Storm Chasing – Overview

This is an overview on our daily routine, the hotels, the van, camera gear and more. This information could also be helpful to anyone considering a storm chasing tour.

The Daily Routine

Every day would start the same way. We were responsible for our own wake-up calls and most of the hotels offered a basic breakfast. Once we had left Denver, our meeting times were generally between nine and ten in the morning.

Which is awesome unless jet lag keeps waking you at five or six.

We brought our bags to the van, and once loaded up, we would have a morning briefing somewhere in the hotel. It was usually in one of the rooms or in the hotel lobby/conference room where they could hook up their laptop to a screen.

This way, they were able to show us the maps and information that they used to decide on where to go that day.

They often started with the link to the Storm Prediction Center which gave them a basic percentage risk of severe weather and then went to other sites to break down why these areas were at risk and where within this swath of territory it might be best to go.

They would talk about surface and high altitude winds, humidity, wind direction, shear and  temperature. One site noted the difference between temperature and dew point. In this case, the closer together they are, the more moisture there is and that was what we were looking for.

Between it all, they would spend about thirty minutes educating us on the weather for the day and we would set off in that general direction. We travelled about four hundred miles a day on average.

And quite frankly, I barely noticed the distances.

Since most of the storms (or the ones we were most interested in) didn’t form till late afternoon, we would spend most of the time driving to the target area. There would be stops every hour or two depending on how far we had to drive.

On a couple of days, we were not far from our target area so we would visit a Walmart, have a longer sit down lunch or find a site of interest in the area to visit. On one occasion, we visited a buffalo and elk sanctuary. On another particularly hot day (well over 100ºF), we stopped at a Dairy Queen for a while. Needless to say, the blizzard was particularly good. On the eclipse tour, we visited Monument Rocks in Kansas and took a ride on an antique carousel in Colorado.

Once a chase began in the late afternoon or early evening, we made sure our camera gear was in hand and ready to go. We would stop at a spot for anywhere from two minutes to an hour or more depending on what was shaping up.

If it started to rain or if the lightning was getting too close for comfort, we’d load up and go. This is where the ability to load quickly can come in handy.

More often than not we chased the storms well into the evening. On average, we arrived at our hotel somewhere between nine and midnight. The hotel was usually chosen not long after we knew what area we would be chasing in and often it was a hotel that was in the direction they expected to take the next day.

 

The Vans

Our van had six passengers in the back. It had a capacity to fit nine in back, but the three middle spots were left empty so that everyone had access to a window. The seats are bench seats.

In the first van, the tour leader took the front seat where the laptop was set up.

And there was a TV monitor facing the back that showed us the same thing that was on the laptop screen.

In our van, we had a veteran chaser named Alex who stayed close to the monitor and worked with the tour leader to discuss which were the best storms to chase. It was interesting to listen to them throw the ideas and information back and forth throughout the tour.

The van also had wifi which was fairly reliable throughout the tour.

The back of the van had more than enough room for our luggage and a small mountain of tripods.

The second van had a driver and seven seats for the passengers (one in the front seat). Generally, the two vans would chase together, but for this tour, the second van was actually split between two mini-tours – 6A (below) and 6B.

The 6A group left us half way through the tour, and a couple days later, we reunited with the van and the 6B group.

One our first day we were given two rules. No alcohol while we were chasing and seat belts must always be worn. This was enforced throughout the tour. We were also told that when they said to get aboard during a chase, there should be no arguing the point. They might see something we don’t.

There was no set rotation in the seats, but we varied which seat we took each day. It really doesn’t matter as the best views are when you get out of the van. We all took care of our own garbage and someone always had a plastic bag to spare.

 

The Hotels

The hotels ranged from a Budget Host in New Mexico to the Best Western in Wichita.

I had no issues with any of them. In fact, they were much better than I anticipated.

They were all clean and comfortable. Most had the basic breakfast layout and laundry facilities (which now explains to me why Americans are always surprised to find there are no laundry facilities in European hotels). I was also surprised at how many had kettles, fridges and microwaves in the room.

All the hotels had ample plugs for charging my electronics.

 

Camera Gear

Not everyone is interested in taking pictures or videos of the storms. They just want to watch. For them, a cell phone or point and shoot camera for the highlights is perfect.

For those of us that want to take pictures and/or video, there are some things I found were essential. Some of these I didn’t have but wish I did.

A DSLR or mirrorless camera

– I had two Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mk II mirrorless cameras and an Olympus Tough TG-4 point and shoot. I used one OM-D for pictures while the other sat on a tripod taking video or long exposures.

Wide angle lens

– I used my 18-36mm f3.5 (all focal lengths listed are 35 equiv) lens more than anything else. My 24-300mm was great for all-around use during the day. My 24mm f2.0 prime generally ended up on the tripod at night. While my 18-36mm did well, I wanted something that was a bit faster, so I finally broke down and purchased a pricey 14-28mm f2.8.

Lots of batteries

– I had five batteries for the OM-Ds which was just enough. Taking long exposures and video tended to drain them on a long day. I now have six batteries and a power grip so that on long nights, I won’t have to switch out batteries in the middle of a great display.

Two chargers

– On those long days I could drain three to five of the batteries. Problem was that I had only one charger and the OM-D can’t charge the battery in the camera. That meant that I had to keep the charger on the night table, and when I woke in the middle of the night, I swapped out the batteries. In the end, I never fell short but I have since bought a second Olympus charger. (I bought a Watson charger but found it only partially charged the battery.)

Memory cards

– I had thirteen SDHC cards and had to reuse some of them multiple times (but only because I was doing the click-click-click method to catch lightning. That meant I could go through 500 photos in a few minutes). At the end of the day, I saved the photos to my laptop (Surface Pro 4) and to a 2TB external drive. That ensured I had two copies of the photos and could reuse the cards.

I was using Lexar Pro 1000x cards that were all Class 10 UHS II, but a number of them failed on me. Reformatting worked in most cases but two lost photos before I had a chance to download them. Lexar agreed to replace the cards, but the replacements all failed. I’m awaiting their reply.

I’ve since purchased six Sandisk Extreme Pro UHS II cards. For my camera, it was rated a bit better than the Lexar and have very good read/write speeds which is important when taking pictures rapidly.

Lightning trigger

– I didn’t have one but now I do. This is the alternative to just clicking and hoping to catch a bolt. The trigger will activate the shutter when lightning is detected so you can set the camera on your tripod and stand back to enjoy the show. I asked the others about the triggers and one brand that was recommended was called Pluto. I bought mine for just over $100 from B&H Photo in the US. I have yet to play with it but it looks like it has a number of useful functions besides being a lightning trigger which makes the investment worth it.

Tripod

– At night, the best way to capture the lightning was with longer exposures so a tripod was essential. I had a lightweight tripod that was fine for my camera and I could leave it under the seat. Others had larger tripods that could be left in the back of the van and accessed easily enough when we stopped.

Remote

– In order to take those longer exposures, a remote means that you can trigger the shutter without vibration. The Pluto trigger that I purchased is also a remote.

Extra storage

– I had a 2 TB Seagate external drive. This is a must to ensure you don’t lose any photos. I was shooting in RAW, so it was more than enough memory to store all the photos.

Microphone

– I don’t have one yet, but I will for the next tour. A external mic with a dead cat is likely the best way to get the video without the wind muffling the sound of the thunder.

One thing that I wish I had had was my fanny pack which is just large enough to carry extra cards, batteries, my point and shoot, cell phone and I can even drop a spare lens into the water bottle carrier. This meant I wouldn’t have had to abandon some good photo opportunities in order to go back to the van to get a card, battery or lens.

I carried all my camera gear in a Vanguard Havana 48 backpack that has a camera case in the bottom half. That case was big enough to carry both camera bodies, five lenses, external drive, batteries, chargers and more. It also has a spacious laptop sleeve.

I used it as a carryon for the flights and it protected the gear and was easy to carry.

 

Random Hints and Tidbits

– It’s not hard to eat a lot of junk food while chasing. On my first tour, I was a little overwhelmed by all the wide range of possibilities lining the aisles in the stores and wanted to try them all. I put on five pounds. On my second tour, I practiced a little more restraint, going for granola/protein bars instead of chocolate bars. I also limited the soft drinks I drank. I actually lost weight.

– When you get to the hotel in the evening after a great storm, your first instinct will be to stay up and look/work on your photos. I recommend resisting this urge. Take a quick look at them, download them so that you have a second copy safely stored and then go to bed. There is plenty of time in the morning and in the van to look at the photos. (Especially if jet lag is still getting you up at six).

– On a long day, we could spend twelve hours in the van. Please don’t wear anything that has a heavy scent. In the close quarters of the van, it could be suffocating. The same applies to bug spray. Wait until you leave the van to apply it. (Not that I had an issue on these tours but have had this happen on full size coaches and can’t imagine what it would be like in a van).

– Make time to do a laundry whenever there is down time. In the hot humid weather, you probably don’t want to be wearing the same sweat soaked shirt every day. I had a complete change of clothes to cover four or five days which ensured I always had something clean to wear. (The hot weather makes it easy to pack light).

– If you are strapped for time when it comes to laundry, you can put the iron on steam and freshen up an item easily enough. And it only takes a few minutes to rinse out an item in the sink and have it dry by morning. I wrote about my laundry routine here.

Most of all, just have fun. The weather dictates the tour and you could have a tour with intercepts every single night or only one or two in a week. You could see ten tornadoes or none. You never know. It’s all part of the experience.

 

 

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