Planning a day in the mountains takes more than strong muscles and a solid partner—you also need to watch the telemetry. Mountain weather demands healthy respect, and learning how to read forecasts can make or break the success or your next adventure.
Identify Your Concerns
As you’re watching the weather and planning your trip, think carefully about specific conditions and how they’ll affect you. For example, hikers and boaters (who are able to toss an extra layer in their pack) may be less concerned about snow or rain, but precipitation can end a day of rock climbing. Wind speed and direction, on the other hand, might have catastrophic consequences to kayakers or canoers while not affecting in-bound skiers much at all. Temperatures affect everybody differently, depending on your team’s ability to mitigate the cold. And the one factor that affects every backcountry traveler? Electrical storms. Never take chances when there’s lightning around.
Cross-Reference Your Sources
On the National Weather Service website, you can click an exact point on a map (or enter latitude and longitude coordinates into the search bar), which can be more accurate than simply using a forecast for the nearest town. Mountain Forecast gives easy-to-read mountain-specific forecasts for more than 11,200 major peaks, and lists predicted telemetry, temperatures, wind speed, and wind direction at various altitudes on the said mountain. Mountain Weather compiles satellite and radar maps for several mountainous states. Check hourly forecasts for detailed data, and check in with local forecasters—the kind you can find on the evening news or in local papers or websites—who can provide useful information, too.
Keep an eye on the long-range forecast in the week leading up to your adventure so you can start to get a feel for local patterns and trends. Be wary of times when different forecasts for the same location contain significant variation, or when forecasts change dramatically—especially for the worse.
Ask A Local
Still in doubt? Check in with somebody who knows, watches, and understands the weather patterns in your destination. Does a climbing area tend to be warm and dry in the mornings, then prone to thunderstorms in the afternoons? Does wind frequently blow up at a certain time of day, and from what direction? What has the snowpack been doing over the course of the season? Every microclimate has quirks driven by the local small-scale topography, and recruiting the help of a local expert can be invaluable as you plan your trip. To find one, call a local climbing gym, outdoor store, ski resort, or guide service.
Once you’ve committed to a day outside, pay careful attention to the weather. Watch the sky, keep tabs on the clouds, and cross-reference what you’re seeing with what the forecast instructed you to expect. If the weather is moving in from a place you can’t see—the other side of the mountain, for example—be extra cautious. Remember: you can always come back another day.