By Contributing Writer Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, faculty member and Diversity + Inclusion Manager at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS); Photograph by Ashley Wise
A lightning storm had just struck, with bolts hitting the peaks less than a quarter mile away. After waiting it out in lightning position, my NOLS coursemates and I thought the worst of it was over, and headed to our tents, which were perched on a buttress below Mount Victor. As we started a class on leadership styles, we observed a dark cloud build-up over the peak. Halfway through class, the mass started to swirl … fast. (Remember the sky in Ghostbusters, right before Gozer is summoned?) Minutes later, as we hunkered down in our tents gripping the walls as they flapped fiercely in 100-mile-per-hour winds, the funnel cloud touched down. A tornado? At 11,000 feet?
On a monthlong expedition in the backcountry, you are at the whims of the weather gods. Out there, the weather report isn’t a mouse-click away. And while adequate layering and gear can prepare you for the worst, there are also some ways you can predict what the weather gods might have in store for you today.
1. No dew in the morning? Clouds are forming. No morning dew on your tent or on the grass indicates breezes or cloud build-up. If there is dew, it probably won’t rain that day.
2. Red sky in the morning, backpackers take warning. A red sky in the east at sunrise means a high-pressure system (fair weather) is in the east, and that a low-pressure system (rain) is in the west heading your way (most systems head from west to east). If you see a red sky in the west at sunset, a high-pressure system is building in the west likely to head your way.
3. Rainbow in the morning, better take warning. A rainbow in the west in the morning means that rain is on its way.
4. Wind coming from the west? Put on that vest. Throw a small piece of grass in the air and watch how it descends. Strong winds coming from the west indicate a pressure difference, which can mean a storm front is on its way.
5. Strong scent in the air, cover that hair. Plants release their waste right before rain. Could smell good. Could smell bad. Definitely smells strong.
6. Hair curled or frizzy? Rain clouds are busy. Humidity in a dry climate means a bad hair day. It also means a storm is on its way.
7. Clouds playing bumper cars, hail isn’t far. Directionally confused clouds swirling overhead means bad weather is coming, and probably hail. And in my case, maybe even a tornado!
8. Mare’s tails and Mackerel’s scales, tall ships carry short sails. High cirrus clouds (shaped like mare’s tails) and altocumulus clouds (patterned like fish scales) means bad weather within the next 36 hours.
9. Birds flying low, bad weather you know. Birds fly high in fair weather, and descend in low pressure system).
10. Ring around the moon, rain or snow soon. A ring around the moon is caused by light shining through high cirrostratus clouds, which means bad weather may arrive within the next three days.
Disclaimer: Information courtesy of the National Weather Service and wikiHow. Predicting weather is not an exact science. Don’t ignore the experts.