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Hiking in the wind can be the bane of our existence if we are going uphill and into the wind, but a light breeze can be a lifesaver on a hot day. Yet, wind speed can be more than just a nuisance. In fact, it can be dangerous. So how windy is too windy? Read on to find out!
Any wind that is more than 40 MPH is too dangerous to hike in. Even winds around 30 miles per hour will make hiking much more difficult. For the safest hikes, stick to wind speeds that are less than 30 miles per hour.
While high winds can be a problem in certain scenarios, heavy winds may not be a problem if you’re hiking in densely wooded areas where the trees act as barriers against the wind.
To learn everything you need to know about hiking in the wind, read on.
Which Wind Speeds Are Dangerous?
Before we discuss which wind speeds are dangerous, we should look at not only the dangers of high winds but also how winds are classified. That way, you can better prepare for your hike and know which wind speeds are likely to be the most dangerous to your health and wellbeing.
What Are the Dangers of High Winds?
Beyond being absolutely miserable to hike in, high winds can be dangerous in two scenarios:
- When the ambient air temperature is colder than 60 degrees Fahrenheit
- If you are hiking in more treacherous terrain and gusts of wind can cause you to fall.
High winds can make the external temperature colder than what the thermometer shows. This phenomenon is due to wind chill, which we will cover shortly. Regardless, when the weather gets cold, you are at risk for frostbite.
Frostbite is a condition that happens when your body tissue freezes. This condition ranges from mild burns that could lead to blisters all the way to skin that turns black and potentially needs to be amputated. While you can get frostbite anywhere, it most commonly occurs on the outer edges of your body, such as:
- Ear lobes
- Tip of your nose
The reason that frostbite is more commonly found on your extremities is that when your body senses cold temperatures, it cuts off circulation to your limbs in order to protect your internal organs. So instead of circulating warm blood to your fingers and toes, all your blood rushes to your core to keep you warm. This is also why your fingers and toes are usually the first parts of your body to get cold!
To learn more about frostbite and how to protect yourself, check out WebMd’s article, here.
If you’re planning on hiking in really cold weather, it’s important to dress appropriately. I talk in detail about what to wear in my article here and I even show some pictures to help illustrate.
Hypothermia (Mayoclinic) is a severe condition that can happen when temperatures get too cold. When the temperatures get too cold, so does your body. Hypothermia occurs when your core body temperature–which is usually around 98.6 degrees–drops to below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Basically, the colder the wind chill, the more likely your body will get too cold.
When your body temperature drops to this level of coldness, your nervous system and organs cannot do their jobs and will ultimately shut down. If hypothermia is left untreated, it can even lead to heart failure, respiratory failure, and in the most severe cases, death.
Avoiding situations where hypothermia can happen is the easiest way to stay safe. Have you ever wondered how cold is too cold to hike? Check out my article here to find out.
If you are hiking up a mountain, along a high ridge, to a popular lookout, or even across an expansive plain, wind can knock you off your feet, literally. This can be fatal.
Obviously, high winds and high places don’t mix. Many mountain hikers know that winds near the tops of mountains can be dangerous because strong gusts can cause you to tumble back down the mountain, but winds can be just as dangerous on wide-open plains.
Too often we hear of stories of hikers on windy routes such as the infamous Angel’s Landing in Southern Utah. According to usnews.com, 13 people have died since the year 2000. This trail has narrow landings to walk on and the wind can gust.
Have you ever been driving down a long country road and all of a sudden your car swerves because you were hit with a gust of wind? With strong enough winds, you can be blown away and hurt yourself.
The Beaufort Scale Explained: What are Beaufort Scale Levels?
The Beaufort Wind Scale is a system that estimates the wind speeds instead of using actual instruments. Basically, it takes into account the effects that the wind will have on its environment.
So why does this matter to you? Because if you understand the speed of the wind and how it impacts the environment, you have a better idea of how it can impact your hike.
There are 12 levels of The Beaufort Wind Scale. While levels 0 through 4 mainly describe gentle to moderate breezes, if you get above level 5 you’re looking at some stronger winds. For an easier way to look at the different levels of the Beaufort Wind Scale, we’ve outlined and described each level above level 4 and what that might look like if you were out hiking.
- Level 5: 19 to 24 mile per hour winds. Level 5 feels like a fresh breeze. Small trees will begin to sway and you might see the leaves blow in the wind. Generally, you should be just fine to hike. However, if it’s around 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit or below, these winds can make the temperature drop remarkably.
- Level 6: 25 to 31 mile per hour winds. At this level, larger branches of a tree might begin to move. These winds will be pretty strong. This is the speed where you can be swept off your feet if you’re caught off-guard.
- Level 7: 32 to 38 mile per hour winds. At this level, we’re getting higher in wind speed so you’re going to see whole trees start to move, and especially when you’re walking, you’re going to feel like you’re hiking against the wind.
- Level 8: 39 to 46 mile per hour winds. This wind is considered a gale and this type of wind is going to break twigs off of trees. You can’t have a successful hike for a sustained period with these types of winds
- Level 9: 47 to 54 mile per hour winds. At this level of wind, you’ll see some slight structural damage to buildings. These winds are unsafe to hike in.
- Level 10: 55 to 63 mile per hour winds. These are typically storm-level winds, and we don’t really see them inland. They are more commonly found on the coast of the United States. But, if you are on a coastline and you experience this level of wind, you’ll probably see trees uprooted and pretty serious damage done to the buildings and landscape around you.
There are levels above 10, but I think the point is clear.
As you can see, the level of winds and the damage it causes can escalate pretty quickly. Depending on your experience in hiking, you probably do not want to go out hiking if the winds are more than a level 6.
Of course, you’re going to be the most comfortable if you’re hiking and anything under level 5 winds. If you were out hiking and got caught in level 6 or level 5 winds, you’re probably going to be okay, you might just want to cut your hike a little short and start to head back just in case the winds get worse.
Luckily, the weather service has gotten pretty good at predicting these levels of winds, and you can check the circumstances before you actually go out hiking. If you want to learn more about the Beaufort Wind Scale, check out this link here you can look at each of the levels of winds more closely.
When Hiking In High Winds Is Dangerous?
What are high winds? As you saw above, the Beaufort Wind Scale has one way to describe the severity of winds. However, there are some other ways you can categorize wind speeds.
Typically, winds that are high are usually between speeds of 40 to 57 miles per hour. These conditions are usually consistent with a wind warning and you really don’t want to be outside when winds are at the speed.
Yet, even moderate wind speeds that are between 26 and 39 miles per hour can be dangerous. These winds usually have high gusts and are consistent with a wind advisory. However, when you are out hiking in moderate wind conditions, you will probably be okay. However, you should look for shelter, get out of the wind, or finish your hike as soon as you can.
You’ll probably be the most comfortable in a low to very low level of wind speed. At these levels of wind speed, you’re usually between 20 miles per hour and 25 miles per hour. Sometimes, however, the gusts of wind can reach up to 35 miles per hour. So even if there is only moderate wind, if you are hiking in treacherous terrain you might consider waiting it out or just exercising extreme caution and avoid the selfie-impulse.
Is Wind Chill a Real Thing?
If you have ever lived in the Northern part of the United States, you’ve likely heard of wind chill. And if you do live in the Northern part of the United States, you know that wind chill can ruin the great outdoors. Have you ever heard the phrase, “If it wasn’t for the wind then…”? That’s because the wind really does have an impact on the temperature.
Sure, we all understand that wind can be breezy and feel cold, but what does “wind chill” even mean?
Wind chill describes how cold the temperature actually feels on your skin after the wind has been factored in. While it may not seem like a science, we often hear wind chill described as the “feels-like” temperature.
“Feels-like” mainly means that the constant temperature is not what it actually feels like outside. Have you ever been outside when it’s 40 degrees Fahrenheit without wind versus with wind? It truly does “feel” different.
It makes sense if you consider evaporative cooling. Ever blown over a bowl of hot soup so you could eat it? When you blow over your food, it creates a chimney effect where the heat from the soup blasts off in a column of warm air. This same effect applies to humans, as well as evaporative cooling.
Evaporative cooling is the phenomenon where if you get out of a pool on a hot summer day, you feel cold, or even more familiar when you get out of a hot shower, and no matter how warm it is inside, you feel a little chilly before you dry off. The water on your body changes phase from liquid to gas, and when it does this it takes heat energy along with it.
Wind accelerates the effect of evaporative cooling and can make you much, much colder.
What is the Formula for Wind Chill?
Now that you know what wind chill is, how do you calculate it? Well, the good news is that there’s a pretty simple formula that you can master to figure out what the wind chill is:
Wind chill = 35.74 + 0.6215T – 35.75 (V^0.16) + 0.4275T (V^0.16)
- T = Temperature in degrees Fahrenheit
- V = Wind velocity in miles per hour
Now that you have the formula for wind chill, let’s do an example. Let’s say that we have a temperature of -10 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to the -10 degrees Fahrenheit, we also have a wind speed of 60 miles per hour.
The first step is to input our variables. As you can see, temperature stands for T so we’re going to put our -10 in any spot that we see a T. We are also going to do the same thing with our wind speed, which is V=60.
Now, your equation should look like this:
35.74 + 0.6215(–10) – 35.75 (60^0.16) + 0.4275(–10) (60^0.16)
After you’ve simplified, you’ll find that the temperature should be -47.5 degrees. Now, we started at -10 degrees, and when we added such a severe wind chill we see that the temperature got drastically colder. This is the impact that winds chill can have on the temperature and why it is so dangerous.
Of course, you don’t always need to do the math yourself. If you use this link to the National Weather Service, you can find a wind chill calculator that will do all of this for you.
Can You Walk in 40 MPH Winds?
As you have seen above, hiking in the wind can get difficult. Not only are the risks to your health, but you might just get blown off your feet. Generally, trying to walk in 30 mile-an-hour winds can be tricky, and any more wind than that will start to get dangerous regardless of the terrain that you’re in.
You cannot safely walk in 40 mile-an-hour winds because there’s a good chance that you’re going to be blown off balance. At this level of winds, your hike is going to become quite the challenge. Not only will you be battling the wind, but there might even be small pieces of debris blowing around that you might have to dodge. Further, sand or dust will blow around and it can get in your eyes if you aren’t wearing protective eye gear.
If you haven’t experienced this, I can’t understate how unpleasant it is to try and walk somewhere and have dirt and dust flying in your eyes no matter where you look.
However, there is something to be said about the difference between gusts of wind and constant wind. While gusts of winds are spontaneous bursts of wind, constant wind is going to be a steady stream of that wind.
Generally, the gusts of wind are probably going to jerk you off your feet, and there’s a good chance that you’ll lose your balance and fall. When you encounter more continuous streams of wind, it’s just going to be blowing in your face constantly (which is no fun at all). But, the stronger gusty winds are going to make it really difficult to walk and add to that physical challenge.
How Windy Is Too Windy?
In sum, how windy is too windy? It really depends on the situation and personal preferences. While some people can handle more extreme winds, others may prefer to hike when there is just a light breeze to cool them off.
It also depends on what the temperature is that day. If it’s already cold outside and you add some wind, your hike will not be enjoyable. Remember, that wind chill can do some damage, so you should not go hiking if you have a combination of moderate to high winds and cold weather.
I looked around at people’s personal experiences and I came to the conclusion that anything above 40 miles per hour (even if its gusts of wind) is probably too strong of a wind to hike in. If you want to stay safe, stick with anything below 20 to 25 miles per hour.
6 Tips For Hiking In the Wind
When you are hiking in the wind, there are a couple of things that you’ll want to keep in mind to avoid getting too cold or falling and getting hurt. That’s why we came up with some tips to help you successfully hike in the wind.
However, even these tips will not be as successful if the winds are extremely strong. To make sure you are the safest on your hike, you always want to check the weather before you leave just in case there’s any bad weather or strong winds coming.
Our first major tip is to stay dry. As you may know from some of my other articles, there are many ways to stay dry while hiking or out just outside in general. For the most part, you just want to make sure you have the right layers on.
Also, you want to make sure that your socks are dry and that the layer closest to your skin remains dry as well. This is because when you get wet the effects of evaporative cooling are even stronger. Wet clothes + wind = danger. There is a risk for hypothermia and other health complications from the cold. Even at temperatures, you wouldn’t associate with danger such as 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit.
So, staying dry by wearing dry clothes and proper gear is one of your best defenses against the wind.
A waterproof shell or a windbreaker can transform your windy experience to be bearable rather than miserable.
This is a picture of me on Moeracki beach in New Zealand. I considered my Columbia Watertight II jacket (got it on Amazon) to be my MVP… or rather, Most Valuable Clothing. A waterproof layer on the shell makes an incredible difference in staying warm in the wind.
Dress in Layers
The best way to make sure that you’re not only staying dry but warm as well is to dress in layers. Making sure that you have a protective outer layer against the elements, an insulating middle layer, and a moisture-wicking base layer are the best ways to make sure that your body stays warm and comfortable when it gets cold.
That outer layer, as I’ve mentioned, is especially important for protection against the wind. The outer layer is meant to protect you from the elements, which means it should be waterproof and it should also be windproof to help keep you warm.
Are you wondering if base layers really work? Find out how to make yours the most effective in this article.
The best way to prepare for wind and weather is to stay informed. You should always check the weather before you go out on a hike, know the route of your hike, and you should always know how to combat the cold and wind should you get caught in a survival situation.
Learning everything that you can about survival in some of the more extreme conditions can help you survive should something happen and you get stranded or lost. I like to say that it’s better to be over-prepared than underprepared, so always make sure you research before you go out on a new hike.
Hike in Wooded Areas
If there is some wind but you want to go hiking anyway, choose your hike wisely. Instead of hiking across a huge plain or up to the top of a mountain, go for a hike in a wooded forest. If you hike in the woods instead of out in the open, you’ll be more likely to be protected against the wind.
Of course, even the woods can’t protect you from the most severe winds. So this tip should really only be reserved for when you want to go for a hike and it’s less than 30 mile-per-hour winds. (Trees can fall in severe winds, anyway)
Cover Your Fingers and Toes
As we learned above, frostbite can be a real problem if you’re out in the cold and don’t have enough clothing. For the most part, frostbite damages your extremities such as your fingers and toes. So, always make sure you have quality socks on your feet while you hike and make sure you have some mittens in your backpack just in case it gets cold.
Because your body directs your blood away from your fingers and toes when you get cold, you always want to have extra protection such as a second pair of wool socks and insulating mittens. Further, you should always have a hat and your backpack as well because you want to protect your ears. It might not hurt to pack a scarf to protect your face if the wind gets strong.
Ever wondered how many pairs of socks should you bring on your hike? Find out in this article here!
Drink Plenty of Fluids
Our final tip is one that not many people think of. Many of us forget to drink enough water when we’re hiking in colder conditions because we’re not sweating and we’re not as hot. But, keeping hydrated and drinking plenty of fluids on even the coldest hikes will help keep your body warm.
Drinking more fluids increases your blood volume which can help combat frostbite. Think about it, the more fluids you have in your body the more blood you have available to circulate around your body and keep your extremities warm. If your body doesn’t have to conserve your warm blood and direct it all to your inner organs, it has more to put towards your fingers, toes, ears, and nose.
Furthermore, although I’m not sure this is proven, it makes sense to me that the wind dries out your skin and therefore your body. You likely need to replace the water in your body a bit faster in windy conditions because your water is getting sucked out.
Whether that’s true or not for windy conditions, there’s reasonable evidence that colder weather requires us to more carefully monitor our water intake even if we don’t feel the same thirst urges.