The US Weather Service issues several levels of alerts. They may include watches, advisories, and warnings. Watches mean conditions are right for the stated event to occur so keep watch. A watch may be upgraded to an advisory when the probability of the event happening reaches or exceeds 80%. A warning means the event is imminent or is happening. For example, a tornado watch says conditions are right for tornadoes to form. A warning means a tornado has actually been spotted.
The mission of the National Weather Service is "Provide weather, water, and climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy." Although the mission does not specifically address the needs of campers and other outdoor enthusiasts (but hopefully we do count under "life and property"), their forecasts can be of great use to us -- if we understand and pay attention to the alerts!
Campers and other outdoor enthusiasts should know the meaning of these weather terms so they can take appropriate actions to ensure their safety. Each type of alert has a specific meaning that you can use to prioritize your response. All of them mean keep an eye on the weather! Read more to see how close an eye you need to keep depending on the type of alert.
Weather Watch. If you hear of a weather watch in the region near where you are camping, keep an eye on the sky, check radio forecasts regularly, and begin to make preparations in case you must evacuate. A watch means conditions are right for the forecast to happen. Start making plans and preparations for what to do it if/when it happens.
Weather Advisory. If you get an advisory, you should immediately start preparing to evacuate or secure your camp site against impending weather problems. An advisory means the probability of the event happening has reached about 80% or more. At this point you want to be prepared to take shelter or get the heck out of there on a moment's notice.
Weather Warning. If you hear a warning you should take immediate steps to either evacuate or secure your camp site. A warning means the predicted event is imminent or has actually been seen. This is when folks in tornado country head to their storm cellars. Be ready to take action NOW!
You may get weather alerts on your phone or other personal electronic device, via radio (local stations or NOAA weather stations). be informed by a ranger, other law enforcement, or other local residents, or read about it in the newspaper or on your computer. It is always a good idea to check weather for your destination and your route before leaving home. Then, monitor radio stations en route and in camp and periodically check your cell phone if you have cell coverage in camp. The more warning you have of an impending weather problem the better prepared you can be. Good preparation can prevent damage in injuries while lack of preparation or poor preparation often leads to severe personal injuries and expensive damage to property.
It would not be prudent to go camping if severe weather is expected where you are going. Almost all trips can be rescheduled to a safer time. Severe weather problems can quickly take the fun out of any outing and could turn one into a medical or financial disaster. We once took a dirt biking trip to the Mojave Desert over the Thanksgiving holiday. Weather was normal when we left home and in several years of our annual "Turkey In The Dirt" outings we had never encountered any unacceptable weather. However, by the time we reached the dirt road turn off to our destination (about 150 miles from home) it had begun to snow and there was already 6-8 inches of snow on the dirt road. Knowing the difficult, hilly terrain and rough condition of the dirt road to the camp site we wisely decided to reroute to a different venue that didn't involve such extensive off road travel. By the time we reached our alternate destination the snow had slowed down and there was only 2-3 inches on the ground -- and our camp site was only a few yards off the main road on solid, hard-packed sand. This was before we had weather on our cell phones and even before I bought a NOAA weather radio. In fact, that trip was a contributing factor in acquired a NOAA radio.
I subscribe to an emergency email service that delivers National Weather Service Alerts for my county. It is a good way to stay up to date on potential weather problems that might affect us. However, it is county-wide and our county extends from the mountains to the sea so we get storm warnings for surf advisories even though we are about 1300 feet above sea level. You can sign up at emergencyemail.org.