How to Navigate Using the Upper Winds and Clouds

I have written in the past about the basics of using the weather to navigate. Here I’d like to offer a couple of tips to help with one of the less well-known techniques: using the upper winds to navigate.

Background

We can of course feel the lower winds and see the lower clouds scudding overhead. And we know that one causes the motion of the other. But early on, natural navigators are encouraged to treat these two techniques as separate. We are either navigating by lower winds or lower clouds, but not trying to predict the direction of one from the other. Until you are an expert, this approach saves a lot of complexity and potential confusion.

The upper winds offer another way of navigating altogether. The upper winds typically hold the same course for much longer than the lower winds and so once we’ve tuned into their journeys, we have a more dependable compass. That said, it is a harder one to read until you know how.

The How To Bit

We can’t feel the upper winds or see their effects on trees, grass, smoke or similar, so our only way to gauge their direction is to watch the clouds moving.

First we need to identify the right clouds. Cirrus, the wispy, candyfloss-like clouds, are the best ones to look for. Their wispy appearance is the clue: they are formed of ice, not water, meaning they are in the colder, higher parts of the troposphere.

Next, we need to track the movement of these clouds.

Upper clouds move very quickly – often more than 100mph – but because of their distance and the lack of a background landscape, they actually appear to move very slowly. So slowly in fact, that most people struggle to detect their movement at all.

This is where a bit of know-how comes in handy. The upper clouds can appear stationary because there is nothing around them to compare their movement to. So we need to put something in our line of sight that gives us a mark to measure these clouds against. Anything stationary that lies between you and the clouds will work, but the higher better. A twig a few feet above your nose is no good, but a still branch twenty feet up will work.

Now keep your body and head still, take your time and watch how the clouds move against your mark.

After gauging how the clouds are moving you just need to give them a label (north, south, east, west or somewhere inbetween) – using the sun, stars, moon, plants, animals or urban clues to help – and you are set. Repeat this method a few times and soon the upper winds and clouds will be showing you the way.

This approximate compass direction is usually good for many hours and can last days, but should be reset regularly.

A Foolproof Method

Still struggling? Then don’t worry, there is a foolproof technique that really helped me when I was getting started. Look for a ‘Contrail Cross’.

Contrails are the long, thin clouds formed by jet aircraft. They can help us to find direction directly and also with forecasting weather, something I have written about in The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs. But here we’ll stay focused on using them to help us to gauge the upper wind direction.

When one contrail crosses another, it is an invitation to study these clouds for a really good insight into the upper wind behaviour. Find your mark, then watch how each contrail line moves past it. It is so straightforward to use this method, that I’ll stop writing now and just let you enjoy the real time and timelapse videos below.

Contrail Cross moving in real time
Timelapse of Contrail Cross

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