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April 2000

Wilderness Wind: Blown Away

The wind can save you from bugs or drive you mad. Here's how to enjoy the benefits and avoid the downside of a good stiff breeze.


With so many seemingly whimsical forces involved, what’s a wind-battered hiker to do? Don’t despair. There’s enough method to this breezy madness that you can develop some coping strategies. Consider my wind-watching grandmother, who favored a little phrase backpackers would do well to remember: “West wind, best wind,” she said, and she was usually right. For many parts of the northern hemisphere, winds that blow from the west bode well for stable weather patterns. The flip side is that easterly winds, often caused by the counterclockwise spin of a low-pressure system, usually bring instability and some kind of precipitation. It’s for good reason that weather-wise New Englanders declare, “When the wind is blowing in the East, ‘Tis not fit for man nor beast.”

Likewise, sudden swings in wind intensity or direction almost always bring a change in the weather. So here’s another one to pack in your mental gear: “A backing wind means storms are nigh; a veering wind will clear the sky.” Translation? Think of a compass. Veering refers to a clockwise wind shift, say from north to east, which often brings fair weather. A backing wind shift goes backward, or counterclockwise, from north to west. Bad weather won’t be far behind. In unfamiliar terrain, your compass will serve you well not only for navigation, but also for reading the wind and weather.


This is something probably every hiker has figured out: Wind speed increases with elevation. But what you may not realize is the impact it has on your body. “Even a small increase in wind speed can dramatically increase wind stress on you,” says DeBlieu. “A doubling of wind speed from 10 to 20 miles per hour quadruples the stress–or force–on your body.”

If the wind is really howling, hunch over or crawl if you must. Not only will your center of gravity be lower and more stable, you’ll also be traveling in less forceful wind at ground level. Plus you’ll be giving the wind less surface area to slam into, which is why low-profile tents are generally more wind-worthy than those with steep sides and a high profile.

If you’re planning on hiking or making camp up high, remember that the average wind speed in the mountains is always greater than down below. And if you’re going above treeline, the lack of windbreaks makes for an even more dramatic difference. So pack in wind-shedding clothing like a rain jacket and pants, or a lightweight nylon pullover and wind pants, even if it’s dead calm at the trailhead down low.

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