Weather plays a huge and crucial role on every adventure. It can determine where, when, and how an adventure plays out and if you’re not prepared, weather can be a trip-ruiner. Here’s how to read the weather like a pro while out on adventures. 

To Pitch or Not to Pitch?

It’s a question I often ask when I roll into camp at the end of a long day. I prefer to sleep under the stars rather than in a stuffy tent, so I try to avoid pitching whenever I can. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. It’s probably just because I’m lazy. 

Read more: Tarp Camping 101

Regardless, reading the weather is an important skill when out hiking: especially on multi-day trips. The weather’s constantly changing, and that weather forecast you read four days ago has probably changed a lot since then. Plus, becoming your own forecaster is easy to do – all you have to do is look to the clouds.


Just Look Up

Before we jump into how to read clouds, you first have to understand the different cloud types. Cloud names may appear daunting, but all you need to name a cloud is its shape and height. 

Cloud Shapes

  • Stratus clouds are wispy or flat, layered clouds. They can form sheets and cover large areas.
  • Cumulus clouds are lumpy.
  • Nimbus clouds are dark clouds that bring rain. If you see these on the horizon, there is a good chance you’re about to get wet. 


Coupla classic stratus clouds out to play | @jordanfmcqueen

Cloud Height

  • High-level clouds (7km +) start with cirro-
  • Mid-level clouds (2-7km) start with alto-
  • Lower level clouds (0-2km) don’t have prefixes.

Still confused? Well, here’s a handy diagram of the cloud types based on height and shape. Also included in the diagram are the nimbostratus – an endless grey formation – and the cumulonimbus, also known as storm clouds. 


When was the last time you looked at a diagram? | By Valentin de Bruyn from Wikimedia Commons

So what do all these cloud types mean?

Lumpy cumulus clouds

These clouds are indicators of good weather. However, if they’re growing into higher altitudes, they can become cumulonimbus clouds. If they’re small and somewhat wispy, break out the sunscreen.

Altocumulus clouds

Altocumulus clouds appear smaller and farther away than cumulus clouds. When they’re present, it looks like the sky is mottled. Unfortunately, they’re also one of the first signs of bad weather. However, context is essential. If the sky has been clear and these clouds begin to form, rain’s probably on the way. If it’s just recently rained, it may just be left-over moisture. 

Cirrocumulus clouds

These clouds look like tiny white puffs high in the sky, almost like rippling water. Depending on where you are in the world, they can either indicate good or bad weather. In tropical climates, they can precede cyclones, while in a colder climate, they can mean fair weather. 

Stratus clouds

Stratus clouds are one of the most challenging cloud types to read. They cover the sky at a low altitude and block the clouds above, and can be associated with good and bad weather, so it’s crucial to pay attention to the clouds that precede stratus clouds. 

Altostratus clouds

These clouds are responsible for some of the most beautiful sunsets around. They appear like strong streaks coming from the horizon and light up with colour at sunrise and sunset. Unfortunately, like altocumulus clouds, altostratus formations are a sign of bad weather. When these clouds start to lower and thicken up, you should start putting the tent up.


Love when altostratus clouds meet sunset | @alanrobertjones


Cirrostratus clouds

Cirrostratus clouds look like thin sheets high in the atmosphere. When they’re present, it can even look like there’s a halo around the sun or moon. They can appear up to a day before potential rain. 

Cirrus clouds

These are the most common type of high-level clouds. Due to their altitude, these clouds consist of ice crystals. They look wispy and thin — almost like lace blowing around. If you see these clouds, you’ll have good weather that day, but it may change in the future. 

Stratus clouds

Stratus clouds look like a uniform mist in the sky. Some drizzle can come from these clouds, but not much.


Stratus clouds? Or just fog? | @panjinda

Putting it All Together

Now that you have all your cloud types nailed, let’s look at two common scenarios of approaching weather. The first is a storm. Storms can be fast to arrive and catch you off guard if you don’t watch the sky. 

To start, you might just see some small cumulus clouds. Then, in the afternoon, it starts to get hot, and the small cumulus clouds begin to grow upwards. Eventually, all these cumulus clouds grow outwards too, and before you know it, you have a scary-looking sky full of cumulonimbus clouds. I think it’s time to head for cover. 


Cumulonimbus can be pretty spectacular | @lyv_


The second scenario takes a lot longer to evolve – sometimes several days. High cirrus clouds can slowly cover the clear sky. Then, altostratus clouds can start to fill up the sky below the cirrus clouds. Finally, stratus clouds can appear in the lower atmosphere, growing thicker and denser, until nimbostratus clouds form and rain starts to fall. 


When you wake up early for sunrise but nimbostratus clouds are blocking the view #mistopportunity | @iswanarif


Purists might scoff at me here, but another easy way of reading changes in the weather is a barometric pressure reader. These days you can find them on most outdoor watches, or you can pick them up pretty cheap as individual units. 

When the air pressure around you starts to drop quickly, it indicates that the weather’s beginning to change. It may seem like cheating, but using a barometer while also reading the clouds is an almost foolproof way of spotting lousy weather early. 

Read more: 7 Tips For Rainy Day Hiking

For those who can’t stand the thought of using devices to read the weather, you can also use animals and plants to help predict changing weather. It’s less reliable but a whole lot more satisfying when you get it right. Here a few potential indicators of coming rain:

  • Birds fly lower 
  • Cicadas, crickets and frogs grow louder 
  • Insects and spiders become more active 
  • There’s less birdsong 
  • Dry grass in the morning – Dewy grass indicates fair weather


Dew is a good sign for you! | @mattseymour

Being Prepared

Before you send me angry messages about how you hung out all your gear to dry, and then it poured, it’s important to note that all these methods aren’t 100% reliable. Even weather forecasters, with all their equipment at their disposal, get it wrong.

The critical thing to do is prepare. Always take your rain gear, check the weather forecast, as well as the local climate for the time of year. 

And remember, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’ – Alfred Wainwright.


Feature photo by @naomihut