Weather Basics for Planning Outdoor Trips

Weather is unpredictable, but with a little practice, you can make informed decisions about when to continue your trip, and when to reschedule.

Admit it. You’ve canceled trips because of the rain. Maybe you were hyped, ready to hike or paddle, but the weather app flashed “60% chance of rain” and you bailed. Stayed inside.

Maybe you felt a little guilty about that choice.

We’ve been there.

Often, we let weather predictions scare us and too hastily cancel plans. A better way is to learn a few tips to predict the weather and decode confusing weather apps.

What does that “60% chance of rain” really mean?

When should you cancel plans to stay safe?

What if, instead of cancelling, you shifted your expectations?

You don’t need a PhD in meteorology to answer these questions. Read on to discover some tips for decoding weather predictions and learning to get outdoors safely in inclement weather.

Look at the Overall Weather Patterns

Because weather apps can be so precise—giving rain forecasts down to the minute!?—we get in the habit of zooming in too much, trying to predict if it will rain at 1:30 p.m. in two days. A more useful habit is to zoom out and get a sense of the overall weather pattern. You might look at the weather app and consider not just your scheduled trip day but a few days on either side.

Does it seem to be a week of rain? Does it seem sunny and dry that whole weekend? Is a hurricane forming and likely to move into your area before your trip?

These questions can tell you when a front is moving towards your destination and will help you predict the overall weather. While you may not know if it will rain at 1:30 p.m., you can probably guess it’s going to be a string of rainy days and plan around them.

Contact a Local Person for Weather Insight

Over reliance on apps makes us forget that people who live in the region hold plenty of useful information. This is particularly true when you’re trying to predict weather more than a week out, as no app can tell you that information with accuracy.

And while a local person cannot predict what will happen on your trip, they can tell you what the weather usually does for that season.

If you’re thinking of booking a trip, call the local outfitter, who should have outdoor knowledge. Tell them the type of trip you want to take and the dates you are looking at, and then ask them what type of weather is normal for that time of year.

Do they expect rain? Afternoon thunderstorms? Is this the hottest part of the year? How prevalent are mosquitoes?

A reputable outfitter should be able to answer all these questions.


Okay, but What Does “Chance of Rain” Really Mean?

Ah, the Big Question. The Trip Killer. The dreaded Chance of Rain.

For most people, continuing with or canceling a trip has to do with the chance of rain, or the “Probability of Precipitation” (PoP). According to the National Weather Service, the PoP “describes the probability that the forecast grid/point in question will receive at least 0.01″ of rain.”

In other words, if you see a “40% chance of rain” on Tuesday, there is a 40 percent probability for at least 0.01″ of rain at the forecast point.

That does not necessarily mean rain will cover the whole area, or that it will rain very much or for very long.

When appropriate, read the accompanying text with the forecast. provides some context about when to expect rain as well as wind speed.

Since the PoP is confusing, this is why local knowledge is so helpful. In many places in the Southeast, for example, you’ll see sunny summer days with 90% chance of rain. But that’s usually not a whole day of rain. If you ask a local, you’ll find that the rain is generally a 10-minute shower in the late afternoon.

That type of rain is easy to work around and having that knowledge leaves plenty of time to schedule your outdoor adventure around the weather.

And true, sometimes you must dance around the rain, but so what? Isn’t dancing the whole point?

How to Enjoy Your Trip Regardless of Weather

While it’s always best to err on the side of safety when planning outdoor adventures, here are a few tips to help you evaluate weather hazards.

  • Expect the best, but prepare for the worst – Bring appropriate gear for your activity and for any possible weather eventualities.
  • Research the local weather – As mentioned above, gather some information on what weather will be like for your activity and season. Guidebooks, Internet, and local research can all help here.
  • Stay informed about weather changes – Using a weather app or simply keeping an eye on the sky can alert you to weather shifts.

Don’t Let the Weather Spoil Your Plans

With the tips listed above, you can evaluate predicted weather and make informed decisions about outdoor trips. Unless there is extreme or dire weather predicted, it’s often possible to accommodate an outdoor adventure.

When in doubt, call your outfitter. They can alert you to local weather conditions as well as suggest alternate plans, if needed.

Most of all, try to adopt a resilient mindset. What makes the outdoors an “adventure” is the reality that you never know what to expect. That’s why we get out there.

Sometimes, the unexpected can bring discomfort, but those uncomfortable moments are often the seeds of great memories with friends and family. Don’t be so quick to avoid them.

Often, a mindset shift can turn a negative experience into a good time. If it’s 90 degrees in July and you get rained on, is that a bad thing? Or a cooling gift? A chance to see the river in soft light?

If you complete a muddy hike and your daughter radiates a newfound confidence, can you call it a bad trip?

If you can do so safely, we recommend you get out there and explore.