Hiking Safety: Wind – How Windy is Too Windy To Hike? %

Hiking Safety: Wind – How Windy is Too Windy To Hike?

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catskill mountains in distance

The Blackhead Range seen from Windham High Peak

I moved my hike from a windy Friday to a less windy (but much colder) Saturday. I ran polls on Instagram and Twitter and 80% of my online followers agreed with me. 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 with due diligence is a crucial hiking skill, especially for mountain hikes where the risk of a life-threatening injury is significant — doubly so in very cold or icy conditions.

The cold itself doesn’t worry me much. I only start to get nervous when temperatures get below 5°F (-15°C). Below that limit, I’m likely to rethink things, and perhaps reschedule my hike 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 set level for when it’s too much? Is there a scientific way to determine the risks? It turns out there is…

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

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

It turns out there are several well-established wind scales, with easy to grasp descriptions that help you develop a feel for what you might be getting into. They’re all based to some degree on 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.

Of Beaufort’s many accomplishments, one 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. My daughter loves this period of history when making even the slightest progress in human knowledge rendered a person a raving genius.

There are two sets of wind descriptions, one for sea and one for land. The wind descriptions for land are shown below.

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’ll start 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

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 even at 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

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.

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. From there, you can quickly spiral into danger due to mental confusion and bad decision-making.

If you do plan to hike in windy conditions, pack your 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.

And 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.

Some Windy Reading

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