Of all the forces of nature, the weather is among the most dangerous and unpredictable, because there are so many variables involved. A shift in temperature, humidity, or wind direction a hundred miles away can result in a violent storm surging through your area totally unannounced. When that happens, it can leave you neck deep in trouble in a hurry.
If bad weather were only an inconvenience, that would be one thing, but when Mother Nature has an unexpected foul attitude, it can cost your life. So, how do you protect yourself against the sudden and unexpected storm? The real key to survival is preparation.
Prepare before leaving home
Check weather reports for the region.
- Pay particular attention to the long-range forecast to see what the jet stream is doing and if low-pressure systems are forming upstream that are expected to move into your area.
- Frontal systems ride low-pressure systems — cold fronts can arrive swiftly and violently, while warm fronts generally move more slowly and last longer but are not as violent.
- The change in pressure systems (high to low, or low to high) can bring powerful, damaging winds.
- East of the Rocky Mountains, be especially watchful for cool air moving down from the northwest and slamming into warm, moist air that is moving up from the Gulf of Mexico; along the boundary of these cool/dry and warm/moist air masses is where extremely violent storms and tornados form.
- Make sure you have foul weather gear that will keep you dry and warm.
- Eliminate cotton clothing; wear wool or synthetics that don’t absorb moisture and maintain insulation ability even when wet.
- Carry extra clothing in a dry-sack or plastic bag.
- Being waterproof and breathable are two key characteristics for outer shell layers of clothing, boots, gloves, and tents.
- Sleeping bags should be rated for the coldest weather that might be expected in the region.
- Synthetic bag insulation resists soaking up moisture and continues to insulate when wet.
- If a down bag is used, it must be kept dry or it will lose its ability to protect you.
- Carry multiple fire-starting devices.
- Have a two-way radio, a cell phone, and a personal locator beacon so you can summon a rescue or at least let people know your location and condition.
Set up your camp in a protected area.
- Be particularly mindful that your chosen campsite isn’t vulnerable to avalanche, landslide, rock falls, flashflood, lightning strike, or widowmakers. All of those killers can be spawned by a sudden storm.
- Position yourself up out of the lowlands, because flashfloods can reach surprising depths.
- At the same time, avoid ridges or hilltops that leave you vulnerable to high winds and lightning.
- Stay far enough from large trees to minimize the widowmaker threat, as well as the risk of lightning strike.
Caught away from camp
If a sudden change in the weather catches you away from camp, take these steps:
- Blizzard: Stop where you are; to keep moving risks injury and getting lost. The most important thing is to obtain shelter from the wind and cold. If the snow is deep enough, build a snow shelter. Otherwise, use natural materials such as a fallen tree and whatever is available to erect some protection from the wind. You might have to simply huddle in the lee of a large boulder, tree or clump of bushes. Cover your head and hands and inhale warm air from inside your jacket. Exhale outside the jacket to avoid creating condensation in your clothing. Stay dry. Avoid overexertion that causes you to perspire.
- Flashflood: Seek high ground as quickly as possible. If you become caught in floodwaters, it might sweep you downstream. Try to keep your feet pointed downstream to absorb bashing into obstacles. Attempt to catch hold of trees or bushes along the edge of the flood and pull yourself out.
- Thunderstorm: The risk is lightning strike. If you are in the forest, avoid ridges, mountain tops and tall trees, and seek shelter under low bushes or among small trees. Out in the open field, seek a low spot of ground so you are not the tallest object. If you’re on the water, get to land as quickly as possible and seek shelter. If you feel your hair stand on end, squat down on your haunches with only the balls of your feet on the ground, and your feet together to minimize contact with the ground. Cover your ears with your hands and place your head between your knees to make yourself the smallest possible target. Do not lie flat on the ground, as that increases the risk.
- Tornado: Get to the lowest spot possible — a ditch is good. Lie face down on the ground and cover your head with your arms to protect against flying debris (which causes most injuries and fatalities). Avoid being under a bridge or overpass, as wind speed picks up when passing through the opening; you are safer on low, flat, open ground.