Ask a local meteorologist – the weather can be unpredictable. A beautiful bluebird day can quickly turn into a thunderstorm with catastrophic lightning bolts, while blizzards and dust storms can come your way like ninjas.
These severe weather events can be especially harrowing when you are in the middle of an adventure. It's one thing to wait out a blizzard in a cabin with a wood-burning stove, but what if you go ski touring? Or is a dust storm approaching at 30 mph while you are hiking in the desert? Or is there a thunderstorm when you climb a peak?
To help, we spoke to weather and survival experts to learn best safety practices if you are stuck outside in extreme weather events.
(Image: Fabio Consoli)
It is likely that you will encounter a thunderstorm at least once during your outdoor adventure. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there are around 2,000 thunderstorms worldwide at any time of the day. The United States has 100,000 thunderstorms each year, with the spring and summer afternoons having the highest frequency of events. Any storm can bring a number of problems, from hail to high winds, but lightning is your main concern.
The smartest way to avoid lightning is to stay indoors. According to John Gookin, who taught safety courses for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) for 39 years and wrote the back country lightning protection measures for NOAA, finding a good spot on the trail can be difficult if there are no buildings nearby. However, that doesn't mean you are helpless. "If a thunderstorm does form, get off the mountain top quickly," says Gookin, adding that higher elevations attract more lightning strikes. Move off the ridge lines and find a canyon or canyon. Also, avoid standing at the base of tall, isolated trees that tend to attract lightning.
Remember, most lightning injuries do not come from above – they come from ground currents, when electricity from one blow flows through the ground and up and out another conductor. You can minimize the damage of an earth current by minimizing contact with the earth. Keep your feet together and your hands close to your sides so the load can move through you quickly if you get hit. According to Gookin, it doesn't matter whether you are in a crouched position or standing upright. The key is to just hold onto your limbs. (Although some people think standing on a sleeping mat helps because it adds a layer between you and the floor, Gookin says there is no evidence to support this theory. Even so, he also says it won't hurt, so is it's okay to do it if it makes you more comfortable.)
According to Gookin, the old trick of counting between lightning strikes and thunder is actually a good indicator of the distance of the strike – every five seconds between the two, the storm is a mile away. However, if you're in a cellular area, he'd rather rely on Weatherbug, an app that maps every lightning strike in the country in real time.
(Image: Fabio Consoli)
Snowstorms are a classic example of too much good, too fast, and causing visibility problems that can cause problems when skiers attempt to return to their car or cabin from the backcountry.
"Winter is our busy season," said Cody Lockhart, chief advisor for Teton County Search and Rescue in Wyoming. “Most of our rescues are people who unexpectedly stayed overnight. They're more urgent because of the weather. The consequences are great. "
According to Lockhart, preparing for a blizzard starts at home with an emergency kit that includes extra layers, a solid GPS app (shown below), a lightweight tarp to use as a shelter, and a basic fire kit. He has a pouch with a lighter and a store-bought fire starter in every snow pants he owns. “If you can make a fire, it isn't uncomfortable to spend the night in a blizzard,” he says.
He also says to trust your instincts when you decide to get back to your car or cabin, as long as you have some visibility and a GPS is recording your route. He likes the Gaia map app, which has replaced standalone GPS devices for his search and rescue team. However, if you're unsure of how to get back to safety and poor visibility will only make you more lost, it's time to build a shelter.
You can cut out a snow cave if you have to – just dig a tunnel and bell-shaped area in the snow (this will keep it from collapsing) and clear enough ground outside the tunnel for a fire – but you better get one Find deep tree wells and remove the excess snow from one side of the tree. If you have a lightweight tarp, stretch it over ski poles or tree branches for a roof. Then make a fire out of dead wood that you can find. "Wood that has been snowed on is not as wet as wood that has been rained on. It will burn," says Lockwood, adding that your fire should be big. "Most of all, try to stay mentally strong. Remember Keep reminding yourself that you can get through the night. Being positive is just as important as being prepared with the right equipment. The will to survive is a real thing. It can get you through. "
(Image: Fabio Consoli)
A specific section of the Midwest known as Tornado Alley, which stretches from central Texas to North Dakota, is plagued by a high frequency of tornadoes. But the catastrophic storms are not only banished to the plain. "Tornadoes can happen anywhere," says Richard Smith, a warning coordinator at NOAA. He adds that the twisters are often tens of thousands of feet tall. So what we see on the surface is just the bottom tip of the storm. "Tornadoes don't care if mountains, cities or skyscrapers are in the way."
While tornadoes can form Fast – on average, NOAA issues a tornado warning in the potential impact area 15 minutes before the tornado – most Twisters are born from thunderstorms. So if you're on a trail and a thunderstorm is getting worse – think hail, excessive lightning, high winds – consider the deteriorating weather as your advanced tornado warning. If you grew up doing tornado exercises you know the routine: go to the basement and crouch and cover yourself. When you hike in a forest, your options are more limited.
"There are no perfect options at this point," says Smith. But you are not completely helpless. According to Smith, don't worry about getting dragged into a tornado, which is rare. Instead, most of the injuries come from the debris flying through the air. "Your goal is to get as low as possible and put as many barriers between you and the rubble."
Descend from the top of the mountain, find a ditch, ravine, or cave, and protect yourself by putting all layers in your backpack and a helmet if you have one with you. Then get into the duck-and-cover position, protecting the back of your head with your hands, and using your backpack for protection while you wait for the weather to improve.
(Image: Fabio Consoli)
The severity and speed of flash floods make them one of the worst weather events adventurers could encounter. They occur when excess water fills normally dry canyons or when streams and rivers rise rapidly due to rainfall in their watershed. Canyoners are constantly concerned about flash floods, but hikers exploring river trails and narrow gorges should also be aware of the potential for flooding, as it can occur without warning. According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, if a thunderstorm lingers over an area for an extended period, a creek only six inches deep in the mountains can swell into a ten foot deep river in less than an hour.
"I've seen a lot of flash floods, some small and some massive," says Rick Green, an instructor and certified master guide with the American Canyoneering Association. "The common theme with all of these was how fast they drain and how little water is needed to create a powerful and dynamic flow."
According to Green, flood safety starts at home by looking at various weather reports for the area around the canyon or the hike you want to explore. He likes the water vapor loop at Weather.gov, which gives an overview of the weather in a given area and how much water is in the cloud cover. However, if you are trapped in a canyon during a high tide, your top priority is finding a hill quickly.
"Most of the floods I've seen seemed very similar to a tsunami Overholland," says Green. "There is no physical" wall of water ", but a leading edge that can build up to full depth in just 60 seconds."
Once you've experienced this flood, your only hope is to climb over it. Before entering the canyon, mark exits or paths leading to the top of the precipice on your map, and make note of the elevations – ledges that overlie potential flood lines – and exit them as you move through the canyon and show them on the way to your team.
"Running and" looking "for your exit isn't fun," says Green. “If you injure yourself while rushing, it will likely get a lot worse. Stay ahead of the game by being prepared. "
(Image: Fabio Consoli)
Dust storms come straight from the films: a multi-storey wall of sand moving through a landscape at a speed of up to 80 km / h. Technically, they are called "haboobs," a term that comes from the Middle East, where events are more common but can occur in any arid landscape. In Arizona in particular, there are many haboobs that typically form when a thunderstorm breaks down, creating a gust of wind that gathers and moves dust around the terrain. Waiting out for a dust storm out of a car or house is annoying but relatively safe. Walking or biking through a dust storm is a different story, however, as vision is drastically reduced and sand and debris flying through the air can seriously damage your skin, eyes, and lungs. If you can't find shelter, all you can do is crouch and wait.
"Find the headwind side of a rock and cover as much skin as you can," says Kirstin Peterson, owner of Rim Mountain Bike Tours. Peterson regularly deals with high wind desert events outside of her Moab home and is always prepared for haboobs when leading in Arizona. "When you deal with that wind and sand, it feels like you're being torn apart."
Peterson says the best way to give yourself the best chance of getting out of a dust storm unscathed is by packing a long-sleeved shirt, neck tube that you can pull over your face and ears, and ski goggles. "It sounds crazy to take ski goggles out into the desert, but these goggles will be your best friend during a dust storm," she says.
As soon as the wind picks up, put on your protective gear, duck behind a boulder, cover your head with your hands, and wait for the dust to settle. If there isn't a boulder, go on the defensive, put your head in your hands and pull the backpack up to cover the back of your head and neck.
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Main illustration: Fabio Consoli
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