Outdoor Smarts: Camping With an Eye to the Weather

No one would plan a camp-out in the path of a hurricane or blizzard, but forecasts of rain or snow shouldn’t always be a reason to cancel an outing.

A Venturing crew backpacks through Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains high above tree line. They are following a ridge trail when a frightening change of weather occurs. The sky turns dark, lightning strikes, and the group is pelted with pea-size hail. What should they do?

In the Piney Woods of East Texas, a Boy Scout troop sets up camp late at night and heads to bed. After midnight, a violent wind- and rainstorm whips through the campsite. A dead, 120-foot lodgepole pine snaps and crashes to the ground, landing mere feet from a Scout’s tent.

Groups usually survive even the worst storms with their humor intact and a good story to tell. However, bad weather can have tragic consequences. Severe weather should never be underestimated: While it is most often an annoyance, it can also be deadly.

A forecast of rain or snow shouldn’t automatically be the reason to cancel most weekend camp-outs, though. But it’s important to consider the following: 1) Do the group’s leaders have experience in foul-weather camping, and do they have contingency plans should the weather turn severe? And 2) are the unit’s members well equipped for wet and/or cold conditions?

Remember, many rain showers are but short squalls that last a few hours. It’s unusual for an entire weekend to be waterlogged. A unit that cancels a camp-out every time the forecast is less than perfect might miss some of the best weekends of the year.


Even unsettled weather can teach youth a wealth of outdoor technical skills and provide experiences that may become some of your unit’s most memorable journeys.

Some years ago, I spent three nights in a shelter atop Georgia’s Springer Mountain at the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. Late the first night, four Scouts and their leaders joined me—just in time for what became known as the “Blizzard of the Century.”

The local forecast had predicted a few inches of snow to be followed by a quick warming—no reason to cancel a hike. The reality was different: two feet of snow, single-digit temperatures, howling winds, and three days during which the Scouts, unable to hike out, entertained themselves by playing cards, chasing a mouse around the shelter, and learning more about cold-weather camping than many adults who have thousands of miles of hiking experience.


So, how do you decide whether to cancel a trip? Use common sense and make an informed decision. Check weather forecasts and remember that forecasts are often transmitted from urban centers. Mountain weather may be considerably colder, wetter, and more variable.

Be prepared. If the weather forecast calls for rain, carry extra food and gear.

Make sure your youth are well equipped. Bring a tarp (you can cook and eat under it), fire starter (for emergencies), garbage bags (for sorting and storing wet gear and for waterproofing stuff sacks), extra clothing, and extra zipper-locking bags for items that need rain protection (guidebook pages, maps, cameras, and cell phones).

If cellular reception is available, take a cell phone in case of emergency—or for reassuring those at home that you are O.K.

Be flexible. This might mean staying out longer than you had planned, taking a different route, or camping in a completely different campsite. Be sure you have good maps that show alternate and bailout routes, as well as extra food.

(Be sure to file any required BSA tour permits, council service center registration, government or landowner’s authorization, or other similar formalities. Appropriate notification, including alternate and emergency routes, should be directed to parents, enforcement authorities, landowners, and others as needed.)


In addition, know what to do in the following situations:

Hailstones can be painful and even dangerous. Cover up with clothing (rain gear is best) and seek shelter under bushes, shrubs, trees, or the lee side of large rocks. If you are above tree line, you may have to descend to shelter.

If you are climbing toward a mountain pass on a windy day, the wind is likely to be even stronger once you reach the pass. Put on more layers of clothing before you get to the exposed alpine areas.

If you are camping on a windy day, avoid setting tents under trees, especially trees that look unhealthy (look for damaged bark, leafless limbs, or dead branches). Avoid making camp in the dark, because you can’t evaluate your campsite for safety from snags (standing dead trees) that could fall.

Come down! If you are caught in a lightning storm above the tree line, descend on the leeward side away from the approaching storm and seek shelter. Descending as little as a few hundred feet makes a significant difference, since lightning is more likely to strike the highest object in its vicinity.

Don’t wait: Put on extra layers. In camp, change into warm dry clothes immediately—then send your Scouts or Venturers on a physical errand such as gathering firewood to prevent them from sitting around and becoming chilled.


For years, trail maintainers and rangers have carried weather radios into the backcountry. These handheld devices receive up-to-the-minute local weather reports transmitted from more than 900 stations in all 50 states.

Most hikers are reluctant to carry the extra weight of a radio that can only do one job (receive weather reports), but new products have solved that problem.

Some two-way radios (useful for keeping groups in communication) include National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather receivers. Check out the Motorola Talkabout T5950 (right), a two-way radio with rechargeable NiCD batteries ($130), and the Cobra PR4000-2WX (left), a GMRS two-way weather radio, which also has a digital compass ($110).

Karen Berger’s latest book is the Hiking Light Handbook: Carry Less, Enjoy More(Mountaineers Books, 2004).


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