Learn to Read the Clouds

Alex Leaming - Evergreen, CO


Every avid hiker and backpacker has their own tips and hacks for surviving the outdoors. Most of us outdoorsy folks hit the trail more than prepared. However, a drastic change in weather is one of the top occurrences that can really turn a trip upside down. Unless maybe you got a few hints from above.

With so much meteorology technology and weather apps, a lot of us have forgotten to just look up. So, see if you can learn to be a cloud whisperer! That way, the next time you ENOpians go off on your next adventure you can relax in your hammock and read the sky.


Cirrus Clouds

The Latin word cirrus meaning a ringlet or curling lock of hair.



Altitude: An “atmospheric cloud, so pretty high (16,500-20,000 ft)

Shape: wispy, streaky, thin strands, curly

Indicate: Cirrus clouds indicate fair weather, so get out there are hit the trail! If you are in a cold climate and you notice they’re  rapidly multiplying and are accompanied by increasing winds blowing steadily from a the north, then this could indicate snow. But most of the time, these clouds are good news.

Fun Fact: Cirrus clouds form on other planets, including Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus  and possibly Neptune.



Cumulus Clouds

The Latin word for cumulus meaning “heap” or “pile”



Altitude: A low level cloud ( (6,600 ft)

Shape: puffy, cotton balled, defined edges, flatter bases

Indicate: Cumulus clouds are generally a fair weather clouds. After midday, they slowly start to raise higher into the atmosphere and if they pile up on top of each other they can brew into a storm cloud. Sometimes a pretty nasty storm cloud, so if you’re on the trail keep an eye on them as the day goes on and how they stack up.

Fun Fact: Cumulus clouds come in four distinct species. So if you’re serious about being a cloud whisperer, do some personal research on the dynamic cumulus cloud.



Stratus clouds

 The Latin prefix “srato-“, meaning “layer”


Altitude: Very low hanging cloud (Below 6,000 ft)

Shape:  flat, hazy, featureless, horizontal, usually gray

Indicate: Status clouds are essentially above-ground fog. Even though they almost always mean a gentle rain or tiny flurries–that’s about it, nothing extreme. Basically a drizzle, if anything. So if you see stratus clouds on the trail, maybe get out your pack cover but it’s definitely safe to keep going.

Fun Fact: Stratus clouds account for more than 50% of cloud types in Arctic regions.


Cumulonimbus Clouds

Latin word meaning rain storm


Altitude: Non-height specific, can get as high as 60,000 feet

Shape: similar to a cumulus cloud, (so puffy on top, flat on the bottom) but much larger; particularly taller.

Indicate: It’s going to rain. Remember how we talked about keeping an eye on those cute puffy cumulus clouds later in the day? Cumulonimbus progress from overdeveloped cumulus clouds and will resemble an anvil shape when creating a storm cell. They almost always foreshadow a thunderstorm, or worse. The severity of the storm depends on the amount of solar energy (how warm it is basically) in the atmosphere. So if you see these clouds and it’s hot out, be prepared to take the storm seriously.  If you’re in the wilderness when you start to notice this formation stay calm, take cover, and put up your ProFly quick! But don’t get too anxious, the average thunderstorm doesn’t last longer than twenty minutes.

Fun Fact: Rarely, cumulonimbus clouds are so high that their effect is more mellow and the rain evaporates before it hits the ground. So there’s a gentle variety too.



Cirrostratus Clouds

Latin word meaning “layered” and “ringlet”

Altitude: Above 20,000 ft

Shape: halo like, “hazy sunshine” and usually darker than cirrus clouds

Indicate: Cirrostratus indicates a lot of moisture in the upper atmosphere. These clouds sometimes signal the approach of a warm front if they form after a series of cirrus clouds and they spread across the sky. If this is the case, it could mean that rain will occur in the next 12-24 hours. So if you’re in the woods and see cirrostratus clouds clinging around the moon, prepare your campsite for possible rain the following morning.

Fun Fact: In horror films, directors will often try to catch cirrostratus clouds because of its eerie effect around the moon.



Scud Clouds

Middle English for “to move quickly” and “rabbit’s tail”

Altitude: very low hanging (below 4,000 feet)

Shape: irregular shapes, undefined bases, ragged and wispy

Indicate: Scud clouds form when they are broken off from a larger cloud formation and are usually detached from stronger winds, hence giving them their shredded shape. These clouds form and dissipate rapidly, so if you see them out on the trail–keep an eye out because they are often found on the outskirts of a storm front.

Fun Fact: Several scuds gathered under a main cloud, are called pannus.