How To Predict The Weather In The Backcountry

Predicting the weather on our backpacking trips can be daunting at first. Although we might find it difficult to do, it is very important to have first-hand knowledge of what to expect during our trips. With the right information and plan, you’d be surprised at how easy it is. Here are some of our techniques to data and interpret to predict the weather for our backpacking trips.

What do we need to look for?

Temperature and precipitation are two of the most important variables  when analyzing meteorological data. Additionally, the typical high and low temperatures, together with their extreme values, as well as the quantity of rain that falls on a given day are other things to look out for.  

Aside from short-term forecasts, it's difficult to find data on humidity and wind when given such a small amount of information  Here are some observations we make to further support our assumptions: 

  • Unless storms sweep in from the Pacific, locations west of the 100th meridian remain dry (mostly between November and April).
  • Humidity dominates east of the 100th meridian (the line which approximately bisects the Midwest from north to south) as well as in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska's coasts.
  • The plains are the country's windiest area. Ridges and peaks are very vulnerable to wind, particularly when storms pass through or weather systems shift.
  • Wind is typically not a big concern at night if you can find a sheltered campsite (among natural wind barriers like trees or canyon walls).

Consider-How long is your trip

How long is a "journey" in terms of miles traveled? As a rule of thumb, we don't trust weather forecasts for anything less than a five-day vacation. A storm front is expected to reach within a week, but we take predictions between five and ten days with a grain of salt. Anything more than 10 days is considered a "long" voyage, and at that point, you can never be sure of the weather.

For shorter travels, we use weather averages and usual extremes as a guide, and then make last-minute adjustments depending on actual forecasts. It is most probable that the weather will be normal, but we need to be prepared for any unexpected conditions.

There will be more extremes on long-distance travels than on shorter ones. If we were to travel the whole length of the Appalachian Trail in three months, we may encounter eight weeks of typical weather, two weeks of unusually wet or cold weather, and two weeks of unusually warm or dry weather. As a whole, the journey will be quite average, but there will be more variation than it would on a shorter trip.

Planning on a short-term

When planning a trip to the backcountry, we like to acquire a weather forecast the night before and sometimes even the morning of our trip. Even if we know the forecast for these events, keep in mind that it will not change the weather, but it could greatly influence our trekking route, decision making and where we plan to camp. The National Weather Service (NWS) is our primary source of information.

By selecting a more particular location, we may get a "point prediction," rather than rely on the forecast for the town closest to our intended trekking route. Depending on the path, we may collect multiple predictions, such as high and low places and the opposing sides of a weather-making division.

In addition, one can check out the hourly weather prediction mentioned under "Additional Resources" to get a clearer idea and understanding of when and how bad the weather will be. Graphs like this one are more helpful  than generalizations like "chance of rain showers, mixed with snow after 9 p.m." On rare occasions, we can take a gander at the forecast discussion, which adds further context and color to the raw data and in return, can help us in our decision making.

Here are other reliable sources of information aside from the NWS. Although some are relevant only for particular seasons and locations, you’ll never know when they’ll come in handy.

  • OpenSnow
  • Summit stations, like the Mount Washington Observatory
  • Avalanche information centers, like the Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Planning on a long term

Short-term predictions aren't always correct, but they're typically close enough to put together a good kit and establish trip expectations, in reference to our experience. For example, the prediction may overestimate or underestimate the quantity of rain, but it still promises rain, so we’d bring rain gear and a suitable shelter for it.

But on the other hand, we don't like to wait until the last minute to prepare. For example, if we want to travel after work on Friday, we need to pack earlier in the week. It's not feasible for us to get our supplies one day before our hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, particularly because some cottage firms have waiting lists of many months.

So the question is, where do we find seasonal averages?

Number 1 is, National Center for Environmental Information

It's a good idea for us to start with the NCEI, which is part of the NOAA's Office of Naval Research. For many years we have used its search tool or mapping tool to look for the monthly climatic normals for its COOP stations.

Although a side comment from us is that, both tools should be made more user-friendly, but for now, they're adequate. NCEI tools may take some time to master in order to get the information you need. Add the data to your basket and "check out" at a COOP station. It's completely free, and you'll get an email with a link to the download.

2nd is, SNOTEL

More than 800 automated data collecting stations are run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a Department of Agriculture branch, particularly in the West and Alaska. In addition to water supply forecasts, maps and reports, data from the Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) Network is utilized.

Use CalTopo and enable the "SnoTel Sites" layer to locate SNOTEL locations. Then look for a few along your path that are nearby.

Temperature, precipitation, and snowpack are all recorded and monitored at SNOTEL sites around the country. Its Report Generator 2.0 is our favorite tool for retrieving temperature and precipitation data.

Lastly, California

The California Department of Water Resources oversees weather, snowpack, river, and reservoir monitoring systems. Make use of the available tools and the station locating map to get started.

Adjustments On Data

The NCEI, SNOTEL, and California temperature and precipitation normals are station-specific. The statistics should be adjusted to be more relevant if these stations are nearby but not on your route, that is why we need to make some adjustments in order to make data more accurate and relevant.

Precipitation: Elevation and topography have a dramatic effect on rainfall and snowfall. Greater amounts of rain and snowfall fall on the "wet" side of a large divide than on the "rainshadow" side, which is lower in elevation.

Temperature: Every 1,000 feet of elevation rise, subtract three to five degrees Fahrenheit—three degrees for humid regions; four for semiarid; and five for arid areas—from the temperature.


We hope you have learned something new about how to predict the weather during your backcountry getaways, remember that it pays off to know something that you can use to your advantage when venturing out in the wild. Cheers!


Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.