If you first think about weather when a drop of rain hits you, you’re way too late. One of the great variables of any trip into the mountains of the Northeast is the weather. In every season, weather conditions can change quickly, and increasing instances of severe weather make sudden storms possible at any time of the year. Knowing the signs of extreme weather and what to do when it strikes can keep you safe during your next outdoor adventure.
Thunder and Lightning
Thunder indicates the presence of lightning, even if lightning is not visible. As soon as you hear thunder, it is time to retreat to the safest terrain possible; choosing a good location is the only reliable risk-mitigation strategy. In the forested landscape of the Northeast, once a storm with thunder approaches within 2 to 3 miles, it is time to take additional steps to protect yourself.
A somewhat reliable method for estimating your distance from a storm utilizes the different rates of speed at which light and sound travel. For every five seconds between the flash of lightning and the crash of thunder (“flash to crash”), the storm is roughly a mile away. If the flash-to-crash time is fifteen seconds or less, the storm is less than 3 miles away.
If the storm is less than 3 miles away, implement the following lightning procedures:
- Spread the group out in all directions at least 20 feet apart, so that if there is a lightning strike, it is more likely some people will be unaffected and able to respond to the injured.
- Stay away from the bases of tall trees; large metal objects, such as fire towers; drainages, where water will conduct electricity; shallow caves; rock overhangs; and the front openings of lean-tos.
- Don your rain gear, as the water film on its surface may redirect some surface current around the body. For this same reason, crouching under a tarp may have some protective effects.
- Assume the lightning position: Crouch as low as possible on a foam pad or another insulating item, allowing only the bases of your feet to touch the pad, and attempt to keep your heels touching at all times.
- Maintain this lightning drill until the storm passes, and the flash to crash is greater than 15 seconds.
Storms can also cause other dangers, like falling trees and flash flooding. Avoid campsites with runoff streams and widowmakers (leaning or weakened branches or trees). Be aware of deteriorating weather conditions. Take a break if you need, and remember that it’s always okay to turn back.
Be Prepared to Shelter in Place
Fortunately, thunderstorms usually communicate their approach, giving the hiker opportunity to prepare. We recommend staying off mountain summits on summer afternoons, especially when clouds are building above and to the west. If you must be in these places at these times, have a bail-out plan ready in case the weather takes a turn for the worse. Make good campsite choices, avoiding exposed knobs and wide-open sites that sit in drainages or atop the roots of major trees. The best situation is to be in a forest on rolling, lowland terrain, away from any trees that tower above those around it.
Most intense rain and wind events will not last more than two to three hours, so staying dry and warm in camp is a reasonable option. And if you are in the woods during a long-lasting, historic event, sheltering in camp makes even more sense.
Winter’s cold temperatures bring extra hazards, but with the right preparation and know-how, you do not need to view winter travel as a survival experience. Some of the most common weather-related hazards in the winter include unexpected changes in temperature and snowfall, as well as icy conditions. Extended exposure to colder temperatures can cause hypothermia, and even be deadly. Dress in layers so you can adjust with changing temperatures. Bring additional dry layers you can change into as needed, since damp clothing can cause hypothermia.
In the event that you do need to stay in place for an extended period of time, try to build a shelter to protect yourself from the elements. Snow can be used to create a tent platform or a windbreak to block the wind.
Avoiding injury is also critical during any winter excursion. The best way to do so is to wear boots with excellent traction and cross frozen waterways with extreme caution.
For more winter weather recreation tips, see AMC’s Essential Guide to Winter Recreation.
Bring the Right Gear
Whether you’re embarking on a weekend backpacking trip or a day hike, having the right gear with you will make your journey safer and much more enjoyable.
- Pack the 10 essentials, which includes a navigation tool such as a map and compass (and the knowledge to use them), sun protection, insulation like warm clothing and waterproof outer layers, extra food, extra water, flashlight or headlamp, fire starting supplies, first-aid kit, gear repair kit, and emergency shelter.
- For winter weather: microcrampons/microspikes, ice rescue picks, lightweight shovel, and ice chisel, insulating clothing like wool socks and sweaters, sleeping bag rated for at least 10 degrees colder than the anticipated temperatures, and tent.
- For rainy weather: Rain-repellent clothing, quick-dry layering items such as socks or undershirts, gaiters, and tarps.