Camping trips aren't limited to the sunny days of summer anymore. With advancements in gear, clothing and weather forecasting, it's easier than ever to get outside in all kinds of weather. In fact, camping has become a year-round activity.
You can try to plan your trips around good camping weather, but you should always think like the Boy Scouts and be prepared for anything. Here's how.
Anticipate Dramatic Changes
The planet's climate is changing. Spring arrives earlier. Summers are hotter. Storms are more frequent and powerful. And winter is getting colder.
That's why it's important to anticipate the impact these dramatic changes can have on your next trip. It's also vital to keep a positive attitude towards whatever surprises nature brings your way. After all, you can't control the weather, but you can adapt to it.
Get Weather Forecasts
Unusual or extreme weather can be unpleasant if you're not ready for it. Unlike a gentle summer shower, a powerful thunderstorm can take all the fun out of things. Same goes for starting out in calm 90-degree heat down in a valley and finding five feet of snow and driving winds at your 7,000-foot elevation campground.
To limit unexpected surprises, check camping weather forecasts online. These services are easy to use: Simply enter the zip code of your destination and you can get a weather forecast for that region for up to 15 days in advance. Some weather forecast sites can also text weather updates to your smartphone—you'll need a mobile signal, of course.
If your camping plans take you to wilderness areas where—heaven forbid—cell phone service is non-existent, weather radios are reliable backups. These range from simple battery-operated weather alert units and crank-type radios that require no batteries, to CB radios with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) channels for use with your motorhome or tow vehicle.
Inclement Camping Weather
If it's not clear skies, a light breeze and 73 degrees with 50 percent humidity, then it must be inclement weather, right? Here's how to deal with all kinds of natural occurrences.
Rain and Floods: These are perhaps the most underestimated dangers to campers. A downpour 5 miles away may appear to have no effect on you where you are…until thousands of gallons of untamed water come rushing down that dry riverbed and catches you unprepared. Even if you're on the high ground, what about the dusty old road you drove in on? It could be days before help can reach you.
And don't even think about driving your rig across that “shallow” stream. It only takes 18 to 24 inches of water to float the average vehicle. And once you start bobbing, your steering wheel is useless. Trying to cross on foot is even more dangerous as moving water in incredibly powerful. It's best to stay on high ground until the water subsides.
Winds: Contrary to what you might expect, hiking or camping in a forest offers very little protection against high winds—especially at upper elevations where trees are likely to have shallow roots. These trees can blow over easily and fill the air with flying, debris and branches.
If high winds descend upon you, seek shelter in a heavy, solid structure, a large, stable rock formation or a cave. Out on flatlands without ground cover, blowing dirt and gravel pose a serious hazard, so find shelter.
Lightning: While lightning can be awesome to watch from a distance, you don't want to guess where it might hit. To minimize your risk:
Tornadoes: Twisters aren't limited to Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas; they've been reported in every state in the United States and can occur at any time, day or night. And just because they're rare in mountainous regions doesn't mean they can't happen.
If you happen upon a tornado while traveling to or from a campground, it may be possible to drive away from it if road conditions permit and you can reach 60+ miles per hour—while tornado winds can reach 200 mph or more, a twister rarely moves faster than 60 mph. If you can drive at a right angle to the direction the tornado is traveling, you're likely to avoid the danger by getting out of its way. Just be aware that it can change direction quickly.
If you can't get away, abandon your vehicle and seek the best shelter you can find. Most injuries and deaths are due to flying debris. So your best bet is to get low and out of the winds and find something to hang onto. You may think your 3-ton SUV is good protection, but a tornado can pick it up or roll it easily until it's a mashed up mess.
Finally, don't seek shelter under an overpass as it acts like a wind tunnel and can actually increase the wind speed.
Hot Camping Weather
If you venture into hot zones, you should be prepared for the conditions. Living in an air-conditioned motorhome or trailer can make places with names like Furnace Gulch or Anvil Flats more bearable—as long as you have AC power. But you need to be prepared should that power fail. If you're in a tent, forget it. Thin nylon walls offer absolutely no comfort from blistering heat. Here's how to prepare in other ways.
Hot Weather Clothing: Your body cools off in warm climates through sweating. So be sure your wardrobe includes light colored fabrics that reflect the sun's rays away and that can vent off perspiration. Polyester and nylon work well and dry quickly. And a hat (not a visor) is an absolute must to keep your noggin from overheating.
Hot Weather Gear: Leave your winter-rated sleeping bag at home and equip yourself with lighter, cooler bedding for a hot trip.
If you're tent camping, it will be hot and stuffy in the warm months. Remove the rain fly from the roof to help cool off, or sleep outdoors on a sleeping pad. Of course you might have to slather on the DEET spray to keep ravenous bugs at bay while you sleep.
Finally, use two ice coolers, one for drinks and one for food. The ice in the food chest will last longer than the drink chest, which will be opened more frequently by thirsty campers.
Stay Hydrated: As long as you sweat you're losing water, and as you learned in biology, the human body needs plenty of H2O to function properly. So make sure you have lots of fluids on hand. And, no, beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages don't count when it comes to hydration.
Find Shade: If you can, park your RV or pitch your tent in a shady area to keep out of the sun. If you can't find shade, create your own by tying a tarp between some trees. Also, be sure to apply plenty of waterproof sunscreen and lip balm that's at least SPF 30.
Cold Camping Weather
In colder regions, or where sudden weather changes can cause temperatures to plunge, you have to prepare for big fluctuations. Many mountain campgrounds can still have snow on the ground in June.
Cold Weather Clothing: If you're not heading north of the Arctic Circle, you really just need the basics, which includes long sleeve shirts, long pants, a hooded sweatshirt, parka jacket, warm socks, gloves or mittens, and a beanie.
Avoid cotton materials as they trap and hold moisture close to the body, reducing any insulating value. Undergarments of polypropylene are ideal for wicking away dampness, while over garments should be made of wool. If you layer, it's easier to adjust your comfort level as temperatures change.
Cold Weather Gear: Instead of sweltering inside a super warm sleeping bag, add an extra blanket on top of your standard duty bag instead.
Be sure to shelter your food and water from cold temperatures, as well. Sleep with your water bottle inside your sleeping bag to avoid the disappointment of frozen water when all you want is a cup of hot coffee in the morning.
Your best bet is to plan ahead for all kinds of camping weather. Find out what the conditions are where you're headed, and get updates frequently.
Jeff Adams is a California-based freelance writer, contributor to ReserveAmerica.com and an avid camping enthusiast. He's been dragging his trailer and willing family around the western U.S. for over a decade.