The weather plays a role in many of the accidents and fatalities that occur in the mountains, from avalanches to lightning strikes or people caught out in a storm and expiring from hypothermia.
Know before you go
Being prepared means not only gearing up for bad weather with the proper clothing but also knowing what clothing to take, based on the weather forecast. Therefore, part of being prepared should be arming yourself with a weather forecast.
In this day and age there is no reason anyone with half a brain and a smartphone should launch off on a backcountry adventure and be totally surprised by the weather. That is not to say you will never get caught in inclement weather, but at least you would have suspected, before you ever left the trailhead, that it could go bad.
Keeping up with the weather on a daily basis should become part of any outdoor adventurer’s routine. Being vigilant could save you the pain and embarrassment of shivering on a ledge, getting zapped by lightning or walking down from the Lower Saddle in a foot of new snow, in tennis shoes, in August.
When planning a backcountry adventure check the forecast every day. There are dozens of weather websites and apps to choose from. Of course, I would tell you to start with my own website, MountainWeather.com, or use forecast products that come directly from the National Weather Service. You should quit using that default weather app that comes with your phone.
For adventures around Jackson Hole and the Tetons you can go directly to MountainWeather.com/forecast to access everything you will need to make a study of the weather. All you need is about five minutes of uninterrupted, non-multitasking time and maybe a nice cup of joe. And yes, there will be some reading involved. It’s not just about looking at colorful satellite and radar images.
Get forecast details daily
The weather icons at the top of the forecast are just a snapshot of an entire 12-hour period; they don’t tell the whole story. Read the text portion of the forecast for details on what the weather is supposed to do each day.
You can usually trust the forecast out to about three days. Beyond that the accuracy drops exponentially. You need to check the forecast every day so you can track changes in the certainty of what the forecast is describing.
The next step is to click on the “Forecast Discussion and Outlook” and read it thoroughly. It will tell you why the weather is doing what it is doing and give you better idea about how much confidence you can put in the forecast itself.
The weather discussion will also give you an idea as to which direction the weather will be coming from and talk about the timing of fronts and storm systems that may be coming or going.
Be present in the backcountry
Be an astute observer in the backcountry. Watch the sky, and note the changes over the course of the day. Does the weather you are observing match the forecast? As an old mountain guide once told me, “What you see always trumps what the forecast said.” Perhaps if things are looking worse than the forecast you should consider turning around.
Armed with the most current forecast, you have no reason to be surprised by the weather. Knowing why and roughly when the weather might change or how severe it might get should help you make better decisions in the mountains.
Now go prepare for your next adventure by reading the whole forecast.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jackson Hole News&Guide on May 25, 2016.