Crazy as it may sound, storm chasing has gained a lot of popularity, so much so that people nowadays conduct storm chasing tours. You can actually go on these tours and learn about the whole chasing process, all the while enjoying the violent beauty of nature.
We are a species full of extremes. On the one hand, you have a part of the community that believes in bunkers that hunkers down even at the slightest hint of a storm. And on the other hand, you have these guys who chase down storms of all kinds, be it thunderstorms or tornadoes.
Tumultuous weather is rather an invitation for storm chasers. And it can only get better if you do it in groups of people full of enthusiasm. So, it’s no wonder that the Midwest sees hundreds of people riding on SUVs during the storms of tornado season.
In case you’re looking forward to your first storm chasing tour or just want to know what this is all about, this article has everything.
First, let’s answer the most obvious question you have.
What Is Storm Chasing?
While you can apply the term storm chasing to any type of wind-caused calamity, from a hail storm to a thunderstorm, it's most commonly used for tornadoes.
The idea behind storm chasing is simple. Find out the violent winds and storms and follow their path to observe nature's chaotic state.
People chase after storms for either scientific reasons or to see the beauty of nature when it's at unrest. During the tornado season, the Midwest sees hundreds of SUVs chasing storms. They are mostly weather hobbyists out on the road just for enjoyment.
But it was the meteorologists that started the activity as a part of their ongoing research on storms. The best way of getting data and info about the weather is on the field.
What's a Storm-Chasing Tour?
It might sound contradicting to the uninitiated. The word tour usually involves a more comfortable journey where you lay back and enjoy the calmness. But folks over at the storm-chasing community have other ideas.
After a few decades of lone storm chase, they decided to get together as a community. The credit should be given to David Hoadley, whose storm track magazine inspired the first group of storm chasers.
Storm chasing tours are when you have a couple of storm chasers in a vehicle, and they track down violent storms until the late evenings.
This team activity doesn't have a long history as they were a personal thing since there weren't many interested people back then.
It was the '90s that saw the emergence of a few groups that started running tours inside the tornado season in the tornado alley. After 1996, it got popularized, much to the benefit of storm chasers. Business boomed, and now we have many amazing storms chasing tours.
How Safe Is It to Go on Storm Chasing Tours?
Many incidents of accidents and deaths establish the risks involved with a storm chase. It's a dangerous activity, no doubt about that.
Even then, I wouldn't conclude that storm chasing tours are unsafe. Rather, I'd say going on these tours is the safest way to chase storms.
These tours conducted by veteran guides use heavy vehicles and state-of-the-art equipment for forecasting weather and mapping out storm movements. Along with all these, they also do enough to keep you at a safe distance. I'm sure you'll be in safe hands from the recent records.
What Goes on During a Storm Chasing Tour?
Knowing what to expect before you do anything is a huge advantage for doing it efficiently. It's the same when you go on a storm-chasing tour. Here's what goes on during a tour in the tornado alley.
Reaching the Base City
The first thing to do is reach the base city, which should be a major city in the midlands, such as Oklahoma or Denver. You'll have to bear the fare for the flight as it's not usually included in the package.
Rendezvous with the Team
After landing in the base city, you can take the shuttle waiting for you or a taxi to reach the designated hotel booked by the tour providers. If your tour package doesn't include hotel costs, you can ask them to manage one for you.
Meals and Rest
One thing that keeps the mind occupied on the road is the issue of meals and rests. The package doesn't usually cover the cost of meals. You'll have to manage your own meals in the hotel and on the journey through the Midwest.
You'll get chances to rest awhile in the middle of the journey when you're not chasing any storm. You can take rests inside the vehicle if it has a comfortable reclining seat, or you can seek out a temporary lodging facility.
Finding a Storm
Now comes the main part. You should know that a considerable amount of time each day of the journey will be spent finding a storm. There will be times when you won't be getting what the guides are doing. So, be patient while they do their job.
You'll have guides who have years, if not decades, of storm chasing experience. Many of them are certified meteorologists.
They'll use real-time weather data received from their own devices and predict the most likely places where storms will pop up.
Driving to the Stormy Regions
Then you'll start the journey to the predicted places. Getting to those regions will most likely take up the full length of your mornings, noons, and early afternoon hours.
When you and your teammates reach your destination, the tour guide will speculate on the radar images of cumulus clouds. These are found in the afternoon. When the experts decide on the cloud with the likelihood of developing into a storm, the chasing phase will start.
But to be frank, the first part of chasing is actually watching the storm develop and waiting for the moment it gains enough velocity.
Things will seem more exciting if you know what to look for during those moments. For those who have never chased a storm, you'll be looking for something like a single towering cloud that has reached the top wind and started developing into an anvil.
Waiting for the Storm to Develop
That towering cloud will develop into a full-blown supercell thunderstorm if you're fortunate. A supercell thunderstorm is the type of thunderstorm that has the most potential of developing into a tornado that you're so eager to experience. If you do not see a tornado, you'll at least experience extremely strong winds and hail storms.
Chasing the Storm
Once the guides have successfully picked up a storm signature, it's time to find the right position. Getting a good position that is safe and easy to move from is just as hard as finding a storm. Then, the guides are tasked with predicting the movement path of the storm.
This will help to map out a path for chasing the storm from a safe distance while giving you a good view of it. The tour operators will find a good distance between you and the storm to avoid getting hit by hail, lightning, rain, and tornadoes.
You can now fully understand what "chasing" really means. It doesn't mean you're trying to get to the center of the tornado; instead, it's completely the opposite.
Once you're close to the storm, you'll have two options; see the tornado or stay at a distance to see the structure of the storm. Depending on the type of storm, the guide will decide.
Why is that so? Because sometimes, the structure of a storm will amaze you more than a small tornado.
Most often, if the storm is likely to produce a tornado, tour guides will go in to show you the tornado. It's not every day that a tornado forms, and you get to see it.
Stay on Alert to Get the Best View
When you're on the chase, you'll be mostly inside the vehicle. So, get a window seat. If you'd like to take photos, keep the camera always on.
5 Tips for a Successful Storm Chasing Trip
A tour like this costs a lot of money. If you do not know how to get the most out of a storm-chasing tour, you might leave the tour discouraged. Note the following tips for a successful tour:
Study about Storms
I'd say it's a must-do before you go on the journey. Knowing about different types of storms categories of gusty winds will not only help you understand what the veteran guide is doing, but you'll also appreciate the little things about the storms.
Signing up for the Skywarn storm spotter class from the National Weather Service is a good option. Or you can go to storm chaser conventions such as ChaserCon and learn from the field experts.
There are hundreds of books out there. I'd suggest a single one. Howard Bluestein's Tornado Alley: Monster Storms of the Great Plains is a crowd favorite for all the right reasons.
Equip Yourself with a Companion and Necessary Electronics
The best thing to have with you on a storm chase is a good companion. A chaser partner can make the journey more enjoyable. There are practical reasons like the help you get from a partner during an emergency.
You should also be equipped with cell phones with long battery life, a power inverter, an emergency kit, paper maps, and mobile internet. These are very basic necessities.
Get used to using weather forecasting tools. It'll come in handy. A particular storm chaser website that I like is StormTrack.org. They'll have all the information you need.
Read Also: Hurricane Preparation Checklist
Be Prepared NOT to See a Tornado
Why do people go on storm chasing journeys? To see tornadoes! But how likely is it that you will see a tornado? It's always 50-50. Many come back disappointed as they didn't see a tornado every day of the journey. So, it's good practice to prepare your mind for not seeing a tornado after spending hours chasing a storm.
Do the Tour like a Traveler
I mean that you should be prepared to enjoy the normal scenery, engage with the local people, take photos, and do whatever you love to do. Since most of the time, in a chase, is doing a whole lot of nothing, you'll certainly get bored.
So, it's a good idea to see the culture around you, the lives of the local people. They'll most certainly be curious about what you're there to do. Came to see a storm? Trust me; they'll look at you funny.
Once you spend time with them, you can get experiences out of people who had dangerous encounters with storms. And you might even pick a thing or two to enjoy the storm better.
Keep a journal on the happenings on the road.
Pack Your Necessities
Your tour provider will notify you of the things you'll need during the tour, but it's good to have your checklist. Don't forget the followings items when prepping for the tour:
- Bring cash
- Medicine for when you get car sick
- Other prescription medicine and common medications such as aspirin and acid reducers
- SPF 30+ sunblock
- Tissues and water
- Protein bars
- Dried fruit
- All the stuff you need for taking photographs and shooting videos
And don't leave the sense of adventure at home.
The Tour Should Be at Least 6-Day Long
It's not advisable to go on a storm-chasing tour with so little time at hand. There might be days when you don't see even the hints of a storm. Give at least a week or more to have enough days in hand.
Different Days Different Outcome
On tour, you'll find each day will have different opportunities while some days there won't be any. You can expect the following types of days:
These are the best days on tour. The tour guides will find the signature of large clouds that develop into storms and then into tornadoes. So, you'll spend the whole day chasing and enjoying the storm. The target is to turn each day into a chase day during a tour.
It is what it is. Some days the cloud will give you a lot of expectations with the presence of large funneling clouds and supercells. And you arrive at the most likely place to wait for the storm to develop. But nothing happens. A wasted chase day is a bust day.
There will be days when there won't be any storms on the horizon, or the places with the likelihood of storms are impossible to reach. The tour guides will announce these days as down days and take you to a place of interest, such as the national park or a nearby museum.
These days are spent traveling to storm fronts. Reaching a promising storm front can sometimes take a few days. You can expect to spend many hours on the road on travel days.
Top 5 Storm Chasing Tours Company: A Few Suggestions
Extreme Tornado Tours
The folks over at Extreme Tornado Tours are a capable bunch. Their tours have three veteran guides that conduct the whole storm chasing process with the guests throughout the journey. One of them is Kevin Rolfs, a known storm chaser from Basehunters storm chasing.
The fact that he isn't a hobbyist rather a seasoned storm chaser slash meteorologist with a degree from Oklahoma University should give you a sense of certainty.
They offer different tour packages from April to June, USA's tornado season. Their packages include five, seven, or ten day's long journeys.
They are properly equipped to give the storm tourists a beautiful scenery and safe journey with specifically designed vans. Each person will get a seat by the window to have the experience of a lifetime.
Each van has flatscreens inside to watch the weather, charging stations for your electronics, and walkie-talkies for connection.
Their vans are interconnected as well with MicroMobiles connection.
Starting their journey in 1999, Stormtours.com is one of the oldest running tour operators. After the craze of storm chasing following the movie "Twister," there was a huge demand.
These guys delivered. Brian Barnes, the team leader, is one of the world's most experienced storm chasers. You may have seen him on TV with his show "Our World: Storm Chasers" on BBC.
With a few other veteran storm chasers and meteorologists, he has enough experience to guide you through the storm.
If you want comfort during the length of your journey, they have the best-equipped vehicles in that regard. Although you will be spending much of your time on the edge of your seat, their vehicles have reclining seats when you need to get some shut-eye on the road.
You'll also have a flip-down screen and charging stations, a standard for these tours. They'll also provide you with lodging options and transportation systems.
Based out of Oklahoma City, Tempest Tours offers various tours that last from five to eleven days. Their tour operation starts around March and continues until August to get the most exciting part of the storm season.
Although the company was founded in 2000, its veteran storm chasers were among the pioneers of the storm chaser community. They were active on the scene even before the film Twister.
All of the members on Tempest's team have radio operating licenses and have extensive training on storm spotting. And they work directly with the National weather service and provide them with all the findings they dig up during the storm chase.
If you've seen the documentary "The Chasers of Tornado Alley," you might have seen their senior staff member Martin Lisius and Bill Reid.
In terms of features, their tours will take your mind off from lodging and transportation to give you all the time to enjoy the violent beauty.
One special point about them is the tour specially designed for children detected with autism. They want to include everyone in the exciting community of storm chasers.
Storm Chasing Adventure Tours
With over two decades of experience, the team at Storm Chasing Adventure Tours is well prepared to handle the harshness and tough road in a storm chase. Their senior staff member Todd Thorn has been involved with severe weather chasing since 1991, and his passion pushed him to get a degree in meteorology.
His team was the first to provide the famous weather station with the footage they captured on the field.
While the journey they provide isn't as glamorous as with Stormtours.com, they provide safety and reliability. And it's a low-cost option compared to all the options out there.
Their tours are always 6-day long based out of Oklahoma, Rapid City, or Denver. Note that they do not conduct the same number of tours every year to provide each of their customers with the most beautiful scenes possible. Due to the varying intensity of storm season, they schedule the tours for the best possible experience.
Silver Lining Tours
Out of the 5 tour providers on this list, Silver Lining conducts the highest number of storm chasing adventures. Their tours last from 5 to 11 days, and they start from either Oklahoma or Denver.
If you love taking photos of storms and the scenery during a storm, you'd be in the right place with them. The world-famous professional videographer Roger Hill is one of the senior guides on the team. He is in charge of creating tour schedules specifically geared towards photographers and videographers.
The Guinness book of world records has his name under the "most tornadoes sighted by one person." His record is 582 tornadoes. You can imagine the amount of experience he has in the bag.
They have a special tour with a particular focus on southwestern photography. The name of this tour is "Desert Storm."
Do check out the team's live footage of storm chasing on their website.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Do You Normally See During a Storm Chasing Tour?
During a storm chase, you'll be seeing lots of amazing scenes and experience many interesting weather phenomena. If you're following a veteran storm chaser, you'll most likely encounter supercell thunderstorms, Mammatus clouds, intense lightning, wall clouds, huge hail, and, most importantly, hurricane.
In the end, if the sun is still up, you'll end with an amazing view of sunsets and rainbows.
Apart from the stormy side of the journey, don't forget that you'll also be traveling through the belly of the Midwest. The rural Midwest is beautiful, with friendly people all around in cute small towns.
A night in a Midwestern pub or a restaurant could be an exotic experience that you never imagined, especially if you're not from the USA.
Do You Always See Tornadoes During Tours?
This is something the customers always ask the tour operators. But tornado formation isn't as frequent as you may have thought.
While the tornado alley does produce lots of tornadoes throughout the tornado season, not all of them can be observed due to safety reasons. Tour guides will avoid extremely unsafe regions for practical reasons.
So, there might be days when you just have to be satisfied with extreme hail storms, rain, gusty wind, and supercell thunderstorms that didn't develop into tornadoes.
How much does it cost to go on storm chasing tours?
For the normal storm chasing tour, the cost can vary from $30-$60 depending on the length of the trip and the number of guests.
How much are tornado tours?
Tours designed to catch the most extreme of tornadoes cost a lot more. On average, you can expect to pay $3500 or more for a 7-day trip.
Do storm chasers go into a tornado?
Some extreme storm chasers do attempt to go into a tornado, and the result is never pretty. The good news is that storm chasing tour guides have a strict rule; always stay at a safe distance even if it means less viewing pleasure.
Are storm chasing tours safe?
All of the storm-chasing tour providers claim that they haven't seen any fatalities involved with their tours. Although tornadoes have killed storm chasers in recent years, they were not part of a tour team.
How close can you get to a tornado?
It depends on the size of the tornado, and it also matters to know what type of tornado it is. The truth is that trying to get as close as possible to a tornado is never a good idea.
The life of storm chasers is hard even though the pay is good. Compared to them, the seasonal storm chasers have it easy. But both of the crowds come together when storm chasing tours start during the tornado season.
I see them as complementary to each other. If you want to experience a safe and exciting tornado chase, you can't but trust the veterans on this field. They take care of the complicated stuff and shoulder the heavy burden of maintaining safety.
And you pay them for the experience. Nonetheless, it's a good idea to have a bit of knowledge before going on these tours.