How Windy is Too Windy To Hike?

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catskill mountains in distance

The Blackhead Range seen from Windham High Peak

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I recently moved my hike from a very windy Friday to a much less windy — but much colder — Saturday. I ran polls on Instagram and Twitter and eighty percent of my online followers agreed I’d made the right decision. Here’s why.

On Thursday, I checked mountain-foreacast.com for some peaks in the Adirondacks. I saw the forecast for the summits was going to be 50 mph (80 kph) with temperatures around 45°F (7°C). With wind chill factored in, that would feel like 33°F (0.4°C).

The next day, the wind was forecast to be 10 mph (16 kph) with temperatures around 20°F (-7°C). With wind chill factored in, that would feel like 9°F (-13°C). Pretty cold.

I chose the cold.

Planning Ahead

Planning ahead with due diligence is a crucial hiking skill, especially for mountain hikes where the risk of life-threatening injury is significant — doubly so in cold conditions. (Read How Cold is Too Cold to Hike?)

The cold itself doesn’t worry me. I only start to get nervous when temperatures get below 5°F (-15°C). Below that limit, I’m likely to rethink my hike plan and reschedule it for a warmer day.

But seeing a forecast for winds in the 45-50 mph range gave me pause. And it made me wonder…

How Windy is Too Windy?

At what point does wind become dangerous? Is there a scientific level for when it becomes “too much”? Is there a way to determine the real risks? It turns out there are good answers to these questions…

The forecast for both days I looked at was for cloudy to overcast skies with no rain or snow. (Bear in mind: conditions can change rapidly on a mountain, especially in the Adirondacks.) Between the two days, the only major differences were the wind and the temperature.

I did think, briefly, about hiking in 45 mph winds. Then I did some Googling and — uh, let’s just say I discovered I really didn’t want to hike in 45 mph winds.

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It turns out there are several well-established wind scales, with easy-to-grasp descriptions that help you develop a feel for what you’re getting into. They’re all based to some degree on an old measurement scale called the Beaufort wind force scale.

 Warning! This post is about wind only. For planning a shoulder season or winter hike, you also need to factor in precipitation, visibility, ice, snow depth, age and wetness. Wind is only one factor.

Beaufort Scale

Francis Beaufort, somewhat confusingly, was the Irish son of a Protestant clergyman descended from French Protestant Huguenots. At some point, Beaufort’s parents moved from Ireland to London, and he went on to serve in the British Royal Navy. That’s the sort of thing you could do in the 1800’s if you had a sufficiently posh name.

One of Beaufort’s many accomplishments was standardizing the descriptions of wind speeds in plain English — so that one person’s stiff breeze was no longer another person’s gentle wind.

There are two sets of wind descriptions, one for sea and one for land. The descriptions for land winds are as follows:

The first six levels pose no problems for hikers…

  • 0 / Calm / under 1 mph: smoke rises vertically
  • 1 / Light Air / 1-3 mph: direction shown by smoke drift but not by wind vanes
  • 2 / Light Breeze / 4-7 mph: wind felt on face; leaves rustle; wind vane moved by wind
  • 3 / Gentle Breeze / 8-12 mph: leaves and small twigs in constant motion; light flags extended
  • 4 / Moderate Breeze / 13-18 mph: raises dust and loose paper; small branches moved
  • 5 / Fresh Breeze / 19-24 mph: small trees in leaf begin to sway; crested wavelets form on inland waters

Above this level, you will begin to notice resistance while walking…

  • 6 / Strong Breeze / 25-31 mph: large branches in motion; whistling heard in telegraph wires; umbrellas used with difficulty

Above this level, things escalate quickly…

  • 7 / Moderate Gale / 32-38 mph: whole trees in motion; clear inconvenience felt when walking against the wind; will affect balance; avoid exposed ridge lines and cliffy edges; if the temperature is below freezing, you risk first degree frostbite on any exposed skin. (This is where I nope-out.)

Above this level, staying upright is extremely difficult…

  • 8 / Fresh Gale / 39-46 mph: twigs break off trees; wind force impedes progress; walking is arduous

Above this level, you’re in serious physical danger at even the lowest elevations…

  • 9 / Strong Gale / 47-54 mph: slight structural damage (chimney pots and slates removed)
  • 10 / Whole Gale / 55-63 mph: seldom experienced inland; trees uprooted; considerable structural damage
  • 11 / Storm / 64-73 mph: very rarely experienced; accompanied by widespread damage
  • 12 / Tornado or Hurricane / 74+ mph: devastation

Wind on the Hills: Danger!

With this new information to hand, I decided it was best to postpone my mountain hike. I‘ve read online how plenty of people love a windy hike. Personally, I’m more risk averse. I like to stack the odds in my favor, rather than against it. Once the wind is forecast to get above 30 mph (50 kph) I reconsider my hike plan.

 Warning! Any injury on a mountain is potentially life-threatening. In cold weather, once you stop moving, it only takes a few minutes for hypothermia to set in. Pretty quickly you’ll enter the zone of mental confusion and bad decision-making. Now you’ve set yourself up to spiral into life-threatening danger.

Helpful Strategies

First of all, always check the weather. Many hikers use mountain-forecast.com. Here are direct links to Catskills mountain weather, Devil’s Path weather (which is on its own page for some reason), Adirondacks mountain weather, and Taconic mountain weather.

That website uses a mathematical model to predict (i.e. guesstimate in a kinda sciencey way) what the wind, temps and wind chill at each summit will be.

If you do plan to hike in windy conditions, make sure to pack trekking poles. They’re a great help in maintaining balance.

You should also get on top of your layering. Your body heat will fluctuate wildly, with exertion increasing your core temperature and the wind rapidly cooling your head, hands, limbs and torso.

If you find yourself caught in a sudden gale, remember that linking arms with fellow hikers can be a real anchor.

Get down off the mountain as quickly and safely as you can. Stay away from steep drops. Consider your route and reconfigure plans as necessary.

Windy Reading

Even More Reading

 

4 responses to “How Windy is Too Windy To Hike?

  1. Great article! I had gone on a hike last weekend and had to turn back around because the wind was so bad it was knocking me over! Definitely will take the wind into account way more in the future.

    1. Yeah, once it gets above 30 mph, I take a second look at everything — and probably even lower wind speeds than that would make me rethink a winter hike.

  2. Yep, today for example was too windy and the Catskills can be dangerous with a fresh breeze let alone a moderate gale like today. I’m sticking to the Gunks for now until the right weather day happens in the Catskills. Then it will be microspikes and snow shoes as long as the wind is less than 20mph.
    Very useful article!

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