Skip to Content

Predicting the Weather with Clouds

It’s no fun getting stuck in the rain while on a hike.

Did you know that in many cases you can predict the coming weather by watching the skyline?

Clouds are not only beautiful, but they are very useful when preparing for a hiking day. Below we are going to give you an easy cloud class that will come in handy when you are outdoors and hopefully help you to never get caught unprepared in the rain again.

Read our post on Camping in the Rain here!

Some Basics

There are 10 different basic cloud types and each one is placed into a sub-category according to their height and the cloud appearance from the ground. The 3 basic cloud heights you will be looking for when looking to the sky are Low, Medium, and High (easy enough, right).

Sunny Day in the Woods
green forest background in a sunny day

Low Clouds

Predicting the Weather with Clouds 1
Heavy low fog clouds hanging over the water and hills.

The Low category contains 5 different types of clouds. The Stratus, Cumulus, Cumulonimbus, Nimbostratus and the Stratocumulus cloud. These clouds stay below 6,500 feet.

The Stratus cloud

Stratus means “spread out” or “flattened” in Latin. Most times Stratus clouds are referred to as fog or mist. They are the lowest form of cloud there is on Earth. If there are no clouds above the Stratus cloud the sun or moon can shine through. A mist can come with the foggy air when Stratus clouds are moving through your area.

The Cumulonimbus cloud

cumulonimbus cloud
cumulonimbus cloud in a deep blue sky

If the thunder is rolling, it’s a Cumulonimbus cloud overhead! These are known for bringing in the thunder, hail and extreme downpours. They are big clouds with mountain like peaks at the top with a dark grey under belly. Also, they like to move across the land at a few hundred feet. At the top of the cloud look for the tip (Anvil) it most likely will be pointing in the direction the storm will be moving towards. If you see this coming your way take cover.

The Cumulus cloud

Cumulus cloud
Cumulus clouds

Cumulus stands for “heap” in Latin. These are beautiful big fluffy clouds. Cumulus clouds are known for making fun shapes in the big blue skies. If these are what are above you it’s a perfect day to go camping, hiking, boating, swimming and anything else outdoors. Some say take note that a Cumulus cloud can turn into a rain cloud, but overall you are probably going to have fine weather.

Nimbostratus cloud

nimbostratus clouds
nimbostratus clouds

The dark flat spread out clouds coving most of the sky are full of heavy rain and are called Nimbostratus clouds. They block the sunshine and bring snow to the ground. If you hear thunder or have hail it is not from a Nimbostratus cloud, those come from a Cumulonimbus cloud.

 Stratocumulus cloud

 Stratocumulus cloud
stratocumulus clouds overhead.

The Stratocumulus clouds are found hanging around in all kinds of weather. They are very social clouds! These clouds often group together leaving little to no gap in between. Their hue ranges from bright white to dark grey and they layer upon each other in rows. You will not get wet from a Stratocumulus cloud, but they might have a cloud friend near by that will drop rain on you.

Medium Clouds

There are two cloud types in this group. They are Altocumulus and Altostratus clouds. The base of these clouds can reach up to 18,000 feet in the air.

 Altocumulus cloud

An Altocumulus cloud will have a huge difference in the contrast between light and dark. They float in a fluffy sheet across most of the sky in patch like form. Making it impossible for the sun to shine through them. If you spot these near sun rise you may indeed have a thunderstorm by the afternoon hours.

Altostratus cloud

Covering the entire sky as well, the Altostratus clouds are easy to peg because of their grey to blue like colors. You can see the glow of the sun, but it can not make shadows through the thick mile long cloud. If this is what you are viewing you will most likely have some rain soon that day.

High Clouds

The high cloud category is my favorite set of clouds because they are so pretty and they don’t dampen my day. There are three different types of high clouds. The Cirrus, Cirrostratus and the Cirrocumulus cloud.

Cirrus cloud

Cirrus stands for “lock or tuft of hair” in Latin. The flowing look of the Cirrus cloud will let you know you are in for good weather. They are the whitest cloud in the sky. If they are around at sun set they tend to take on the colors of the sun.

Cirrostratus cloud

The rarest cloud set is the Cirrostratus cloud. They appear as ripples in the sky. They never have shading to them and they made of ice crystals. You can rest easy knowing within 12-24 hours of seeing them you will have a damp day, but no rain.

Cirrocumulus cloud

My number one favorite cloud ever is the Cirrocumulus cloud. It makes me sit in awe at times when everything else is moving so fast around me. These high clouds cover large areas in the sky giving different colored rings or arcs of light around the sun or moon.

In a Nut Shell…

To make it really easy to predict the weather through clouds you can follow these steps.

  • Can you see the sun or moon through the clouds? If you can they are high altitude clouds.
  • If they appear thick then you are most likely going to have poor weather within a day or two.
  • If the clouds are hardly moving you can expect the storm in a day. The storm will be heading towards the direction the clouds are pointing.
  • If you can’t see the sun or moon through the clouds you are viewing a low or medium altitude set of clouds.
  • Middle altitude clouds will have a grey to blue tone to them or fluffy white clouds with a huge contrast of light to dark. If this is the look you are viewing expect rain within half of a day.
  • If none of these are matching the clouds above you it is most likely you are looking at low altitude clouds. They tend to hang out around tall building or mountains. It usually is already raining if you are seeing low altitude clouds. Or at least about to rain.
  • The white fun shaped clouds indicate good weather, but keep an eye on them. If they start to move vertical you could have some unexpected weather change.

I hope this helps you when planning a camping trip or a day of hiking with your family. Have some fun with it and teach your kids how to tell if it’s going to rain. Keep a notebook handy to mark the changes in the sky. Another idea is use some cotton balls to make a drawing of your cloudy campsite.

Predicting the Weather with Clouds 2