That bone dry gully you decided provided perfect protection from wild animals and helped reflect the heat of your fire, keeping you toasty warm for your long night’s slumber, has instantly transformed itself into a raging, debris filled tsunami.
Had this scenario actually played out … chances are you are dead. If only you had known a storm was approaching there’s no way you have camped in such a potentially dangerous place. You didn’t read all those survival blogs for nothing. But … it was unavoidable, as Weather forecasting in the wilderness is not possible. Or is it?
Your local meteorologists, with the aid of billions of dollars of technical equipment, stationed around the earth and orbiting in space, can not correctly predict the future weather with 100% accuracy. Therefore, obviously neither can you using the primitive warnings our ancestors depended upon, but what if you could predict with 75% accuracy… 50% accuracy. Would you have died in that dry gully? I would think not.
Using Nature to Predict Nature
There are certain constants in nature that occur with a high degree of regularity. It’s on these constants we will build our weather forecasting skills. Beginning with clouds.
What is a Cloud and How Do They Form?
Most of the time the sky is actually full of water, but you can’t see it because the drops of water are so small they have transformed into a gas, called water vapor. As the water vapor rises higher in the sky, the air gets cooler, which causes the water droplets to start to stick to things like bits of dust, ice or sea salt. As they cool they bump into other droplets and join together, and when the drops become too large to float, gravity takes over and the droplets fall in what we call rain, snow or sleet.
Clouds are not of different shapes, colors, heights, etc by chance. These variances are caused by different atmospheric conditions which create certain weather patterns. If we can read and decipher what type of cloud is in the sky and why that particular cloud is there, we have a very good chance of predicting near future weather. Notice I said “near future weather.” I’m talking about today .. tonight .. the next morning. But, that’s all we’re concerned about with surviving. We’ll gladly repeat the process the next day.
These cloud types are located very high in the sky and resemble thin streaks, swirls and/or curls, and are usually a sign of fair weather. However, be aware that these same clouds in cold climates, that begin to increase in number and are accompanied by a northerly directional wind, could indicate an approaching blizzard. I began with this cloud formation in order to demonstrate there may be other factors to consider other than just the looks of a cloud formation.
appear to be fluffy, heaped, piled up clouds. These clouds will settle much lower in the sky than cirrus clouds and are considered fair weather clouds. They will normally make their presence around midday in a sunny sky, but may become larger and move higher in the sky, resembling huge mountains of puffy clouds as the day progresses. Watch for any darkening of color, which could indicate they are transforming into storm clouds.
lay very low to the ground making the entire sky gray at times, and almost always indicates strong rain.
Cumulonimbus begins as a cluster of cumulus clouds which build up and form rain clouds, expect a thunderstorm.
Cirrostrastus and Cirrocumulus clouds indicate good weather.
Clouds Aren’t Our Only Indicators
The wind is also a good indicator of the weather. Wind is created when a high pressure area moves to a low pressure area, which means bad weather conditions. Weather moves West to East, therefore if you are facing a westerly wind, it indicates the bad weather is to your East and behind you, or if the wind is at your back, you’re heading into bad weather.
The air never stands still, but for all practical purposes can move slow it seems there is no movement of air. You may be able to tell the direction of the wind by throwing grass clippings into the air and watch how they fall, or wet your finger and hold it into the air, the cool side of the finger will indicate wind direction. You may have seen professional golfers doing this, as they realize there is a wind higher up where they will hit their golf ball, and the ball’s flight could be affected by the wind’s direction.
While sitting next to the campfire observe what the smoke is doing, as the direction it travels could indicate approaching weather conditions. When smoke spirals more or less straight up, you are in a high pressure area, indicating good weather. However, if the smoke continually spirals downwards back towards the flames you are experiencing a low pressure area and the possibility of experiencing bad weather is high.
Hear the old saying “Calm before the Storm”? It’s true. As a storm approaches, the low pressure area it’s riding will, or can, push the area’s normal wind patterns out of the area. This creates a temporary calming of everything, and can create an eerie stillness before the storm arrives.
Close your eyes and inhale deeply through your nose. Smells become heavy as a storm approaches, you may smell a compost odor from the plants, or a swamp will emit a nauseous rotten egg smell from the decaying vegetation.
Notice the humidity in the air. Assuming you aren’t in a traditionally high humidity area, a rise in humidity could be a sure sign of approaching rain. Hair frizzing, leaves curling, pine cones closing (they stay open in dry air) are all signs of increased humidity, thus, possible rain approaching.
Let’s Turn Our Attention to Creatures of Nature
Some of these techniques will require patience and the powers of observation, but anybody can do it.
1. Make a mental note of ant hills as you travel or sit around. Ants will instinctively build their mounds higher with steep slopes before a storm. If you know the mounds are now higher, or you notice the ants building it higher … rain is on the way.
2, Birds can be a good indicator of approaching weather. As we discussed, when a storm approaches the air pressure will fall, which causes discomfort in a bird’s ears. Therefore, birds will fly lower to the ground, perch on power lines and lower tree limbs and concentrate on eating ground insects. If you’re by the ocean look for seagulls perched on the beach, indicating a storm approaching. Lastly, birds will become quiet before a storm, lack of singing or chirping could indicate bad weather.
Birds, sensing air pressure, will attempt to time their migration during good weather in order to be able to fly high without the discomfort in their ears created by low pressure. Flocks high in the sky is a good indicator of fair weather.
Of course birds must eat to survive, but they can also predict pressure patterns and duration. If the storm is going to be brief, usually birds will usually pause and wait it out. But if the storm will be there an extended amount of time, the birds will continue to seek food.
Cow, and only cows as far as traditional farm animals, can be good indicators of approaching weather. Cows will tend to lay down in the pasture before a rainstorm, because temperatures tend to drop before a storm and cows tend to like being close to the ground during cold weather.
Ever hear this old saying “ Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night … sailor delight” If you see a red sky in the evening that means there are clear skies in the West approaching you, meaning good weather.
Check out what the snakes are doing. Snakes, being cold blooded reptiles, historically come out of their nests only in order to warm themselves by the sun. If the day is not sunny or particularly warm and you see snakes in unexpected places or times, its a pretty good indicator rain is coming.
Turtles seem to do everything slow and that even means anticipating bad weather approaching. They have an uncanny sense of anticipating, therefore they will move to higher ground a day or two before a storm arrives. The old saying “It’s gonna rain because the turtle is crossing the road,” has a tad bit of truth to it. It’s not the crossing of the road per Se, although that’s when we see them, it’s they’re heading to higher ground and the road happens to be in their way.
I can not guarantee you that any one of these natural signs will definitely mean good or bad weather. But when several begin to align the possibility of bad weather approaching is nearly inevitable and we must remind ourselves of our original purpose. We’re not concerned about whether to carry an umbrella tonight. We’re concerned about not ending up swept away to our demise by a tsunami created by an unexpected thunderstorm.