Be Prepared for Weather Changes When Camping and Hiking: Learn to Read the Clouds

When you set out for a camping trip or overnight hiking treks, it’s always a good idea to check up on the weather report for the area where you plan to go before heading out. When you have an idea as to what the weather forecast looks like for the days of your trip, you can travel more prepared. Or you can postpone your trip if the weather outlook for those days looks bleak. But as we all know, the weather isn’t exactly dependable and predictions can be unreliable because the weather can change so quickly. Plus, weather reports often focus on the cities and towns and not the outlying areas where campers and hikers might be headed. Certain areas, such as mountainous regions, can have a climate all there own and may not adhere to local area forecasts.

If you aren’t willing to rely on a forecast of sunny, dry weather for your long-awaited camping trip, it might be a good idea to learn to identify and understand cloud patterns; recognize when the clouds are building or getting lower in the sky; and what do these changing cloud patterns mean. Being cloud savvy can help you keep you dry or avoid a potentially dangerous storm.

Reading the clouds can be fun as well as the fastest and simplest way to predict the weather where you are. There are three major types of clouds and they are categorized by their height in the atmosphere. If you can identify the cloud types that fall into each of these categories, this will go a long way to helping you figure out what the weather is going to do.

1. Low Clouds – These clouds are found below 6,500 feet. There are different types of low clouds, and probably the most common and recognizable are the cumulus clouds. Usually an indication of good weather, cumulus clouds are puffy with a cottony appearance. They can, however, quickly turn into dark clouds, which is a sure sign that thunder and lightening are on the way. When these dark cumulus clouds take on the shape of an anvil they are known as thunderheads and you can be sure bad weather is on the way.

Other low clouds include nimbostratus clouds that appear gray and foggy and are a strong indication of rain. Stratus clouds hang low to the ground and usually only carry a light drizzle and no significant rain fall. Comulonimbus clouds are very large and mushroom-shaped and are a sure way to predict very strong storms.

2. Middle Clouds – Middle clouds range from elevations of 6,500 feet to 20,000 feet. Altocumulus clouds are sometimes referred to as “Mackerel sky” because they look like the scales of a mackerel fish. They usually appear in patches of wavy, round masses and tend to develop during a cold front. On a humid day, they are usually the precursor to thundershowers.

3. High Clouds. – High clouds occur higher than 20,000 feet. Cirrocumulus clouds resemble the “Mackerel sky” because of their fibrous appearance. Because they are so high in the sky, they have very little impact on any weather that reaches us.

Another type of high cloud is cirrus. They are either the remains of a recent thunderstorm or a sign of a frontal system on the way. Cirrostratus clouds are made up of crystals of ice because of large amounts of moisture in the atmosphere. They don’t generate any type of precipitation.

In short, if you are camping or hiking, the clouds you need to be able to recognize and watch out for are the cumulus clouds that turn dark and anvil-shaped; any of the thin layered stratus clouds that are indicators of light rain; stratus clouds that sink lower in the sky, bringing heavy rain; and cirrus clouds, which are usually harmless because of their position in the sky. But with a drop in barometric pressure, cirrus clouds can darken and drop, causing rain.