Preparing for the Unexpected - Mountain House Blog
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Preparing for the Unexpected

That old Boy Scouts motto—you know the one: “be prepared”—really holds up, both at home and out in the backcountry. If you’ve paid any attention to the recent headlines even just here in the Americas, the value of that saying has probably been driven home … and then some.

We’ve talked here at the Mountain House blog before about prepping at home for storms, power outages, and other emergencies. Today, we’ll focus on being prepared when you’re hiking, backpacking, camping, or engaged in other outdoor recreation. And because one of the preeminent expressions of the unexpected that an outdoorsperson has to contend with is that topsy-turvy, ever-changing atmosphere of ours, much of the focus here is going to be on severe weather preparedness in the wilds.

Packing for the Unexpected

We have a feeling we’re mostly preaching to the choir here given the wilderness- and prepping-savvy readership among the Mountain House community, but it never hurts to remind you that you should always carry emergency supplies when you head off into the backlands—even if you’re only intending on doing a short dayhike.

That means carrying the Ten Essentials, those outdoor tools and supplies the Mountaineers defines as fundamental for survival. Learn more right here.

Dovetailing with packing for the unexpected is making sure folks back home know of your plans: where you’re going, what you’ll be doing, and your timetable. If some contingency or another does befall you, that info can really boost the odds you’ll be quickly rescued if need be.

Food & Water

They’re obviously lumped with the Ten Essentials, but let’s briefly discuss the importance of food and water in the backcountry. Mountain House meals are awesome choices for both daily camping/backpacking meals and emergency backup, given their packability, light weight, and long shelf life.

(You may also want to familiarize yourself with some basic foraging-off-the-land strategies, which we wrote about at the Mountain House blog earlier this year.)

Water, of course, is all the more pressing a concern than food is a wilderness emergency. Carry the means to purify water: both firestarting materials for boiling (the most foolproof method) and a water filter and/or purifier. If you’re backpacking, familiarize yourself with the likely water sources along your route.

Severe Weather Preparedness

It’s remarkable how quickly weather can change out there: Probably every person who’s spent any time out on the hiking trail or down the river can attest to that. You might barely notice a sudden downpour inside the bubble of your own home; out in the woods, that drenching can be disagreeable or even dangerous if it catches you unprepared.

Many an outdoorsperson is surprised by a dramatic weather front or a pop-up thunderstorm that, in fact, was correctly forecast by meteorologists. This underscores the importance of studying the local weather reports ahead of your adventure: You want to know what to expect.

An extended forecast might help fine-tune your itinerary: For example, if an unstable air mass is predicted for your area a few days into your trip, you might route yourself through storm-prone high country first so that you’re down in the lowlands when conditions turn ripe for bad weather. A winter or spring forecast might scuttle your plans at the last minute for a mountain climb or backcountry ski trip if it suggests the kind of rapid temperature rise or rainfall that can provoke avalanches. Or perhaps the risk of thunderstorms will force you (wisely) to switch your dayhike plans from that slot canyon—vulnerable to violent flash floods—to a nearby upland.

It’s also a great idea to carry a NOAA weather radio so you can stay abreast of the forecast—and any watches or warnings—while out and about in the wilds. A barometer or altimeter, meanwhile, can reveal the drops in atmospheric pressure that herald approaching severe weather.

Weather Preparedness in the Field

You don’t have to be a professional meteorologist by any means to key into clues to developing or changing weather in the field. Paying attention to clouds, wind, and other phenomena can alert you to potentially dangerous conditions brewing—and give you enough lead time to seek good shelter, change your plans, maybe even leave the backcountry altogether.

We don’t have the space to get into the nitty-gritty of practical field meteorology, but here are a few very basic tidbits useful to keep in mind:

  • A buildup of cloud cover over time indicates an approaching front, which may bring with it precipitation and/or a change in temperature.
  • Lenticular clouds, saucer-shaped masses that often cap mountaintops, may foretell precipitation in the next day or two.
  • Cumulus clouds (the puffy ones) are common sights on summer afternoons. If they start forming earlier in the day—midmorning, say—they may well suggest an unstable atmosphere conducive to thunderstorm formation later on. Especially in the high country, take heed of cumulus growing significantly taller than wide; such clouds can transform into cumulonimbus, aka thunderheads, and put you at risk of lighting and hail.
  • When the outline of a burgeoning cumulus turns from sharp and clear to hazy, precipitation is possible—as is lightning.

Lightning Safety

Lightning may strike as far as 10 miles from a thunderstorm, so if you can see one on the horizon and/or hear thunder, you should definitely be on guard. You can judge a storm’s distance from you by counting the seconds between lightning flash and thunderclap: one second equals about five miles. If that gap between light and sound is shortening, the storm is approaching you.

In the event of a thunderstorm, get down off summits and high ridges; it’s safest to be below timberline. Don’t seek shelter under tall or isolated trees. In a forest, seek out low stands. Get away from water, and don’t hole up in shallow caves—electrical current may leap the gap in the rock. Crouch down (on a sleeping pad, if you’ve got one).

If you’re in a group, spread out some during an electrical storm: In the rare event somebody is struck by lightning, this increases the likelihood there’ll be an uninjured person available to administer first-aid.

Avalanche Weather

Travelers in mountainous country need to be cognizant of avalanche danger. It’s a danger all too easy to ignore or underestimate, but these snow slides can be terrifying—and lethal.

A primer on avalanche safety—from the value of beacons and airbags to the best ways to analyze snow stability—deserves its own blogpost, but on the subject of weather preparedness here are some meteorological elements to keep in mind:

  • Heavy snowfall over a short amount of time can increase the odds of avalanches, because the fresh load of the white stuff can accumulate precariously on the existing snowpack or weaken it. A snowfall of an inch or more per hour intensifies avalanche danger.
  • Definitely beware of rain-on-snow: Rainfall can lubricate snow layers and prompt them to slide.
  • Strong winds in snowy mountains are also potential harbingers of avalanches, because they break apart ice crystals and allow snow on leeward mountainsides to settle more easily into the slabs prone to dislodging and sliding.
  • Warming temperatures are a mixed bag: The melting they cause can better consolidate the snowpack and make it more unstable, but a rapidly rising mercury can also destabilize snow—you’re safer when colder temperatures follow up the warmer weather. In spring, daily melting and freezing can increase the frequency of snow slides.

Preparing for the unexpected—from packing emergency supplies to learning how to read the mood of the sky—is the only sensible way to go about outdoor recreation, whatever your preferred mode.

 

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