Hiking Essentials - Weather Considerations
The weather is an ever-popular topic, and it’s naturally a relevant subject for anyone who’s planning to spend several hours or more outdoors. Those who are new to hiking often have a special interest in the subject and are likely to have some weather-related questions and concerns.
Weather forecasting is an inaccurate science, as most of us know. Sometimes the forecast is on target, and at other times it’s dead wrong, especially in areas where the weather is very changeable. It’s most difficult to get a good forecast for the mountain areas, which is exactly where most Wild Earth Adventures trips take place, and where thousands of miles of hiking trails are located.
The forecast you hear is usually for a city or other low-lying area, often some distance from your hiking destination. Sizeable mountain ranges tend to have their own unique weather patterns, which helps assure that conditions are sometimes markedly different from other areas.
Many of us who spend lots of time hiking have learned not to place much stock in forecasts or base our plans on them, except when there’s strong evidence of dangerous storms or other unusually severe weather arising. If you stay home every time inclement weather is predicted, or whenever there’s a chance of rain, you’ll miss out on plenty of great hiking days each year -- since in areas of the country like the often-moist Northeast, there are actually relatively few days when there’s zero chance of rain in the mountains. If you wait for those days, you may find yourself staying home a lot.
It’s important to know what the range of possibilities are in the area where you’ll be hiking, and to always pack clothing and rainwear appropriate for any conceivable condition you could encounter. It’s wise to go hiking with as few assumptions or expectations regarding weather as possible. If you’re ready for anything, you won’t get caught unprepared by surprise turns in the weather.
Fears regarding rain and the chances of having to hike in the rain are fairly rampant among the uninitiated. Fear of the rain is a deeply ingrained attitude for some people, in part because of early childhood conditioning, and it’s not always easy to overcome. Some people imagine that hiking in the rain must mean misery and a possible path to pneumonia (which is unlikely, to say the least).
Our media often contribute to the problem by depicting wet weather in the worst possible light (weather-related fear-mongering encourages people to keep the TV or radio on), frequently exaggerating the likelihood of rain or inclement weather. Needless to say, we always hear about a “chance of rain” but never a “chance of sunshine.” Usually only the most perfect sunny days receive positive comments, and we’re often encouraged to stay indoors at other times. Thus it probably shouldn’t be surprising that some people are afraid to go hiking when there’s a “questionable forecast.”
Another curious phenomenon is that we’re rarely thankful when it rains, except for those who live in dry climates where there’s an especially critical need for rain. Yet water is a vital element on everywhere on earth, and rain is absolutely essential to the life cycle. And our bodies are made primarily of water!
Many of us love to swim (sometimes in cold water), take baths or showers, and otherwise get near or into water as often as we can. One significant difference with rain is that we can’t control it in any way, and it sometimes comes at a time we wouldn’t choose. Our discomfort regarding rain can also be seen as a symptom of our culture’s alienation from nature.
It’s true that hiking for long distances in heavy rain can be a bit dispiriting for some people -- especially in colder temperatures -- although if you’re a seasoned hiker with an adventurous and positive frame of mind, it’s also possible to find rain-hiking to be an invigorating, stimulating, and refreshing experience, believe it or not.
Most important is that you avoid getting simultaneously wet and cold, which the right clothing and rainwear should protect you from. A strong likelihood of torrential rains, flooding, or gale-force winds does provide a good reason to consider staying home -- and such conditions, which don’t occur often in the northeastern United States, usually lead Wild Earth Adventures day hikes to be cancelled.
But on many days when rain is in the forecast, one encounters little or none of it in the mountains. Surprisingly often it comes early in the morning or late in the day, before or after the hours that most hiking takes place. Also, actual “rainy days” often only amount to a little light rain, or a shower or two, or some mist or drizzle.
Something else to consider is that the wilder places can be extraordinarily lovely in the rain, the scents of the earth are especially rich, and the flowers are rarely more beautiful or the vegetation more lush. As long as you’re properly dressed with rainwear and sufficient clothing (or have it along with you), there’s no reason rain has to interfere in the least with your enjoyment of the natural world on a hiking trip.
In any case, one certain fact is that the weather will frequently be different from what was predicted. It’s surely a waste of energy to fret about less-than-perfect weather, and foolish to spend time worrying about it in advance of your hike.
Much more sensible and satisfying is to make the best of each day. While it may take time for a beginner to learn to actually enjoy wet-weather hiking, it’s helpful to practice accepting whatever comes. You may discover that the unsunny days are beautiful and rewarding in unimagined ways.
A Summary of Rain & Weather Forecast Basics
Here’s a review of some basics regarding rain and weather forecasts (sometimes called “Charlie’s Rain Rules”) for those who hike in the mountains of the northeastern United States, but applicable to many other mountain regions as well:
1. The accuracy of weather forecasts for the mountain areas of the Northeast (where Wild Earth Adventures hiking trips take place) tends to be quite low, especially in the higher mountains, which sometimes generate their own weather systems that are inherently unpredictable.
2. It’s not uncommon for the weather you’ll encounter while hiking in the mountains to be very different or even the opposite of what was predicted. On some days when rain is in the forecast we find ourselves hiking in dry or even sunny weather, whereas on days with “zero chance of rain” we occasionally get caught in a shower or two.
3. The relevance of a “low-elevation” forecast (for locations like New York City, New York’s Hudson Valley, suburban New Jersey, Philadelphia, or Boston) to the mountain areas of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and other northeastern states is especially limited.
4. It’s wise to ALWAYS assume the possibility of rain in the mountains, regardless of the forecast.
5. It’s sensible to assume as well that sunshine or dry weather are ALWAYS possible in the mountains, regardless of the forecast.
6. In other words: be prepared for ALL possible weather whenever you’re hiking (and ALWAYS bring rainwear and warm clothing along, just in case).
7. It’s best to keep weather expectations to a minimum and be prepared to enjoy the day whatever the weather (it’s a waste of time and energy to be fretting about a “negative forecast,” or to be overly celebratory about a “positive forecast”).
8. It’s a major error to assume that what’s happening outside your window early the morning of a hiking trip, weather-wise, has anything to do with what it will be like in the area where you’ll be hiking (some hikers stay home when it’s raining early in the morning, and miss out on what often turns out to be a fair-weather hike).
9. On probably an average of three out of four days when rain is in the forecast (on the day of a Wild Earth Adventures hike) we get no more than 15 minutes or so of rain during the hike, and sometimes none at all.
10. On probably one out of four days when rain is in the forecast we DO get significant rain.
11. On an average of just 1-3 hikes per year (out of a total of 80-90 Wild Earth Adventures hiking trips annually) we do actually find ourselves hiking in “major rain,” meaning heavy rain for more than a few minutes, or nearly continuous light rain. (If there’s a strong likelihood of continuous heavy rain and/or other severe weather, Wild Earth Adventures trips are usually cancelled).
12. Many people aren’t aware (and weather forecasters rarely tell us) that heavy rain in the mountains -- on the relatively infrequent occasions when it does come in the areas of New York and other northeastern states where we hike -- usually falls early or late in the day. Often it’s over by the time we start hiking, or arrives after we’re done.
13. Long-range forecasts tend to be so inaccurate that they’re almost meaningless, especially for the mountain areas. To make a decision several days or a week in advance about whether to go hiking, based solely on a 5-day or 7-day forecast, is frankly irrational (you’ll get just-as-good results flipping a coin).
14. The tone of certitude (and absence of humility or acknowledgement of the degree of uncertainty) that comes with many forecasts is inappropriate and misleading.
15. It’s no secret that exaggerations, distortions, and sensationalism have crept into weather forecasting over the years, just as they have come to infuse much mainstream commercial news in general. There’s a tendency to refer to a bit of rain or a chance of showers as “nasty,” “horrible,” “awful,” “dismal,” or simply “bad” weather. And even when there’s just a small chance of precipitation, or when it’s likely to come during evening or nighttime hours and thus have no effect on outdoor recreation, the weather headlines will still often be “rainy weekend ahead.”
16. Lack of appreciation of the importance of rain is rampant in our society and our media. Everyone should be aware that rain is a vital part of the life cycle and absolutely essential to our well-being and even survival (if the rain ceased it would be catastrophic and fatal for most life forms, and would mean an eventual end to cities and much of civilization, since in time all fresh water would disappear and most human beings would be unable to met their water needs).
17. Being out in the rain won’t and can’t spoil a hiking trip unless you let it. In fact, as many hikers know and frequently comment on, during the warmer seasons (when flowers are blooming and vegetation is lush) the natural world can be absolutely lovely in the rain, and communing with nature at such times can be a wonderfully memorable experience, believe it or not -- assuming you have appropriate raingear, sufficient clothing, and the right attitude.
On a warm summer day, rain or showers can be delightfully refreshing. In cooler temperatures, rain may initially seem more intimidating to those who haven’t been fully initiated into the often rich pleasures of wet weather, but when one is properly dressed, walking in the rain can be a thoroughly invigorating, sense-stimulating, enlivening, and at the same time soothing and peacefully relaxing experience.
[This discussion of Hiking Essentials concludes on the Minimizing Our Impact page].
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