Winter Weather Basics & Tools for Planning

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Written by Jans Expert, Scott House.

Most people dread winter weather; the snow, cold, and wind might have something to do with this lack of love for Old Man Winter. But if you plan appropriately, dress accordingly, and pay attention while you’re out, winter weather can be enjoyable— or daresay magical.

We’re going to focus on the “plan appropriately.” We’ve all used our local TV or radio station for our weather forecast and they work great for the big picture.  However, if you are planning a day out in the woods or mountains, it’s important to zoom in and get a little more detail for where you’re planning to adventure.  Here’s a few resources we like to use:


Earth.Nullschool.Net is great place to start that dive.  This site provides a global view of weather and wind.  Want to know what’s driving that big storm? Or those sunny days? Look no further.  You can view everything from winds aloft to surface winds, relative humidity, and all sorts of other data on a large scale.  This is great for looking at big weather features that may impact your area in the coming days.  Here’s a brief clip that shows what’s happening at 500 mb (18,289’) with the wind.  This is the feature that produced a killer southwest flow and delivered copious amounts of powder to Utah in early February 2019.  You can see the overall feature drawing up moisture from the southwest.

NOAA National Weather Service

This is your tax dollars hard at work.  The National Weather Service is pretty much the basis for all weather forecasting in the United States and is a likely reference point for any forecast you see  hear through typical media outlets.  Just put in your zip code, press enter, and voila, local forecast!  Now, lets talk about the features you may not know about or use…  In the image below there are a couple links most people just breeze over.  The first is the “Hazardous Weather Outlook,” which is a discussion of any inclement weather headed your way. This is a great spot to find more detailed information on storms and their timing, as well as impacts to roads and aviation.

The next link worth checking out is the “Hourly Weather Forecast.”  Thinking about when it’s best to take your lunch and hit the hill or trail? Wonder when it’s going to get too warm for Nordic skiing or fat biking?  The hourly weather forecast is your tool to help determine, on an hour-by-hour basis, when the best or worst conditions will impact your day.  When you click on the link you’ll get the below chart. The first section gives you wind chill (blue line), dewpoint (green line), and temperature (red line).  The next section depicts wind (surface and gusts) by showing a speed in numerical value as well as direction; the little arrows/hash marks point towards the direction the wind is coming from.  In this example the wind is blowing out of the southwest at 17 miles per hour (MPH) to start and by the end of the chart, it’s blowing from the west, at 7 MPH. The remaining sections depict rain (QPF) and snow totals for the period, as well as the likelihood for thunder, freezing rain, and sleet.

If we scroll down this page a little further, we get to the extended forecast; this is great reading if you are planning a couple of days out. What’s important though is the map in the lower left corner, as shown in the image below.

Let’s say you’re not going to be outdoors in the forecast area highlighted by the little green box on the map. You can scroll and zoom in or out on this map to the location you’ll be traveling and get a pinpoint forecast for that area. The pinpoint forecast is the Weather Services’ best guess as to what you will see in the exact area you are traveling to.

Want to go a little deeper?

MesoWest from the University of Utah

If you want to know what’s happening right now, weather wise, in just about anywhere in the United States, MesoWest is a great tool. From the home page you can just click on any state, and it will pull up a map of the weather stations in that state:

Once you click on a location or enter in your zip code, you’ll be able to click on nearby weather stations to see current and past data —typically wind, temperature, and relative humidity:

University of Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences

If you live in the Western US, the University of Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences page is the ultimate drill down and weather nerd resource.  There are too many tools on this page to go into each one, but the feature that we use the most is the “NAEFS-Downscaled” (North American Ensemble Forecast System).  The first thing you’ll see when you click on that link is a series of maps that depict the Western US.  These maps show QPF (Quantitative Precipitation Forecast) in inches (think rain), mean snow total, and snow probabilities for a forecast period of 7 days:

However, the tool we like the most is the “Plumes.”  The plumes are produced for a specific location, and these plumes depict the total QPF and snow total in a graphical form for a 7-day period.  This is the perfect tool for timing your powder days.  Just remember to subtract 7 hours (for those in MST) from the time on the bottom of the graph to get accurate timing.  Here is an example of the Alta-Collins, Utah plume for the model run that took place on 00z February 5th, 2019 (5:00pm February 4th, 2019 MST) forecasting 30+ inches of snow through the 7-day forecast!  All the lines you see are different forecast models and different runs of those models.  The bold lines are the mean forecast amount for that model.

By having the most accurate and detailed forecast possible for your area you’ll be better able to plan your adventure, and how to be prepared while you’re out there. If you are looking for more information on dressing for winter make sure you check out our How to Layer for Winter post.

Anytime you’re heading out to enjoy winter and you’re in the mountains or near avalanche terrain; you’ll want to make sure you’re also prepared with the avalanche forecast for your area which can be found through the National Avalanche Center. We also recommend you take, at a minimum, a recreational level 1 avalanche course like the AIARE Avalanche courses we offer through our partners at White Pine Touring. With these tools, good preparation and a little practice, you’ll be able to plan, prepare and execute a successful winter adventure!

Learn more about the author, Scott House.



National Weather Service


University of Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences