11 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Storm Chase

Posted in Storm Chasing at 6:01 pm by Rebekah

As storm chasing season begins again, I thought I’d share a few storm chasing tips, including what I wish I knew before I went on my first storm chase.  🙂

  1. Don’t forget to bring food. The most common time for tornadoes to form is in the late afternoon and early evening, and tornadoes don’t wait for you to make a run to Taco Bell.  I often find that when I’m in hot pursuit of a tornadic supercell, I don’t start to get hungry until well after my normal meal time; however, it’s nice to have at least a healthy (or sometimes not so healthy?) snack on hand for when you do get hungry.
  2. Hydroplaning is the number one danger while storm chasing. Tornadoes?  Dangerous if you’re in their path, but not too bad as long as you don’t get too close, stay away from flying debris, keep them in sight, and know where they’re going.  Lightning?  Not a big deal if you stay in your car, but still dangerous.  Heavy rain?  Now THAT’s scary!  Rain makes it very easy for drivers to hydroplane.  On my second storm chase, a fellow chaser rear-ended the car I was riding in.  Slow down and watch where you’re going.
  3. Be patient. Storm chasing is not all action.  In fact, sometimes there is much more sitting around and waiting for storms to form in your target area than actual driving.
  4. You won’t see a tornado every time. This goes along with #3; even in the Plains, the chances of a tornado hitting any one place are pretty small.  Even if you’re a good forecaster and an experienced chaser, sometimes you will have bust days with no storms and sometimes you will have bust days where there are tornadoes just a few miles from you.
  5. Take maps, even if you have a GPS. Sometimes, technology fails.  Actually, lots of times, technology fails.  Even if you have a great GPS that has never failed you and very likely never will fail you, you don’t want to be in a sticky situation when something happens to it.  Always take paper maps, either as your primary or secondary source.  Oh yes, and always have an escape route handy–few things in life are scarier than being sandwiched between a tornado and a large hail core, and not having a way out.
  6. Chase with a full tank of gas. This kind of goes along with #1.  It’s frustrating and dangerous to be chasing a tornado when you’re in the middle of nowhere Kansas and low on gas.
  7. Don’t pull off the road unless there is a shoulder or very dry dirt. That should go without saying.  In the heat of the moment, though, it’s easy to forget.  I once needed to make a quick stop to adjust some equipment, so I pulled off the road onto a dirt/grassy area.  Did I mention it was Oklahoma, where there is a lot of red clay?  Oh, and did I mention that it had just rained, so the ground was soft?  My car sank in about 8 inches of mud.
  8. Occasionally you may see a tornado. In contrast to #4, if you chase often enough, and learn to forecast well enough (or chase with others who know how), eventually you will very likely see a tornado.  Wait a minute, isn’t that the whole point?  Chasing is so hard, sometimes I hardly even believe I will ever see another tornado–even on a good day!  I am actually surprised at how I am surprised whenever I see a tornado.  I have seen about 15 tornadoes over the course of my short time chasing, and I have to tell you I am shocked and amazed whenever I see one.  It’s an incredible feeling when you first spot that rotating column of air.
  9. Hail sales really do exist. I heard about these before I moved to Oklahoma, but I used to think they were just a joke.  Cars get damaged by large hail in the Plains; it’s a fact of life, chasing or no chasing.  When this happens in a car dealership, the dealerships often have a “hail sale”, where you can buy a new car pretty cheap–as long as you can live with some dents and perhaps a broken window.  Hail is cool to see, but not fun to mess with–unless you enjoy having your car smashed, stay away from falling golf balls and baseballs.
  10. Don’t record video in a car without a dash mount or tripod. I have never got car sick in a car, even when reading.  I do, however, get very nauseous when I watch chase videos that were recorded by someone holding a camcorder up to a moving car window, while traveling at 70 mph.  By the way, this includes some of my own chase videos.  Get a dash mount or tripod or something if you plan to film out of a moving car (or a really good camcorder that does well under these conditions).  I recently bought a no-slip dashboard cushion for a GPS–only I’m going to use it for my camcorder instead.  I already tested it, and it works great–I just place the camcorder in the flat part of the cushion, which I place on the dashboard, and the camcorder won’t even move when I go around corners.
  11. Chasing isn’t all fun and games. Finally, people’s lives are being affected by the storms we chase.  I never realized this more than when I saw Greensburg being destroyed by a 1.7-mile-wide tornado a few years ago.  At the end of the day, no matter what your reasons for chasing, and no matter how much you enjoy getting that thrill ride and those money shots–remember to stop and think about that building you saw fall apart, and even the corn field that you saw get ripped up.  Yes, even though we root for tornadoes to go through open fields, a tornado could still be damaging someone’s crop and income for the year.  Think about this before you start cheering on that tornado.
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  1. John F. Hultquist said,

    March 12, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    Hi Rebekah,

    The first car I bought was an old 1957 Ford convertible. The once cream colored roof had turned gray and the fabric weak. In Iowa City, Iowa while I was inside in a university class a major hail storm came and hundreds of cars were damaged. The new convertibles had long flaps of fabric each the width of the hail – some an inch wide and a foot long. My car’s top only had round holes the diameter of the hail. Gray duct tape inside and out solved the problem.
    Moral 1: Don’t chase storms in a convertible, and
    Moral 2: Your storm chasing kit should include a roll of duct tape.

    Outdoor types frequently carry duct tape (for things that move, but shouldn’t) and a can of 3-IN-ONE oil (for things that should move, but don’t). Not bad things for a storm chaser to have.

    Good luck and stay safe, John

  2. Rebekah said,

    March 13, 2010 at 11:40 am

    Hi John,
    Wow, that must have been quite the hailstorm! I used to want a Ford Mustang convertible, but now my dream car is a Chevy Corvette convertible. Unfortunately, as you said, if I ever do get a convertible it would not be good for chasing!
    I do keep a small roll of duct tape with me in my emergency auto kit. The oil idea sounds great, too. Thanks for the tips!