Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory

Weather Tools to Know About When Camping

From the Pages of Camping Life Magazine

Forecasting the weather is a combination of art, science and luck — which is why weather reporters always deal in percentages rather than absolutes. Even though the process isn’t perfect, it’s still wise to listen to the broadcasts and pay attention to the clues about what’s coming. At the same time, it’s also good to keep a “weather eye” on the sky to look for local or fast-developing atmospheric activity that distant forecasters may not even be aware of.

When planning hiking or camping trips, it is vital to keep track of what’s happening weather-wise. Without knowing what the short- and long-term trends are, you might inadvertently travel into the path of a storm. So, along with packing the hot dogs, pop and ice in the cooler; filling the vehicle with fuel and making sure the sleeping bags and tent are aboard, be sure to make tapping into weather information part of your pretrip checklist.


Thanks to modern technology, having access to weather tools has never been easier. For about the same amount of money it takes to fill your gas tank, you can buy a compact, battery-powered weather radio that continuously broadcasts National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather reports all across the country. There are seven channels on the NOAA system, and the frequencies are broadcast nationwide by local reporting systems.

When traveling cross-country, simply change from one channel to another to continue receiving information on current conditions, forecasts, severe weather warnings, travel advisories and other emergency information for the region you’re in.

If you have Internet access, you can log on to the NOAA website at and follow the prompts to search for local weather information. The Weather Channel ( is another bookmark-worthy site, and lets you input the city and state, or simply the zip code, of the area you’re concerned with to quickly access weather info. Not only can you obtain a relatively long-term forecast, but you can also look at satellite images that show the movement of clouds and storm systems over a particular area.

Don’t overlook the evening news or local newspapers. And don’t forget to recheck that information on the morning of your departure. By accessing these sources, you will have a better chance of planning your trip around bad weather and being prepared for what is coming. Don’t be shy about postponing your plans when inclement weather looms large.

The weather can also take a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse. So once you’re out there camping and having a good time, it’s important to pay attention to what’s going on around you. You’ll be able to witness local atmospheric activities that may have eluded remote forecasters.


Being able to recognize the signs of changing or approaching weather can be a lifesaver. As you watch for signs of bad weather, look for cloud patterns and movement. The atmosphere is made up of gigantic air masses that differ from one another in temperature, pressure and humidity. Interaction between these air masses results in changing weather conditions such as cloud formation, precipitation and wind.

Clouds are the biggest clue to the type of weather that’s coming. The three primary types of clouds that we will discuss are: cumulus, stratus and cirrus. Watching the progression of cloud evolution will help tip you off to what’s coming down the pike.

Cumulus clouds are the puffy ones. They are also unstable and most often associated with cold fronts or air rising over mountains. The puffiness indicates that there is some degree of upward movement (a rising air mass), causing air to climb to a higher (and colder) altitude where the water vapor in the air condenses, causing the top of the cloud to grow.

A bunch of little cumulus clouds scattered in the sky looking like sheep on a pasture doesn’t pose much of a threat. However, when cumulus clouds bunch together into a huge mass, or grow into towering monsters, a thunderstorm (or worse) is likely. Huge dark clouds with flat, anvil-shaped bottoms are especially dangerous.

Cumulus giants can spawn sudden downpours, lightning, thunder, violent wind, flash floods, hail and tornadoes. This is especially true when warm/moist air collides with cooler/drier air along a frontal boundary.

Stratus clouds form shapeless, solid layers of overcast, making for a gray, dreary sky. If there is a lot of sunlight penetrating through the stratus layer, the clouds probably aren’t dense enough to produce much precipitation. But if the clouds become dark and low, expect showers or drizzle. Stratus clouds don’t typically result in sudden and violent downpours the way cumulus clouds do, but the rain can continue steadily for hours or even a couple of days, so there is still danger of flooding.

Cirrus clouds form so high in the atmosphere that they are made of ice crystals instead of water vapor. These wispy clouds (sometimes called “mares’ tails” because of their shape) don’t cause rain, but can foretell the coming of a warm front that will bring precipitation. If stratus clouds follow cirrus clouds, and if the stratus layer turns thick and dark, you should expect rain. How soon the rain comes depends on the speed at which the front is moving.


Clear blue skies don’t necessarily indicate that everything is hunky-dory. If a high-pressure system pushes a low-pressure system out of the way, it will help clear skies, but may also bring strong and gusty winds as the pressure equalizes. Trees can be knocked down and tents blown away under a cloudless sky.

By tapping into available weather tools for information and keeping an eye on the sky, you can better judge what kinds of weather to expect — and that’s knowledge that can help maximize your camping enjoyment!