Hiking in Windy Conditions?
I recently moved my hike from a very windy Friday to a much less windy (but far colder) Saturday. I ran polls on Instagram and Twitter and 80% of my followers agreed I’d made the right decision. Here’s why…
I checked the weather on mountain-foreacast.com and saw the wind at the summits on Friday 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). Not too bad.
For Saturday, 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). That’s a little cold.
I chose the cold.
Planning ahead with due diligence is a crucial hiking skill, especially for mountain hikes where the risk of life-threatening injury is significant — and 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…
Is It Safe to Hike When It’s Windy?
At what point does too windy become too dangerous? Is there a scientific level for when the risks outweigh the rewards?
It turns out there are actual scientific 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. Always plan and pack for worse weather.
Between the two days, the only major differences were in the temperature and the wind.
How Windy is Too Windy?
I did think, briefly, about hiking in 50 mph winds. Then I did some Googling and — uh, let’s just say I discovered I really didn’t want to hike in 50 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’re getting into. They’re all based to some degree on an old scale called the Beaufort wind force scale.
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.
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The 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.
Hiking in 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
Hiking in High Wind
This is where I nope-out…
Above 30 mph, 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 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
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 which sets you up to spiral into life-threatening danger.
Wind on the Hills: Danger!
I‘ve read online how plenty of people love a windy hike. But with this new information to hand, I decided it was best to postpone my mountain hike. Waiting 24 hrs for safer conditions is a no-brainer for me.
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 plans.
- Please pack the ten essentials on every hike.
Strategies for Hiking in the Wind
First of all, always check the weather and consider it carefully: wind, precipitation, temp highs and lows, and wind chill.
Many hikers consult mountain-forecast.com. Here are direct links to…
The website uses a mathematical model to predict (i.e. guesstimate) what the conditions will be at each summit. It’s a useful tool, but do not take its predictions as any kind of guarantee.
Always plan and pack for worse weather.
If you plan to hike in high winds or windy conditions, make sure to bring 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.
In trouble? 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.
Finally, think about switching your plans to an easier mountain hike. Or go on one our very beautiful Catskills Nature Walks which give you a real taste of the Catskills with hardly any elevation gain.
- Wind speeds in the mountains — the Scottish angle
- High Wind in the Mountains and the Impact on Hikers — the Irish angle