6 Tips for Amateur Storm Chasers

Iowa Kansas Missouri Nebraska Oklahoma Photo + Video + Film Outdoor
by Jen Henderson Apr 2, 2011

Colorado storm

All photos, unless otherwise noted: Dane Webster

Storm-chase instructor Jen Henderson shares advice for those looking to break into the scene.

JUST OVER A DECADE AGO, my husband and I moved to Kansas and encountered for the first time a landscape of quiet prairies and turbulent skies, something we, as Westerners, had never experienced before.

I became addicted to storm reports by Dr. Greg Forbes of the Weather Channel. Whenever tornado watches went up across the state in late spring, I kept my eyes on Doppler radar, looking for an opportunity to jump into our 1986 Honda Prelude and intercept a thunderstorm as it became severe.

One day, driving west across the Plains to see family in Utah, we unexpectedly found ourselves in the path of a tornado-warned supercell thunderstorm in Guymon, Oklahoma. It was spectacular: a spinning machine of cold and warm air, precipitation, and — we hoped — a tornado.

Unfortunately, it got too dark to continue the chase, especially since we were without adequate gear — a dangerous rookie mistake.

The most important advice I can give a newbie chaser is to go out a few times with someone experienced…

Since then, we’ve seen several tornadoes and done so with the right preparation and equipment. We plan our vacation days around severe weather, looking for conditions that send us racing out onto the Great Plains in hopes a thunderstorm will balloon up into the troposphere and drop a twister in a field, backlit by the sun. That’s the dream.

The most important advice I can give a newbie chaser is to go out a few times with someone experienced, someone with the right knowledge and tools to show you the ropes.

I can’t stress this enough. Chasing storms often means risking your life, so anything you can do to lessen the chances of finding yourself in harm’s way will help both you and other chasers, whose reputations in small towns all across the Midwest depend on chasers being safe and courteous. A good way to do this is to join one of a dozen storm chase tour groups before you head out on your own.

If you decide to chase without a group, you’ll want to be overly prepared, taking time to ensure you understand the dangers involved and have the basic forecasting knowledge, computer equipment, and software to chase safely.

Below are 6 tips to help you make the most of your storm chase:

Twister down the road
1. Study up

The single most important step you can take pre-chase is to learn all you can about storms.

That is, in order to stay safe in the presence of a very large, unpredictable storm, you need to understand what you’re looking at in the sky and on radar.

This might mean taking an introductory course on meteorology at a local university or signing up for a Skywarn storm spotter class through the National Weather Service. You might also consider attending a storm chaser convention, such as ChaserCon, one of the largest gatherings of storm chasers in the United States, created by legends Roger Hill and Tim Samaras.

At the very least, you should read a few books about tornadoes, such as Howard Bluestein’s Tornado Alley: Monster Storms of the Great Plains or Thomas Grazulis’s The Tornado: Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm. For something more technical, Tim Vasquez’s Weather Forecasting Handbook and Storm Chasing Handbook are excellent.

2. Equip yourself

For first-time chasers, one of the most overlooked pieces of “equipment” is a chaser partner, someone to split the long days on the road when you don’t have time to stop and rest. Falling asleep at the wheel and becoming unfocused after days of driving without adequate sleep can force a person to make deadly mistakes — in traffic and during a storm.

Beyond that, a well-equipped car (preferably one with 4-wheel or all-wheel drive) is the key to success. Gearing it out can be a bit expensive, so think of this as an investment. At a bare minimum, you’ll want to have the following set up in your chase vehicle:

  • A newer laptop or iPad with charger and dash mount
  • Mobile internet via USB wireless modem or air card
  • Proper software, such as Baron’s Wx Worx or GRLevel3
  • Mapping software, such as Delorme Street Atlas, and GPS
  • Cell phone for calling in reports
  • A NOAA Weather Radio for updates and reports in real-time
  • A power inverter and power strip
  • An emergency kit with flares, tow rope, medical supplies, and jumper cables
  • Fold-up state maps or a state atlas and gazetteer
  • Rain X for visibility in high precipitation

There are several storm chaser websites and organizations out there, like StormTrack.org, that will offer advice and explain in more detail the equipment you’ll need and ways to set up your car for smooth operating.

3. No tornado? No problem.

Most people storm chase for one reason: to see a tornado.

Big clouds at dusk

We want to stand on a roadside just outside a small town in Kansas, watching a large wedge tornado spin across an open field. In a picture-perfect chase, this kind of interception would be just one of many over the course of a 2,500-mile trek along interstates and back roads.

But if this scenario is the only reason you shell out the $1,000 or so it’ll cost you in gasoline, food, and hotels for a week-long chase, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Even if you take advantage of peak tornado months (May and June), you’re not guaranteed to see one.

In fact, not even a seasoned meteorologist can predict their occurrence. They can forecast where a supercell thunderstorm is expected to develop, but less than 20% of all supercells produce tornadoes. These violently rotating columns of air are still one of the most elusive (and deadly) winds on Earth, for this reason.

Take solace in the fact that you’ll most likely see magnificent storm structures, explore the subtle grandeur of the farms and grasslands of the Great Plains, learn about the complexities of severe weather, and experience the nuances of thunderstorms that few people can say they’ve seen.

4. Adopt a traveler’s mindset

The first time I chased storms, I found the scenery outside my window nearly as interesting as the storms. I’m no science expert, but I’ve discovered that I enjoy learning the basics about forecasting and storm development almost as much as the chase itself.

Backseat tornado

Since most chases are made up largely of down time — when there are few or no severe storms within driving distance — it’s wise to plan to enjoy this trip in ways you might any other vacation: take photos, talk to locals, and learn what you can about the geography and culture of the places you see. It’s not a bad idea to keep a journal so you can remember your various adventures later on.

One of my most interesting encounters on a recent chase trip took place at a gas station in Kansas while we waited in the parking lot for storms to develop. Sheila, the cashier at the store, had survived the F-5 tornado that leveled Greensburg, KS, in 2007.

She talked about how many people in town left the relative safety of their homes to stand outside and see the tornado firsthand, how the sirens blaring through the streets were so common that people didn’t worry too much (at first), and what it was like to live in a FEMA trailer for months after the storm leveled her home.

5. Pack wisely

After a decade of chasing, I finally have a grasp on the medicines and sundries I need to be comfortable on the trip. I keep a checklist of items to bring with me, some of which are easily overlooked but crucial for a pleasant chase.

Bring the following from home:

  • Cash, since many small towns don’t accept debit / credit cards;
  • Earplugs, for the many hotel nights when other patrons decide to stay up and party;
  • Dramamine, if you even think you might get car sick;
  • Other prescription medicine, aspirin, and acid reducers you think you might need;
  • Sunblock (SPF 30+), because the Midwest sun streaming through the windshield is unforgiving;
  • Tissues, for quick pit stops in the middle of a field when there are no restrooms for miles and a tornado is forming just around the bend;
  • A travel packet of laundry detergent, so you can do a quick load at the hotel.

Buy the following on the road and keep stocked up:

  • High-protein, low-fat snacks (like nuts, Powerbars, and string cheese) for those times when you chase all day and have no time to stop and eat anything but gas station food;
  • A refillable water bottle, both to be environmentally friendly and to keep hydrated in the cool, dry car and hot, humid landscape;
  • Fresh fruit (if you can find it), because you’ll soon tire of deep-fried corn dogs and potato chips.

Storm chasing group

Author with group in OK / Photo: jenhenderson.com

6. Tetris anyone?

It’s easier now than ever before to bring gadgets to help keep you occupied during the long drives and even longer periods of down time.

An e-reader fully stocked with new books is a great idea; headphones and music player are a must; and your favorite game device is a nice distraction.

I’ve had a lot of luck with a deck of cards, a Frisbee, and a compact board game (like Travel Yatzee) — anything to provide entertainment when there’s nothing to do but sit in your car for hours, waiting on storms.

Final thoughts

Whether you’re looking to take up storm chasing as a serious hobby or an occasional excursion, the key is to be prepared, have reasonable expectations, and practice important safety measures that will get you home to share your stories.

That is, regardless of whether you spend a few days exploring the Great Plains with nothing but sunny skies, or you encounter several severe storms that keep you on the road two weeks, planning wisely can mean the difference between a frustrating, potentially dangerous chase and an enjoyable one.

Community Connection

Have you chased storms? Share your stories, and your tips, in the comments.

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