Perhaps you have already experienced this yourself: you set off in the morning in bright sunshine – and a few hours later a thunderstorm surprised you. This can be unpleasant and sometimes even dangerous, especially in the mountains.
In Zauchensee we have already been spoiled with many, fantastically beautiful sunny days with deep blue skies this summer. Nevertheless, everyone should be aware that the weather in the mountains can change quickly. We therefore would like to tell you how to read the weather signs and what to do in the event of a sudden thunderstorm.
The most important tip in advance: even in good weather, you should always have rain protection with you. Weatherproof functional clothing is super light, takes up hardly any space and fits easily into any hiking backpack.
Rule number 1: Check the weather forecast before your tour
Thanks to apps and the internet, daily or even hourly weather forecasts are available at any time on your mobile phone. However, never rely 100% on forecasts that go beyond three days: especially in summer, small local thunderstorms can form at any time and at short notice.
One of the most accurate sources for weather warnings, mountain weather and weather forecasts in Austria is the ZAMG (Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics). The best thing to do is to find out about the weather outlook in the respective hiking area the evening before your mountain tour and check the daily forecast again in the morning. If you want to know exactly, you can find current weather forecasts including webcams for a live view of the Zauchensee hiking area here on our website.
Recognising the signs of bad weather
- Air pressure: High or rising air pressure leads to good weather, low or falling air pressure to bad weather. If the air pressure drops quickly, this is a sign of an imminent change in the weather.
You can determine the air pressure, for example, using a wristwatch with an altimeter. This usually works via a barometer, which measures the air pressure at your location and calculates the probable altitude. As the altitude increases, the air pressure decreases. If you stay at a constant altitude for a while and the altitude reading rises, this means that the air pressure is falling – a change in the weather is coming.
You can also judge the weather situation by the morning fog: If the air pressure is high, the fog remains in the valley all day because the moist air cannot rise. If there is low pressure, the fog can rise and form clouds in higher layers of air, which in turn can bring rain.
- Wind & draught: Winds from the east or north usually mean stable fair weather, west or south-west winds more changeable weather or rain.
If you feel a cool draught coming from caves or shafts, this is another indication of impending weather deterioration. This is because when there is low pressure, cold, moist air rises up inside the cave and moves out of the cave as wind.
- Clouds: If you see a halo around the sun in the morning or around the moon at night, this means that the weather will deteriorate in one or two days. If the sun shines through pale behind large stratus clouds (altostratus clouds), keep a better eye on the sky: these clouds can become denser and denser in a short time and completely block out the sun. If cumulus clouds also form, it will start to rain in a few hours.
Where anvil-shaped clouds (can also look like a mushroom or cauliflower) build up in the course of a sultry summer day, a thunderstorm is approaching – this is usually relatively localised.
- Animals and plants: When swallows fly low or fish jump out of the water more often, the weather gets worse. The reason for this is simple: the animals feed on insects that fly low when there is low pressure.
The wildlife of the mountains offers you further harbingers of bad weather: when rain is imminent, bees stay close to their hives, earthworms come out of the ground, there are many slugs to be seen and spiders don’t weave a web. Cows move to low-lying pastures and deer no longer leave the protective forest when it is about to rain.
Plants also prepare for bad weather in good time: Pine cones close their scales, flowers their blossoms. If you notice that trees and flowers give off a particularly intense scent, bad weather is on its way.
Did you know? Not all thunderstorms are the same.
In meteorology, a distinction is made between two types of thunderstorms: the frontal thunderstorm and the thermal thunderstorm.
The frontal thunderstorm, as the name suggests, is accompanied by a cold front. These thunderstorms occur regardless of the time of day or season, are widespread and easily predictable. Therefore, you should refrain from mountain tours if a frontal thunderstorm is predicted by meteorologists.
Thermal thunderstorms occur mainly in summer during a period of fine weather. They can be easily predicted by observing the clouds: if small cluster clouds grow into ever larger cloud towers (anvil shape), it is high time to seek shelter quickly. A heat storm can be very violent, but does not mean a longer period of bad weather – it is localised and usually over as quickly as it occurred.
How can you protect yourself during a thunderstorm on the mountain?
If you are surprised by an (approaching) thunderstorm on your hike, you should keep an eye out for shelters or mountain huts. Once you have discovered a hut, go to it immediately and wait out the storm inside. After a warm thunderstorm, the sky usually clears up again quickly and you can continue your hike.
Tip: In Zauchensee, for example, the Gamskogelhütte is open daily until 26th September (unless it rains from early in the morning, in which case it remains closed).
If you notice the weather deteriorating during your ascent, it is advisable to break off the tour and descend back to the valley. Especially if you have planned a high-altitude tour like the 4-summit tour in Zauchensee, on which you are mainly on ridges and summits. In dry weather, this makes the 4-summit tour in Zauchensee one of the most beautiful high-altitude hikes in Salzburg, where you can expect boundless views and four new summit checkpoints that are great motifs for your summit photo.
If the thunderstorm reaches you in an exposed place, on a hill or at the summit cross, leave this place as quickly as possible. Also avoid free-standing trees or poles, rope-secured passages and watercourses – all these attract lightning. Instead, seek shelter in hollows and in less exposed terrain.
Preparation is the be-all and end-all for a beautiful and safe mountain tour. This also applies to the weather: check the weather forecast for your hiking area the day before and check the forecast again in the morning before you start. Even if the weather is fine, keep an eye on the sky to spot clouds coming in or changing at an early stage. Also pay attention to the many signs of nature: air pressure, wind, animals and plants are reliable harbingers of a change in the weather.
By the way: If you hike with your eyes open, you will notice even more of the beauty of the landscape and the diversity of nature. 🙂
See you soon in the hiking paradise of Zauchensee!
photo credits: Bergbahnen Zauchensee