It’s a beautiful day; the sun is shining—until you head up the mountain only to find yourself trapped in a raincloud with visibility so bad that all you can see is the snow under your feet.
At some point during your outdoor adventuring career, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter bad weather. It’s not all Instagram-worthy bluebird skies out there! But a storm isn’t necessarily a high-consequence problem as long as you’re prepared to handle it.
Before you head out on your next excursion, ask yourself if you know what to do when bad weather hits. If you’re unsure, use these best practices and safety advice from Steve Chapman, Coquitlam Search and Rescue’s director of community education, to guide you.
Preparing Before You Go
Being prepared is your first line of defense—it can be the key to turning a life-threatening situation into a manageable one. Here are some basic steps that you should always follow as part of your trip planning process.
Check the Forecast
“The weather is something that needs to be researched pretty diligently, even in summer. Thunderstorms are not something to be trifled with,” says Chapman.
He suggests using Environment Canada for a general overview of weather trends and warnings on the day of your trip, as well as Spotwx and Windy.com for more detailed and frequently updated weather modelling and long-term forecasts.
If bad weather is predicted, consider whether you need to alter your route or delay your trip. Check apps like AllTrails for recent route conditions, as the terrain you plan to travel will have an impact on your decision.
Pack Essential Gear
When it comes to hiking, always pack the 10 essentials as the bare minimum safety requirements.
For kayaking or paddle sports, your packing list will look a bit different, consisting of things like a PFD, whistle, bailer, spare paddle, towline and a buoyant heaving line.
Leave a Trip Plan
No matter the weather, always leave a detailed trip plan so that someone can call 9-1-1—who will then contact the local Search and Rescue as needed—if you don’t come home as planned. One easy way to log your trip plan is through the Adventure Smart app.
What To Do if You’re Caught in Bad Weather
It’s the unfortunate moment you’ve been preparing for—a storm hits while you’re out in the elements. So, what do you do? Here are some essential safety tips:
Keep an Eye on the Sky
“It’s rare that a storm just suddenly appears. You’ll get telltale signs. As the day goes by, if there’s going to be a thunderstorm, you’ll see puffy clouds. If they look like they’re developing into thunderheads, getting deep and tall, it’s probably time to think, ‘do I have an escape route if this turns into something that’s likely to hit me?’” says Chapman.
Having a basic understanding of what weather patterns actually look like in real life can help you determine when a storm might hit you, which can give you a head-start on assessing your risk and planning your escape route while in the field.
If you get caught in the rain, your main concern is staying dry. Surprisingly, Coquitlam Search and Rescue deals with more hypothermia calls in spring, summer and fall than in winter, so don’t underestimate the importance of keeping yourself warm in all seasons.
When faced with a thunderstorm, however, the stakes are much higher. Your best course of action will depend on where you’re located when the storm hits.
If you’re on a mountain ridgetop, it’s important to get as low as you possibly can, but consider how the rain might affect the terrain before you start moving.
“If you’re doing a route which is sort of rocky, maybe a scramble, then when the rain hits, those rocks which were perfectly grippy five minutes ago could be too slippery. It might render some routes undoable without rope protection. It’s that significant, the difference in traction,” says Chapman.
When you’re in the forest, take shelter near the shortest tree you can find, as it’s less likely to be hit by lightning than its taller neighbours.
If you think you may get hit by lightning—perhaps you feel the hair on your head rising—assume the brace position.
“Kneel down, put your elbows and forearms on the ground and tuck your head in. Make yourself small so if you do get struck, it’ll minimize the damage,” says Chapman.
“Be aware of dead trees. That’s the real risk,” says Chapman, as they’re most likely to fall down during a storm’s high winds, which could have fatal consequences.
If you’re kayaking in a thunderstorm, get off the water as soon as you can. In addition to the lightning risk, high winds could sink or capsize your boat. Wind risk can exist outside of storm situations, too. On the British Columbian coast, for example, strong inflow winds are common in the afternoon, which can make for strenuous and hazardous trips home.
Thunderstorms can cause flash floods, especially in the spring when snowmelt makes rivers particularly active. Plan your route away from rivers if you can, and if a waterway is too risky to cross, don’t attempt it.
“A lot of people get killed on mountain waterbodies because they can be really dangerous,” says Chapman.
When faced with any weather event, from an uncrossable river to a thunderstorm, you should always be prepared to stay the night and shelter in place in case that’s your safest—or only—option.
With a bag full of the right safety gear, adequate training, situational awareness and an understanding of what to do when faced with bad weather or another emergency, you’ll feel much more confident in your ability to handle whatever backcountry situation you encounter.