”

    Seriously, no matter where you go, hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Saved my bacon several times. Always know where the quickest path to (relative) safety is.

    And remember… You will NEVER be faster than the storm.

    Worst case for me was sailing across Lake Winnipesaukee from Wolfborough to West Alton (across from Sleeper’s Island) when I was about 14 or 15 years old. Saw the clouds way off to the west and figured there was plenty of time. I was in heavy rain and whitecaps from the Broads before I came close to the eastern marker off Treasure Island. Then, heading west into the wind was a battle I’ll never forget. How I never got struck by lightning I’ll never know. From that day on, I see the clouds, I’m finding the nearest safe place to hole up.

  2. I like the look of this book. Philip, could you comment on its relevance to hikers outside the US? I ask because one of the Amazon reviews suggests the second half of it is “region specific” to the USA. Is that the case? I realise that the meteorology will be transferrable, but I don’t want to spend out on lots of advice about places that (sadly) I can’t visit. And how about the pocket guide? Also region specific or more general? Thanks.

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