Is Your Head in the Clouds?
by Charles Baker
“These fleeting sky mountains are as substantial and significant as the more lasting upheavals of granite beneath them. Both alike are built up and die, and in God’s calendar, difference in duration is nothing.” John Muir
In the morning you break camp, perhaps check your map, don your pack and adjust your straps, then down the trail you go. A few miles into the day you notice the wind picking up a little and the temperature dropping. Looking up to the sky, you notice clouds moving in.
“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” goes an old saying. While we may not be able to change the weather, we can certainly be aware of it, when it is changing, and take appropriate action. Do I need more sunscreen, or do I dive into my tent? Is my wet-weather gear handy? Will today’s umbrella be for sun or rain?
The weather you are experiencing on the trail is part of that magnificent worldwide weather machine affecting every place on the globe. Being fueled by that massive energy source in the sky we call the sun, it follows somewhat predictable patterns. Warm tropical air is pulled north by the cold arctic air that is dropping to the south. The tug of the Earth as it spins around, pulls on that belt of air current, causing many prevailing weather patterns to move across the US from west to east.
As air rises, it pulls moisture into the sky where clouds are formed. When clouds are white, they generally aren’t carrying enough moisture to dump rain or snow on us. But as more moisture collects, the clouds begin to change in color and take on a grey cast. These clouds are weighted with moisture and can drop rain, snow, or sleet on that head of yours as you wander down the trail. If those clouds are fast moving and have a tinge of green around the edges, look out for possible hail and the threat of severe storms such as tornadoes.
Mountain, lakes, coastlines, prairies – all can affect the weather as well. The well-prepared hiker studies the weather patterns in the areas they will be hiking. Checking the most recent weather forecast is not only advisable but prudent. We may not be able to change the weather, but we can be prepared for it.
Weather lore has been around for – well, a long time. People have been observing the weather and have become more efficient at recognizing emerging patterns. Sailors and farmers have added to the collection of lore that has become part of our vocabulary – “red sky in the morning, sailors take warning,” for instance. Outdoor adventurers too have added to this knowledge base; many believing that smoke going straight up from the campfire guarantees stable conditions.
Understanding weather patterns can help you stay safe and possibly more comfortable on your hike. While “The Weather Channel” and other online sources are great to reference, on the trail we may not have such luxury, and, like basic navigation skills, we need to have enough knowledge to see us safely through.
The international system of cloud classification has ten principal cloud types. If you can identify all ten, that is great; however, in this article, I will mention just three as a basis for building a hiker’s weather skills.
Cirrus – these are the wispy white clouds moving high overhead. They are an indicator to alert you that good conditions may last a while longer, but something is changing in the weather system.
Photo by – University of Illinois Extension
Cumulus – these are the big cotton-ball like clouds that I like to watch with my grandchildren and try to pick out shapes of animals, faces, or whatever our imaginations conjure. I like them too because they usually signal fair weather. However, keep an eye out. As warm weather pulls moisture into the sky, these can darken and billow into thunderheads. That fair weather may then turn into lightning, hard rain, or possible hail.
Photo by – University of Illinois Extension
Stratus – these clouds are heavy with moisture, lower, and have less shape. Their coverage of the sky is usually complete, and they often bring with them rain or snow that can last for hours. They may be bringing Mother Earth needed moisture, but they have caused many “zero days.”
Photo by – OU School of Meteorology
Understanding weather takes time, effort, and practice. However, over time it can become one of the most valuable and useful tools in your hiker toolbox.
Stay safe out there!