Packing For The Weather
Dangerous Weather Events
Campers and other outdoor enthusiasts know that weather plays a major role in their activities. In most instances, weather factors in to the enjoyment level of the given activity, not how safe it is. But severe weather events like flash floods and blizzards can put the camper in a life-threatening situation. Being aware of the weather and its potential dangers is a common sense approach to planning any outdoor activity, especially camping, and following a few basic precautions will help you avoid these potential dangers and better enjoy time spent outdoors.
Today people have more access to fast and accurate weather information than ever before through the Internet, cable television and radio. Watching or listening to these sources is the first step in planning a safe and enjoyable outdoor excursion. The ever-changing weather patterns should be monitored before the trip as well as intermittently during the trip.
Presetting your car’s radio with the stations that provide regular weather broadcasts and periodically listening in will alert you to changing forecasts. As you approach your specific destination, look for highway signs that indicate weather stations in the area. This is especially important if that destination will be far away from areas that easily receive radio transmissions. Take along a portable, battery-powered radio or have one handy in the vehicle or boat. Listen to weather updates on AM stations particularly because AM signals travel farther than FM signals, especially at night.
Packing For The Weather
Another preplanning step is to pack for inclement weather. Be sure to take along plenty of extra clothing, rain gear, gloves, warming equipment, a flashlight, backup batteries, a first aid kit, blankets or sleeping bags and liquid refreshments, either hot or cold. If traveling in very cold weather, try to keep your gas tank level above half-full so the water in your tank does not freeze up the fuel lines.
Dangerous Weather Events
The camper’s worst enemy can sometimes be nature itself. Be aware of the signs of extreme weather heading toward you and what to do in that event. Dangerous weather events include thunderstorms, lightning, severe thunder or hail storms, flash floods, high winds, tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards. In all of these situations, it’s best to remain as calm as possible in order to think clearly and quickly secure safe surroundings. In a state of panic, it’s easy to make mistakes in judgment that can lead to worse outcomes than the weather event itself.
Thunderstorms—Thunderstorms are dangerous weather events. It is essential to recognize the signs of an impending storm: towering thunderheads, darkening skies, lightning and increasing wind. Whenever the slightest chance of a thunderstorm exists, the first precaution is to check the latest weather forecast and keep an eye on the sky.
Thunderstorms can produce a number of dangerous weather conditions, including lightning, flooding, tornadoes, high winds and hail. The safety of your campsite is greatly affected by where you choose to set it up. Avoid striking camp in high or open places vulnerable to lightning, as well as low places vulnerable to flooding, like next to streams or washes. Look for a site that is sheltered from the wind and free of dead trees that could fall in a storm. Keep tents away from especially large trees, as well.
If caught away from the campsite in a thunderstorm, the camper should seek immediate shelter in a low area under a thick growth of small trees. In open areas, go to a low place like a ravine or valley, but be alert for flash floods. If fishing, put down the rod and get away from the water.
Be especially cautious if a severe thunderstorm watch or warning is announced. The National Weather Service defines a thunderstorm as severe if it produces one or more of the following: hail at least -inch in diameter, winds in excess of 58 mph, or a tornado. A watch means a severe thunderstorm is possible; a warning means one has been spotted and is moving toward your area. If you hear reports of a severe thunderstorm approaching, be prepared for very dangerous weather conditions. If there are any strong structures in the area, seek shelter there.
Make sure you have adequate rain gear. Being wet increases the rate of heat loss, which can lead to hypothermia. Tents must be kept dry, too—the edges of ground cloths should be completely folded underneath tents so that water flows under, not over, the plastic.
Lightning—In scientific terms, lightning occurs when positive electric charges on the ground seek to join with the negative electrical charges built up in the bottom of thunderclouds. In practical terms, lightning can mean death. The U.S. Weather Bureau reported in a study covering the years 1940 to 1991 that 8,316 people died from lightning strikes. The number of people dying from lightning strikes per decade has been declining as people have become more educated and lightning prevention devices have become more available, but lightning is still a threat to campers.
When a thunderstorm is approaching, clouds often have a flat-topped or anvil shaped appearance. They grow darker as moisture accumulates. Lightning will also appear in the horizon before thunder can be heard, but they are both sure signs that a thunderstorm is impending.
The key to avoiding lightning strikes is to avoid situations where and when lightning strikes are common. Lightning will usually strike the tallest object in an area, so stay clear of tall trees. Tents should be erected among short trees. If you have access to a car, get inside, roll up the windows and do not touch anything metal. If a cabin or camper trailer is available, get inside but don’t touch any electric appliances, as lightning may travel through these objects. It is safe, however, to use a cordless phone. Also, stay away from faucets, as copper pipes and tap water are both excellent conductors of electricity.
Tents may keep the camper dry, but they don’t do much to protect against lightning. If trees are nearby, the tent will probably be safe. However, in open areas where the tent is the highest object, campers should move to low ground if there is no other shelter. Keep a lookout for flooding, and assume a squatting position with your head down and your heels touching.
If the storm hits while you are in a boat, get to shore as soon as possible. If the boat has a cabin, stay in the center of the cabin. If there is no cabin, stay as low as possible in the boat. No part of the body should be in the water or touching any electronic equipment. If there is a radio antenna or other protruding object, it should be lowered or tied down.
Flash Floods—More people die from flooding (flash flooding and river flooding combined) than any other weather-related event. Flash flooding is so dangerous mainly because of the speed at which it occurs, which often catches people unaware and unprepared. What starts out as just another rainstorm can transform itself through duration and intensity into a dangerous flash flood. Often, these types of floods are caused by either a slow-moving thunderstorm or a series of thunderstorms. The key is to recognize when flash flooding is occurring and know how to avoid becoming trapped in it.
If camping or sleeping outdoors, always set your tent or sleeping bag up on ground away from gullies and ravines. Look at the surrounding topography of the land, and envision where the water from a flash flood would travel and what is the fastest route to safe ground. Flash flooding often happens at night, so be prepared by making this survey while it is still light out. Monitor your radio if signs of storms are present in the sky.
Flash flooding is quite dangerous even in the security of a vehicle. In fact, almost half of all flash flood deaths are auto-related. As little as 2 feet of water can cause a car to float, so when confronted with a river of water created by a flash flood, turn around and find another route to your destination. If the water level stalls out your car, leave the vehicle immediately and move to a higher elevation.
Do not try to cross a flooded stream on foot, either; the swift currents may sweep you off your feet.
Tornadoes—An average of 800 tornadoes are reported every year in the United States, causing approximately 80 deaths annually. Most tornadoes occur in the central plains east of the Rocky Mountains, but they can also be a part of hurricanes and tropical storms occurring in the eastern half of the country.
The best kind of shelter from tornadoes is underground, such as a basement or cellar. Obviously, such areas are rarely available in a camping situation. So, as in other types of weather events that have high winds, avoid any wide-open, unprotected areas. Seek areas that will shield you from falling or flying debris, such as a steep hillside. Find the nearest man-made structure such as a concrete restroom or camp shelter.
If you are outside when a tornado approaches, do not get in your car or camper. Neither of these are safe places, as even weak tornadoes are capable of picking up these objects. Cabins in the path of a tornado are not safe, either. Instead, run at a right angle out of the path of the tornado and find a low area like a ravine to lie flat in. If driving your car out in the open when a tornado approaches, leave the car and lie flat in a ditch or other depression. Do not use the area under an overpass for shelter. The wind and debris are easily funneled under these types of open structures.
Strong Winds—Strong winds can be dangerous. In cold climates, wind chill effect makes the air feel colder, which can increase the chances of frostbite or hypothermia. Make sure you have adequate outerwear to protect yourself. In any climate, strong wind can wreak havoc on a campsite. Make sure tents and tarps are firmly secured and loose objects are stowed away. For some degree of protection, strike camp in a spot that has a windbreak like trees or shrubs on the side of the prevailing winds.
If winds become especially strong, being among large trees can be dangerous. Stay away from dead trees or large snags that the wind may knock down. Trees at high elevations are often more vulnerable to wind because they have shallow root systems.
Hail—Hail can be a dangerous weather phenomenon, especially when combined with strong winds. Hail can fall at the same speed as a fastball from a major-league pitcher, and a blow to the head can be dangerous, even fatal. Even if the hail is only pea-sized, stay sheltered, as it can suddenly become much larger. If caught in large hail away from the campsite, cover your head and get under some thick trees that will break the fall of the hail.
Hurricanes—Hurricanes are very powerful circulating tropical storms with winds of 74 mph or greater. They are moving storms that begin over the ocean and can cause great destruction of life and property if they come ashore. There are, on average, five hurricanes that strike the U.S. coastline every year, two of which are typically classified as major storms.
Early-warning systems have made the greatest strides in preventing hurricane-related deaths. Do not ignore these warnings, and if told by authorities to evacuate an area due to a hurricane, leave immediately by the quickest route possible. It is helpful to know what this route is beforehand, as well as alternative routes in case there is a bottleneck of traffic. Know where the closest safety shelters are located and how to get to them quickly.
If you must stay in a cabin during a minor hurricane, bring in loose, lightweight objects like lawn furniture. If available, nail sheets of plywood over the windows. When the storm arrives, do not stay near windows even if they are covered with plywood. Stay in a small, enclosed room like a closet, and if none are available lie underneath a sturdy piece of furniture. Throughout the storm, listen to the radio or television (if possible) for further storm updates.
Blizzards—Blizzards can be dangerous because visibility is extremely limited, which makes mobility difficult and often impossible. The resulting exposure to low temperatures over a period of time can be deadly. If planning an outdoor excursion during the winter seasons, pack extra cold-weather supplies such as sweaters, coats, hats and gloves, in addition to heat sources such as dry firewood, fire starters and hand warmers.
If you get stranded in your automobile during a blizzard, stay in your car unless shelter or help can be seen within 100 yards. It is easy to get disoriented during a blizzard, and you may not be able to find your way back to the car. Run your motor 10 minutes out of every hour for heat, and during that time crack open your window to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. If you run out of water, be sure to melt snow before you consume it so that it doesn’t lower your body temperature. Occasionally move your limbs vigorously to keep your blood circulating properly.
To make yourself more visible, tie a brightly colored piece of cloth to your antenna and raise your hood if it is not snowing. During the 10-minute intervals that you run the engine, turn on the dome light. If there is more than one person in the car, take turns sleeping so one person can watch for signs of a rescue.
If you are stranded in a blizzard at a cabin, close off any unneeded rooms, stuff towels or clothing in door cracks and cover the windows at night. Let faucets run at a drip to prevent the pipes from freezing.
If you are stranded outside, construct or find a structure that will shield you from the wind. If you have to, build an igloo-type tunnel out of the snow. Build a fire with rocks around the fire’s perimeter. The rocks will shield the fire from wind and absorb and reflect the heat. Cover all body parts with clothing and try to stay as dry as possible.