Mountain Weather


Jeff Renner, chief meteorologist for KING5 TV in Seattle, has seen countless problems and accidents occur in the backcountry due to weather. Don’t become a statistic yourself! In Mountain Weather: Tips for Backcountry Forecasting and Weather Safety for Hikers, Campers, Climbers, Skiers, and Snowboarders, Renner offers clues to watch for in the backcountry, how to analyze them, and how to limit your exposure if caught in extreme weather conditions.

Clues That a Cold Front Is Approaching

  • A warm front is followed by brief clearing, or a decrease or end to precipitation.
  • Clouds thicken, lower, merge, and darken.
  • Winds increase, usually from the east or southeast, depending upon mountain orientation.
  • Air pressure begins to drop, usually rapidly.

Under these circumstances, expect intensified precipitation with the front, colder temperatures after it moves through, and a wind shift to the southwest or west (depending upon mountain orientation).


Clues That a Warm Front Is Approaching

  • Look for approaching high clouds (cirrus), typically from the southwest, west, or northwest.
  • Look for flat, sheetlike clouds (stratus).
  • Look for thickening, lowering clouds.
  • Look for surface winds from the east to southeast.
  • Look for decrease in air pressure.
  • Look for an increase in air temperature.

There are no absolute rules for determining whether a warm from will produce rain or snow. As a general rule of thumb, assume precipitation will fall and remain as snow (though it may not stick to the ground) down to approximately 1000 feet below the freezing level (the elevation or altitude at which the air temperature drops to or below freezing).


Tips for Anticipating Thunderstorms or Dangerous Winds

  • Warm, humid air: low visibility and unseasonably warm temperatures when coupled with high humidity are explicit danger signs.
  • The bases of growing cumulus (high, towering) clouds change from white to dark gray or black.
  • Lightning flashes, hail begins to fall, or your hear thunder.
  • Dust begins to blow.
  • Wind whips trees or other vegetation.
  • Wave height on water increases suddenly.
  • You observe either a roll cloud in advance of a thunderstorm or a wall cloud rotating from its base.

Staying Safe in Windstorms

  • Get out of your tent. A tent offers little protection and will prevent you from seeing falling trees or large branches.
  • If you are in the woods, seek a stand of even-sized trees. Avoid larger trees or trees that look sick or dead. Move toward a clearing or shoreline if possible.
  • If you are in a clearing or on a shoreline, stay there: do not run into the woods.
  • Crouch behind the side of a hill, bluff, or rock that is sheltered from the wind.
  • If large trees are already downed to the ground, seek refuge beneath one.
  • Crawl if the wind makes it too difficult to walk.
  • Cover your head and face.


—Adapted from Mountain Weather: Tips for Backcountry Forecasting and Weather Safety for Hikers, Campers, Climbers, Skiers, and Snowboarders by Jeff Renner (The Mountaineers Books, $16.95 paperback)

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