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Storm Chasing Gear and Gadgets:

How Much Is Too Much?
by Matt Ver Steeg, WeatherEdge, Inc.

Storm chasing has dramatically changed during the last 20 years. In the 'old days,' I'd head out into the field with nothing except a Brownie camera. Encounter one of the modern 'techno-chasers' of today, and you can find vehicles crammed with every type of electronic gadget available. The question is, how much gear do you really need to go storm chasing?

Several years ago, I was at my peak of ' storm chase fever.' I'd head into the field with a plethora of cameras, tripods, and weather instruments. My Ford Bronco was packed solid with this gear. It all came to an end on a gravel road southwest of Wichita, Kansas, when I was out storm chasing. I was photographing a rotating wall cloud on a classic supercell, when the rear flank downdraft punched through and created a clear slot. Four cameras were perched on lightweight tripods when the wind from the RFD roared through my location at 80 miles per hour. They were picked up and blown into a field several yards away, and all but one were destroyed. That was a costly lesson. Another time when storm chasing, all the gear was stowed in the chase vehicle outside my hotel room one night. When I awoke in the morning and went to the car, everything was gone, including the car stereo.

Today, I pack light. The gear taken with me into the field includes the following:

* Thermometer
* Sling psychrometer
* Laptop PC
* Cellular telephone
* Digital video camera
* 35mm still camera
* Two tripods
* Handheld dual band ham radio

The thermometer and sling psychrometer are used to take temperature and dew point readings while storm chasing, alerting me to any significant changes while I travel. The laptop gets used infrequently, but I will use it to make my forecasts on the morning of a chase day. I rarely look at radar images with it. The cell phone is a good tool while on the road, and can provide a link to the NWS to report a tornado down.

I use a digital camera when storm chasing because of its size. It fits nicely on a monopod behind the dash, or on a tripod outside. The digital camera uses little room in a camera case, which is a plus. I carry one 35mm camera, and a couple of zoom lenses. I used to carry a ton of prime lenses with me when storm chasing, but quit because of space and weight considerations. For tripods, one is a light weight composite, while the other is a rugged aluminum unit. Both deploy quickly when storm chasing, and use fluid heads with quick releases. Finally, the handheld ham radio is used to report severe weather to local SKYWARN nets, and listen to NOAA weather radio broadcasts.

Another storm chasing word I'm using this year is stealth. Because of past problems with knuckle-dragging thieves in parking lots, I don't want to advertise that I'm out storm chasing. Gone are the radio antennas from the roof of the truck, the boombox with CD player, and the gear left naively inside. When I get to my hotel room at night, I take all the gear inside with me. Thieves can look at my truck all they want, but there won't be anything to tempt them.

Another factor to consider while storm chasing is the more goodies you shove into your vehicle, the more opportunity for things to go wrong. A car or truck festooned with antennas is not only sure to get a crook's attention, but can also attract lightning. One bolt out of the blue can ruin your whole day. Or worse. The more clutter in the cockpit, the better a chance spill of your favorite beverage hitting something vital and expensive. Laptops especially do not like water, coffee, or pop in their environment.

For the driver, information overload during storm chasing can cause problems. Too many radios squawking at once, people talking, glancing at the computer screen, fiddling with a knob, etc. can spell trouble. Pilots suffer at times from this phenomenon, especially when things begin to 'stack up' a little bit. Flying an instrument poor Cessna 150 is a lot simpler than a Piper Malibu loaded with avionics and more complex systems. Information overload can lead to accidents, and death. Keep it simple. You can be the most well equipped techno-chaser out there, but there's no guarantee you'll bag a tornado time after time. It does mean, however, that you'll spend lots of money on your 'toys,' and perhaps expend a fair amount of frustration because they don't give the results you thought you'd paid for. Like it or not, you can't buy experience.

On local storm chasing trips, I take my cameras, and leave the laptop at home. (Local means within 200 miles of home.) I grew up in the plains and have watched storms all of my life. I know what 'tornado weather' feels like, and I've got a good idea what the clouds are telling me. I like that. I don't want to rely on a piece of technology to think for me, and dull my instincts. I want to enjoy weather and the outdoors by being in it, not by having my head glued to a computer display for 400 miles. It's a personal choice, and if I miss a tornado because I wasn't looking at the latest Nexrad image, so be it. One of the things about storm chasing that I like are the storms and their environment. The feel of that moist wind in your face, replaced by the cold RFD punching in, the 'clean' smell after a good storm, the adrenaline from being around such a monstrous behemoth as an HP supercell, the ruddy hues of sunset gilding the mammatus clouds at days end... Bagging a tornado isn't everything when you go storm chasing.

In closing, you don't need the biggest, baddest, gizmo-filled storm chasing vehicle. What you do need is a childlike sense of wonder and a willingness to learn. Start humble and hone your skills. That old Brownie camera's probably in your attic just waiting for you...

Matt Ver Steeg

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Storm chasing is dangerous. You could be hurt or killed in its pursuit, especially if you have little or no knowledge of severe storms and their environment. Chase hazards include but are not limited to heavy rain, flash flooding, lightning, high winds, large hail, tornadoes, and flying debris. Hydroplaning on the road and traffic accidents also occur. If you desire to chase, get informed and educated about weather. Contact your local National Weather Service Office, and enroll in a SKYWARN training class. Read and view all of the published information regarding severe weather, thunderstorms, and tornadoes that you can. You are responsible for educating yourself. Next, contact an experienced chaser in your area, and arrange to travel with them, until you've gained sufficient experience to go it alone. Even at that, veteran chasers get caught in harm's way from time to time. Play it safe. This page is for informational and educational use, and the authors disavow any responsibility for actions you may take.

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