Keep an Eye on the Clouds When You’re on the Trail

When hiking, most people tend to keep one eye on the path ahead of them and the other on the surrounding forest, in case an opportunity to view wildlife presents itself. However, experienced outdoorsmen know to keep a careful eye on the sky when they’re spending more time on the trail. The weather can change without warning and the sky is a great place to seek any signs of forthcoming changes. Paying close attention to the clouds can help you decipher whether a warm or cold front is on the way. Keep reading to learn how you can add this skill to your repertoire.

Warm fronts can bring precipitation that lingers for long periods, which can put a damper on longer excursions. Certain cloud types can help you tell if a warm front is on its way. Thin, whispy streaks of clouds that look like strokes of white paint, known as cirrus clouds, and typically show up two days before a warm front arrives. After cirrus clouds come the large blankets of rippled clouds (cirrocumulus and cirrostratus), which remain very high in the sky. As the warm front moves in, the clouds drop to mid (smoky altostratus) and low (gray nimbostratus) levels, and become dense with precipitation ranging from a drizzle to a downpour.

If you’re not prepared, cold fronts can cause your trip to go from fun to miserable, especially at night when the temperatures drop. Cumulus clouds—white, puffy clouds—are perhaps the type most are familiar with. Normally, they exist in nice weather, but they can signal rain if they amass and build upward. When puffy cumulus clouds grow upward and form towers, it’s a potential sign that severe weather is on the way, like heavy rain and thunderstorms.

While on the trail, if you notice a consistency of storms late in the days, make an effort to rise early and cover as much ground as you can. Also, it can be difficult to notice while hiking, but the elevation at which you’re traveling can change without you noticing. Find yourself on higher ground and you’ll find the weather is exponentially sudden and severe. Lastly, I suggest carrying an altimeter, or ensuring that you’re GPS or outdoor watch has an altimeter function. This can warn you of changes in atmospheric pressure that signal bad weather.

Learning how to read cloud activity can be a big help when it comes to predicting the weather. On the trail, this skill can be invaluable, as preemptive preparation and shelter against rain or cold fronts can keep you safe and comfortable amidst such severe weather changes. Keep a close eye on the sky on your next trip and you’ll be sure to stay a few steps ahead of the rain.