A few years ago, I drafted this 'briefing' to show (either verbally or via email) to anyone who wanted to go storm chasing with me, either by riding along or following me in a caravan. I figured it would discourage the people who really weren't the right types to go storm chasing, and prepare the rest for what to expect. I thought it might make for an interesting blog post, so here it is. Feel free to copy this and give to your friends who want to go on a chase with you. By the way, I generally don't take people chasing with me aside from family, close friends and other experienced chasers. (However, I will work as a guide for a fee).
Storm chasing - what you need to know
There are a few important things you need to know if you go storm chasing with me, either riding along with me or following me in your car.
Storm chasing is not a relaxing vacation. If you want to kick back and take it easy, a oceanliner cruise or beach trip is what you want, not a storm chase. Storm chasing can be relaxing at times, sure. But many times it's grueling, uncomfortable and hectic. "Tornado weather" is hot and humid, and we'll be spending lots of time driving, sitting and waiting in those conditions. We can't run the air conditioner leading up to storm time, because it will cause camera lenses to fog immediately when you get outside (we'll open the windows though). There can be a lot of very boring sitting and waiting. There can be short not-so-quality meals, late nights and early mornings, and sometimes less-than-four-star hotels.
We operate on the atmosphere's schedule, not our own. If you want to see tornadoes, you have to do what the weather is telling you to do, when it tells you! It won't wait for you. It's going to do what it's going to do whether we are there or not. So, if we don't want to waste gas driving thousands of miles to just observe the scenery of rural America, we have no choice but to 'jump' when the atmosphere says to 'jump'. Every minute counts in storm chasing - a 15 minute delay can mean the difference between a quality intercept or being left in the dust. Again - this can mean late nights and early mornings, long roadside waits, quick meals and infrequent bathroom stops (more on that later). Usually every day isn't that intense, but some stretches of days during an active pattern can be! Bottom line - we're here to chase, so we have to operate at the whims of the atmosphere if we want to see what we came to see.
We will be driving. A lot. Prepare for being on the road all day and late into the night. 400 to 600 miles or more in a day is not uncommon. I will shoot lightning photos/videos if the storms cooperate after dark. Take a snack/meal bar or two, as we may not be able to stop for dinner. It sometimes is past most restaurants' closing time when we get completely done with chasing and photography.
If you are riding with me, once we depart, there is no turning back. Fuel is expensive and good chase days are few. As a result, please understand that I will not forfeit a chase and potential tornadoes in order to take you home if you change your mind, get scared, forget something, etc. Once you're with me, you're with me for the *entire* chase. If you think you may for whatever reason change your mind and want to go home early at some point, do not chase with me. Otherwise, prepare to have to find your own way back if you make the decision to go home early - since we will be in mainly rural areas, a taxi will usually be your only option.
Hail encounters are a part of storm chasing. This is an important consideration if you want to follow me in your vehicle. When you get close to supercells and severe storms, avoiding hail completely all the time is unrealistic and next to impossible. I always try to avoid large hail, as a broken windshield will end the chase and be costly to fix. However, there is a near 100% chance that we will drive through smaller hail at some point. Most of the time, this small hail will not dent cars or break windows (though it will be loud and sound worse than it is). However, there is always the risk of dents from random, unforseen larger hail stones while doing this. There is also a small risk that we will get caught in large hail that can cause bigger dents and broken windows. I have not broken or cracked a windshield from hail in 18 years of chasing, but I have received many dents. While it is rare, serious damage does happen regularly to others, and it could happen to us on this chase. Bottom line, if you cannot accept the risk of hail damage, don't go chasing with me in your car.
Trust me and *stay with me*. This very important. In other words, PLEASE don't freak out, and if you are following me in your car, don't break away from me. I'm not out to try and cheat death, so please trust me. Storms, even tornadic ones, are not as dangerous as they seem. Some dark clouds can look scary, but are almost always harmless. Tornadoes are like big trucks and trains - stay out of their way, and there is no danger. You can get reasonably close to tornadoes and still be perfectly safe, along as one is not coming right at you. We will get as close as the roads allow us to get - but please, PLEASE, don't freak out and/or leave me - you are far worse off on your own with no experience and radar/GPS around a tornadic storm than you are with me. Trust me and enjoy the experience if we do get the chance to get close. It will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience (and photo opportunity) for all of us - please don't ruin it for me and everyone by freaking out or bailing out on your own. If you don't think you will be able to handle the experience, it's probably best you don't go.
When we get close to storm time (usually around 3PM to 5PM), use the restroom when we make our last stop before 'chase mode' - and *take it easy on beverages* from that point on. 'Chase mode' begins when storms start developing, and we'll begin to quickly position ourselves for an intercept. In chase mode, we will usually have no chances to stop for bathroom breaks again, and if we have to stop (or divert course to get to a restroom), it could cost us tornadoes. In chasing, every minute counts, and once on a good storm, we can't break away from it and not miss something. If you decide to guzzle drinks after we are on a storm, prepare to have to use the side of the road with little privacy from passing traffic. (In other words, make it easier for yourself and just take it easy on the drinks after our last stop!)
When in chase mode, our movements will be intense and chaotic to stay safe and keep up with the storm. When I say we need to move, we need to move now. Don't take it personally if I seem short during a chase - it's for our success and our safety.
Watch what you say - cameras are rolling. Anything you say could end up on a national TV show someday. TV producers love to exploit embarrasing exclamations made during an intense moment.
Now I realize some of that may seem a little harsh, but those are a few realities of the hobby that are better learned beforehand than during. If you still want to go storm chasing after reading all of that, you'll probably enjoy it and be just fine. Though there's a first time for everything, I have yet to have someone go on a chase trip that later regretted it.
The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:
They seem like rather reasonable rules to me...
- Posted by Tara
My chase group would leave really early in the morning on the day of a possible tornado outbreak and split expenses. Since there are 5 of us (however, 2 of them are aggressive chasers and the other 2 are pretty cautious while I'm in the middle). Night chases don't happen unless there's lots of lightning. However, since it's their first year chasing outside the st. louis area, they haven't been in any dangerous situation. The cautious chasers were in Oklahoma City during the El Reno tornado, nearly got caught in a traffic jam and their camera's focus was messing up when they had a good shot of the Mustang tornado. I couldn't chase last year so that was somewhat of a bummer. - Posted by Tim
Oops. I forgot that add that since there are 5 of us, splitting expenses makes things a little easier. - Posted by Tim