Tim Jones: When outdoors, be prepared just in case the weather turns


Depending on exactly where you live in the Northeast, Hurricane Sandy was either a dangerous, prolonged nightmare (still ongoing for some as I write this), just a minor rain/wind event, or something in between. But with memories of Tropical Storm Irene and last October's major snowstorm still fresh, most people in New England seemed to take the threat very seriously.

As much as I love getting outdoors, I was hunkered down at home when Sandy visited. Not that four walls and a roof provide absolute safety and protection -- nothing short of an underground bunker does when a big storm hits. But it was certainly safer and more comfortable than sleeping out in a tent or an emergency bivouac. I confess I did go outside a number of times to gauge the storm's strength (it pretty much missed us ... ) but, mostly, I sat this one out indoors. I suspect you did, too, if you could.

With today's 24/7 weather reporting, you usually have some warning that heavy weather is headed your way. The forecasting for Sandy was right on the money as far as 48 hours out. But there's always uncertainly. The tail end of Sandy, for example, threw some strong thunderstorms at parts of New England, including where I live. I didn't hear those predicted far ahead, but thunderstorms aren't always predictable.

The predictions for Irene were less than precise about when, where and how much rain would fall. No one expected Vermont and New York to get hit so hard.

Last October's snowstorm was the real exception that tested forecasters. My buddy, David, and I were camped out. The forecast 12 hours before was for a dusting to a couple of inches. Just as the snow started, the forecast suddenly changed to eight inches of snow. If we hadn't gotten a weather update on David's cell phone (coverage where we were is spotty, at best), we'd never have known what was coming. We managed to get out before the storm really hit (I was worried about not being able to move my car in eight inches of snow.) As it turns out, the forecasters got the "8" right, they just forgot to add the "2" in the tens place -- we had a measured 28 inches of heavy, wet, settled snow in our campsite when we finally got back (on snowshoes) to retrieve our gear.

As I write this, I'm just back from four nights in that same campsite. Sandy raised one of the brooks higher than I've ever seen it before, high enough to make crossing far more difficult than it normally is. And one substantial beech tree snapped about eight feet off the ground and the whole top came crashing down about 50 feet from our tent site. What's scary about it is this tree looked sturdy and healthy -- I would have picked out others as possible dangers, not this one

Assessing the situation

But, looking at the site after the storm, it's clear that we would have been safe and comfortable inside a tent through the worst that Sandy could have thrown at us. In hindsight, it would have been fun to experience the storm that up close and personal. But it's easy to feel that way knowing we would have come through without that tree falling on us. It might not have been as much fun being there as the wind crashed trees around us. Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

As noted above, it is possible to get caught out in a bad storm you had no idea was coming. And if the weather suddenly turns on you, what do you do?

The first thing to do is clearly and carefully assess your situation. Where are you? Can you make a run for civilization, or would that put you in more peril than hunkering down and staying put? Think clearly: You may want to get home, but can you?

Next take stock of your resources. If you are out backpacking with a good tent, sleeping bag, stove and food, that's very different from being out for a day hike with a jacket and a water bottle.

Let's assume you are backpacking and simply can't make a run for it when the weather turns nasty. If your camp is already set, take a good hard look around for potential dangers. Think wind and water: A dead or precariously leaning tree that might fall on you in a windstorm is one potential danger. So is flooding, especially if you are camped near a stream. For example, we often camp on a low island in the Connecticut River. That would not have been a good place to be during Irene.

Lightning can be another potential danger -- you don't really want to be near tall trees or open rock ledges in a thunderstorm. It may not be fun to move your camp as the rain and wind pick up, but you might need to for safety.

Of course, if you haven't yet set your camp, you'll take a good look around before you set up, right? It's not a bad habit to get into, even if there isn't any bad weather in the forecast.

It's also not a bad idea, as you are day hiking, to make a habit of looking for spots where you could hunker down if you absolutely had to. After awhile, it becomes a habit; you see a fallen tree with a space beneath, a crevice be neath a huge boulder or a dense stand of small spruces and think: "I could use that as emergency shelter." The weather can be unpredictable; your ability to make good choices and safely ride out a storm shouldn't be.

Not so bad -- or was it?

Lest you think that a storm that "misses" you in nothing to worry about, just remember that Sandy came ashore in New Jersey, but the highest wind gust reported in the storm was 140 mph on top of good old Mount Washington.

Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com


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