How To Predict The Weather In The Wilderness

how to predict the weather

Typically we count on weather services and electronic devices to know what to expect from the sky. We may alter travel plans, make a quick trip to the store, or simply pack an umbrella in reaction to an impending storm. However, these services will likely come to a halt if disaster strikes and alternative means of monitoring weather conditions will be necessary. For those that opt to head for the hills, it will become vastly more important to know how to predict the weather in the wilderness.

Nature itself provides many clues as to what is in store. The clouds, plants, animals, insects, and the moon have been used for centuries to predict precipitation, droughts, and floods. Farmers, fishermen, sailors, and others who spend long periods of time outdoors, and whose livelihood depends heavily on the weather patterns, have devised ways to foresee the weather in order to prepare themselves.

Having the skills to read the warning signs that nature provides has short-term and long-term benefits that can greatly increase your chances of survival in a bug-out scenario. Whether a major storm is brewing and you need to prepare to build a shelter in for the day or if the likelihood of flooding doubles and you need to reconsider your location for the season, learning how to predict the weather using nature is a valuable survival skill.

Observing The Sky To Predict The Weather

The most intuitive way to predict the weather is to look to the sky. The clouds, wind direction, air pressure, and even the moon are directly related to incoming weather. Paying close attention to the changes in the sky and knowing how to interpret what you see gives you advance warning of what is to come and enables you to prepare.

how to predict the weather
A red rising sun warns of rain to come.

There is an old saying, “Red sky at night a sailor’s delight. Red sky morn, sailors take warn.” At sunset, the red sky is caused by sun rays passing through dust particles which accumulate at the forefront of a high pressure system. However, in the morning a red sky occurs when a low pressure system carrying moisture is on the way. Therefore, a brilliant red sunset usually precedes a clear day but a red sunrise is a warning that a storm is coming.

how to predict the weather
A red sky as the sun sets in the west is a sign of clear skies.

Another colorful way to predict the weather is the formation of rainbows. In the northern hemisphere, a morning rainbow in the east indicates rain is on the way, as weather generally moves east to west.

Reading Clouds

Cloud identification is a science in itself but there are some simple indicators that can prove very useful, especially when trying to predict the weather in the wilderness.

how to predict the weather
When you see cumulus clouds, it’s a good day for traveling, foraging, and other outdoor activities.

White, fluffy clouds sitting high in the sky are non-threatening as they pass overhead. When the cloud cover is low and dark, a storm is building and appropriate measures should be taken to prepare your camp. Gathering extra firewood and storing it in a protected location will ensure that you have dry fuel to burn during and after the storm.

how to predict the weather
Low, dark cloud cover is a sure sign that a storm is building. Make sure your shelter is ready to withstand rain and wind.

To give yourself more time to prepare, there are two easily identified types of clouds that form prior to storm clouds: mare’s tails and mackerel skies. Mare’s tails are wispy cirrus clouds that are somewhat hazy and undefined, as the tail of a galloping mare. The same conditions that cause them to form also cause airplane trails to linger in the sky.

how to predict the weather
Cirrus clouds precede incoming frontal systems and indicate changing weather. Image credit k4dordy on flickr.

Mackerel skies are altocumulus clouds and are also a sign of rising moisture levels. Independently, these each warn of rain coming within a few days, but seen together, rain will typically fall within 24 hours.

how to predict the weather
Mackerel skies are named for their resemblance to the scales of a mackerel fish.

While clouds are often thought of as bringers of rain, they also act as a layer of insulation. On an overcast night, the radiant heat from the earth is trapped by the cloud layer, leading to a higher temperature in the morning. When the sky is clear at night, the radiant heat escapes and the morning will be cooler as a result.

Wilderness Survival Kit

Detecting Air Pressure

Though air pressure is less noticeable than cloud cover, it is a very dependable indicator of incoming weather conditions. Low atmospheric pressure leads to cloud formation and precipitation. High pressure systems are associated with rising air and clear dry skies.

One way to detect the current air pressure conditions is to observe the smoke from a campfire. If the smoke is rising steadily in vertical column, the air pressure is high but if it is sinking and swirling, the air pressure is low and precipitation may soon follow.

survival after bugging out
Studying how to predict the weather turns your campfire into a barometer.

What The Wind Tells About The Weather

Wind is named for the direction it comes from, so an easterly wind blows from east to west. A gentle prevailing wind or light, variable winds are signs of clear weather. Strong winds occur when two fronts with different temperatures meet, and usually mean that a storm is forming.

An awareness of the surrounding climates will also help you read the wind. For instance, if a desert lies to the east of your location, wind coming from the east will typically carry dry, warm desert air. Mountains also play a role in that air flowing over a mountain will usually release precipitation as it rises along the side facing the wind and will move down the opposite side with dry air.

“Circle Around The Moon, Rain Or Snow Soon.”

People have long looked to the moon to provide insight into atmospheric conditions. As the old saying states, when the moon has a hazy ring around it, precipitation is on its way. The ring is caused by the presence of dust particles building up in the atmosphere. It means that a low pressure system is on its way, bringing rain or snow with it. As it passes through, the low pressure system will push the particles along.

how to predict the weather
You can see how the moonlight reflects on the particles in the air, forming a hazy ring.

When the moon appears clearly defined and bright, it is due to an absence of particles and moisture. This is characteristic of a high pressure system and the next day has a high chance of being dry. In the short-term, this is a simple and effective way to predict the weather.

how to predict the weather
When the outline of the moon is clearly defined, fair weather can be expected.

For long-term or seasonal weather predictions, the phases of the moon can reveal clues. When two full moons occur in the same month, there is a higher chance of flooding. It is also said that when the tips of a crescent moon point upward and the moon looks like a bowl that can hold water, a dry spell is coming. When the new moon looks like a frown, or a bowl that water would spill out of, a wet spell is predicted.

how to predict the weather
This bowl-shaped moon is often associated with a period of dry weather.

Weather Signs In Nature

The natural world is built to survive and living things will make adjustments in order to maintain life and produce offspring. Sometimes the changes are so subtle they can hardly be detected but there are some common plant and animal behaviors that reveal clues about the weather. When bugging out, you can use these clues to increase your own chances of survival.

How To Predict The Weather Using Plants

Upon waking, take a close look at the ground. Morning dew on the plants, while itself is wet, can actually be a sign of a dry day to come. A lack of morning dew can occur when dry winds have been pushed through ahead of a storm system bringing rain close behind. Of course, if it rained the night before, this will be more difficult to observe and you will need to look for additional signs in order to predict the weather.

how to predict the weather
A dewy morning can mean that a dry day is in store.

The phrase “it smells like rain” has some truth to it. The moist air of a low pressure system brings out the scents of plants, as they release their waste under this condition, so the air will smell more pungent just before a rain. Swamps will also release gases during a low pressure system, making for a telltale sign that a storm is moving in.

Visual signs that it is time to prepare for wet weather are readily apparent in trees. The leaves of deciduous trees will curl upward in anticipation of a rainstorm. Pine cones will open their scales in dry air but close them in high humidity.

how to predict the weather
The increase in humidity prior to a storm causes deciduous leaves to curl upward.
how to predict the weather
It looks like a dry sunny day for this pine tree.

Plants also have the ability to foresee more long-term conditions and will adjust their growth accordingly. Crops, such as onions and corn, will grow thicker husks when a harsher winter is predicted in order to provide more protection to their seeds. Similarly, evergreens will produce larger, more robust pine cones, and acorns will form thicker shells- all to provide the seeds with a better chance of surviving extreme winter conditions. If you notice these signs, be prepared for a cold, long winter.

how to predict the weather
A thicker husk provides the seeds with better insulation against extreme temperatures.

How To Predict The Weather Using Animals

The combination of heightened senses and well-developed instincts makes animals highly adept at sensing bad weather conditions. Be on the lookout for changes in feeding patterns, behavior, and sound level that may indicate rain is on the way.

Here are some specific examples of animal behavior that can be used to predict when a storm is coming: 

  • Fish will feed voraciously at the surface prior to a storm so that they can ride it out in deeper water where food is scarce, so an excellent day of fishing usually means you should seek shelter and be prepared to cook the day’s catch in the rain.

how to predict the weather

  • Turtles begin to seek higher ground 1-2 days before a large rainstorm, so you may see them on roads or other areas above normal water levels.
  • If birds are flying high, the weather will likely be clear for a few days. Birds will fly lower in dropping pressure systems because the change in pressure hurts their ears. They will also exhibit frenzied feeding. Squabbles at the bird feeder can mean that a storm is coming and birds are stocking up in preparation of riding out the storm in their nest.

how to predict the weather

  • Along coastlines, seagulls will take shelter before a storm and birds in general become very quiet.
  • Squirrels, similar to birds, will aggressively stock up on food prior to a pending storm.
  • Cats’ ears are very sensitive and they do not tend to wash them but a change in pressure may cause your cat to rub at its ears, indicating a drop in pressure and a storm on the way.

how to predict the weather

  • Horses and cows are known to exhibit similar ear sensitivity behaviors when the pressure changes.
  • Herd animals, such as cattle, will group tightly together, usually facing the same direction, when a storm is approaching. They also tend to head for high ground.

In addition to predicting major storms, animals can also sense long-term threats in the weather pattern. This information is highly valuable when preparing your bug out camp to withstand low temperatures and difficult conditions. A harsh winter means that food will be scarce and opportunities for foraging and hunting will be limited.

bushcraft skills

Depending on the amount of snow cover, it may be challenging to gather firewood. Keeping a fire going will be vital and your bug out party will need as many warm layers as you are able to find or make. All of these preparations take time, so the sooner you know, the better.

In general, if you notice extra thick coats of fur on domestic animals or local wildlife, expect dropping temperatures. Conversely, when their fur comes off in tufts, warmer temperatures are right around the corner.

If birds begin migrating earlier than usual, it is a sign of harsh winter to come. The brown section in the middle of a woolly bear’s body is also used to predict how harsh the upcoming winter will be; the thinner the brown stripe, the harsher the winter is expected to be. While there is not much research to back it up, a 70-80% success rate is pretty good for an old wives tale!

how to predict the weather
The Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar, often referred to as the “woolly bear,” is an age-old predictor of winter conditions. The one on the left (photo credit Sheila Sund on flickr) is thought to indicate a short winter, while the one on the right (photo credit USFWS on flickr) shows a harsh winter is in store.

Farmers have even used cow fertility rates to predict whether there will be a drought the following year- a drop in fertility occurs in anticipation of a future water shortage.

how to predict the weather
Do cows know how to predict the weather?! Many animals will make similar adjustments in breeding in response to foreseen conditions.

Resources On How To Predict The Weather

To futher explore the topic of how to predict the weather using nature, check out these excellent resources on clouds, weather, navigating, and storms.

ResourceAuthorSubject
The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs
Tristan GooleyForecasting, tracking, navigating and more by reading clues from nature
The Natural Navigator
Tristan GooleyHow to read navigational clues from the sun, plants, tides, stars and more to find your way
The Weather Wizard's Cloud Book
Jim Duncan, Louis D. Rubin Sr., Hiram J. HerbertA full guide to using clouds to predict the weather
Instant Weather Forecasting
Alan WattsCloud formations and reading the sky to predict the weather
Instant Storm Forecasting
Alan WattsFocuses on forecasting strong winds, thunder, hail storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, and waterspouts
Instant Wind Forecasting
Alan WattsLearn to read clues to make predictions for wind conditions
Truth About Nature: A Family's Guide to 144 Common Myths about the Great Outdoors
Stacy Tornio and Ken KefferGreat for families! Explore myths about nature in this interactive guidebook
Click the image to view the book on Amazon.

Conclusion

Plants and animals have been “bugging out” and surviving in nature since the beginning of time. There is much to gain by observing their weather predicting skills and honing our own. When living in the natural world, a simple thunderstorm can be catastrophic if you are not prepared for it. Anticipating a harsh winter can help you ration supplies and apply your energy effectively so you have adequate food and fuel stored. Knowing how to predict the weather will help you to make wise decisions in favor of your survival.

Your Thoughts

Do you know any other ways to predict the weather in the wilderness? Have you been in a situation where knowledge of weather signs in nature benefitted you? Share your experiences in the Comments section below, thanks!

Chris

Chris Ruiz

My name is Chris and I created this site to help ordinary people prepare for the uncertainties of the modern day world. I believe that a well-prepared society is the best safeguard against any natural or manmade disaster.

2 comments on “How To Predict The Weather In The Wilderness

  1. Great article! This kind of bushcraft knowledge could be immensely useful. It’s interesting to me to think that at some point in human history this kind of knowledge was probably second nature, and now days for me (and I assume for many) it’s a completely unknown skill.

    1. Hey Stranger, good point most people today have lost those primitive skills that kept our species alive for the past 10,000 years or so. Let’s get after it!

      Chris

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