What is the definition of "extreme" or "close" chasing?

Dan Robinson

Staff member
Jan 14, 2011
St. Louis
The issue of extreme chasing and "getting close" comes up a lot in discussions in forums, social media and news coverage. I think this is not useful terminology, as getting close and being "extreme" means different things to different people.

For instance, in the tour van thread and in many social media posts, some are suggesting it's irresponsible to be anywhere near a supercell. That definition would include *all* storm chasers! Others feel like "extreme" is being in the debris cloud. This conflation of definitions is making people appear more "extreme" than they are when they use certain terms, and in other cases more restrictive. We can't have meaningful discussion on these issues if our definitions vary so wildly.

My opinion of what is "close" is a distance where I have good contrast, lots of visible detail in the motion, and in many cases able to hear the sounds the tornado is making. For me in practice, this has been within a half mile or so of highly visible tornadoes less than 1/4 mile wide, and sometimes right next to very small/weak tornadoes. I do not intentionally do this type of approach to rain-wrapped or large tornadoes, though I sometimes will position in the notch of an HP to see if I can catch a glimpse of a smaller tornado (in some cases the whole tornado is clearly visible from within the notch despite appearing rain-wrapped from other vantage points).

My take on what is "extreme" is driving right up into the outer edge of the debris cloud of violent tornadoes or making close approaches to wedges/strong rain-wrapped tornadoes. By that standard, there are VERY few chasers that fall into that category.

So, what is your definition of "extreme" and "getting close"? Post examples to illustrate! I think we might find that most of us are more reasonable in our chasing styles than first assumed because we said we sometimes get "close" to tornadoes.

Examples of what I've considered intentional "close" intercepts in my own chasing have been Dodge City, Bennington I, Bennington II, and Ingersoll, OK (all of those links go to photos). As an aside, I'm curious if any of those still meet the definition of "extreme" for our more conservative folks.
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"Extreme" is when you are in imminent danger to yourself or others. This would generally include "purposely" placing yourself in the circulation of either a visible, suspected or developing tornado. Extreme might also include those individuals who are continually exhibiting reckless behavior such as excess speed, running stop signs or otherwise endangering other chasers and / or the public. There is nothing wrong with getting "close" but that is no longer the acceptable bar in social media circles. You better be in the actual circulation or debris if you want to be cool or seen on The Weather Channel.
Mar 30, 2008
Norman, OK
While we're at it, can we also finally put to rest that being a mile away isn't 'extreme' anymore? Don't title your video 'super extreme close footage' if you're a mile away. And don't try and tell me you're 20 yards away because you aren't. I've seen some very well known chasers doing this and it's ridiculous.I wasn't even 20 yards away in Mangum, and I was decently close. I'd say maybe 1/10 of a mile if you're going with a liberal estimate, which is like 2 football fields away.
Jun 1, 2008
Chattanooga, TN
I agree Extreme is in the debris field. Circulation can be hard to define just by wind. Debris (physical objects) flying on both sides is extreme.

I'd call Close within a half mile, maybe even a quarter mile. With some tornadoes close is pretty safe from certain angles.

Can't say extreme is ever safe. Close can be safe. Tornadoes Dan mentions are good examples.

Guess I chase pretty far away, usually 2+ miles. Call 1-3 miles medium? Then 5+ miles is distant.
Of course TV stations are going to eat up anything "extreme" because that's what gets viewers. The news organization I work for only reports on road accidents that result in death or complete road closures - because that's what people want to see / hear about. The reason the tour group incident didn't get more press is because nobody died - therefore nobody cares. And YouTubers figured out a long time ago that adding words like "extreme" or "insane" to any video will get more views.

Obviously we're all going to have our own definitions of what is truly "safe" and "extreme". If you're in a purpose-built tornado chasing vehicle (Tornado Attack Vehicle, TIV, Dominator, etc), is it really that extreme to be in the circulation of a weak tornado, or in the debris field of a strong tornado while following from behind? I don't think so.

Since "extreme" is so subjective, and just thrown around for the purpose of getting video views, with no actual meaning behind it - I think we can only really define "safe".

"Safe" depends on a number of factors.
  • Is it "safe" to drive down a muddy road in a 2WD vehicle with all season tires?
  • Is it "safe" to get within 1 mile of a tornado when you have your young kids in the car with you?
  • Is it "safe" to core punch without a hail shield on your vehicle?
  • Is it "safe" to chase tornadoes at all?
As you can see, "safe" and "extreme" are relative to:
  • Your experience as a chaser
  • The vehicle you're in
  • Who is with you, and
  • The type of storm you are chasing (supercell, QLCS, HP, LP, etc)
There was a very nice rotating wall cloud over Roswell yesterday, with a tornado warning and impressive low-and-mid level banding. It was either stationary or moving at less than 10 kts. At one point, I was about .75 miles from the rotation, chasing alone. It was clear there was nothing above me as the structure was semi-LP. The lack of low-level inflow was obviously preventing a touchdown. I had four escape routes running in all directions. I did not feel I was too close, but the obvious danger was lightning, not a tornado. Had the storm been more classic, with an updraft over me, or if the storm was moving faster, then I would have been too close for my own comfort. Sometimes it does come down to experience and knowing what you are looking at.
I tend to be a pretty cautious chaser. My preferred distance is 3-5 miles from a tornado or potential tornado, though I often end up outside that range (in both directions) because of storm movement, road network, direction of approach, etc. But this is highly variable depending on storm type, speed of movement, road network, etc. I have been in the bear's cage and have gotten nice views of tornadoes that I wouldn't have had without going there (or staying there as the storm approached), but most of those instances were when I lived in Illinois and chased storms in areas with typically lower cloud-bases and less visibility. Now living in CO/NM, I usually chase on the high plains where visibility is such that you usually don't have to get as close, and the road network is such that you often can't, unless you get a storm like Warren's that hung out right over Roswell. For this reason, I do not really feel a need to get as close as I used to have to in order to see much in places like MO/IL/AR. And if you are a little farther away you can see more structure and get a better idea of what is going on in the storm as a whole. But that said, I do tend to err on the side of caution. Better to miss a good view of a tornado today, but live to see a lot more of them in the future. As to what is extreme, that depends on the storm. In a slow-moving, classic or LP supercell, less than a half-mile from the center of the rotation can be fine. In a big, fast moving HP, 2 or 3 miles from it can be too close and, IMHO, too extreme.

Edit: I should add that I also tend to be pretty cautious about hail and muddy roads. I don't have a hail shield, so I avoid any place that I think could have hail big enough to damage my car. Also have come very close to getting stuck on muddy roads in eastern CO and in KS, so if I am in an area with high clay content in the soil, I tend to avoid unpaved roads like the plague if they are wet or could become so before I am off of them.
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I have to agree somewhat with Warren, the term "Extreme" is often an over used term in the chasing community. If you're not purposely driving up near or in the circulation on multiple occasions then calling yourself an Extreme Storm Chaser is a false definition to identify what you do. I was in the Lawrence, KS Tornado circulation and it was throwing debris. Couple times we got into scary situations to me thats an extreme situation. As far as Warren's accusations for reckless drivers i would not call that extreme chasing but moronic chasing instead. You can be extreme without being reckless. Also it depends on your comfort zone and what you can handle. Me: I love being up close and in the circulation. Call me stupid or what have you but we have never been reckless and we try to stay away from the chaser traffic as much as possible. Just my opinion.
Nov 18, 2006
Chicago, IL
IMO the definition of extreme is as variable as the tornadoes themselves.

1/4 mile away from a relatively narrow, slow moving, high contrast tornado like Campo is not the same as being 1/4 mile from El Reno.

My person take is, if you willingly put yourself in a situation where you could be hit by the tornado or debris, that's extreme. The distance can vary depending on the exact situation.
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Sorry if this is a bit off track. It may be just me, but I always thought that "extreme chasing" also included some sort of "what are you willing to put yourself through to see a storm or tornado" factor in addition to closeness to a tornado or other dangerous situation. As in, how far are you willing to drive, how many days in a row are you out chasing, driving all night to a target, no geographical bounds, regularly sleeping in vehicle/questionable motels, etc.

Also, how does everyone's definition of "close" change at night, even on a "well-behaved" storm? I was about a mile from the 02/28/2017 Perryville, MO EF4 shortly after it crossed the Mississippi River into IL. I only caught a couple glimpses of the tornado through power flashes, as the lightning was all intracloud. Even at this distance, my ears still popped and I had to brace myself a bit due to the strong inflow. That was close enough for me since I couldn't see it and had heard what it already did in Perryville. Had I been able to tell for sure where the tornado was, I may have inched a little closer.
Jul 5, 2009
Newtown, Pennsylvania
Sorry if this is a bit off track. It may be just me, but I always thought that "extreme chasing" also included some sort of "what are you willing to put yourself through to see a storm or tornado" factor in addition to closeness to a tornado or other dangerous situation. As in, how far are you willing to drive, how many days in a row are you out chasing, driving all night to a target, no geographical bounds, regularly sleeping in vehicle/questionable motels, etc.
Personally I refer to that not as “extreme” but as “hard core.” I started a thread on that very question some time ago:

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Sep 29, 2011
Fort Worth, TX
By definition, "extreme" must be at the top of any scale, which means that "extreme chasing" in 2019 (and beyond) means getting into the tornado itself. The only possible way to push that envelope is to die in the tornado, and so far the only people to do that weren't trying to.
Jan 16, 2009
Kansas City
Extreme's definition has changed since I have been chasing. It used to be a mile away or similar but now you have to be damn near in it to get that title. Everyone is pushing closer and closer it seems.

My definition of extreme is not a distance because depending on the storm extreme can be a lot of distances. Wray was extreme from a 1/4 or less while El Reno was extreme if you were in Oklahoma (LOL). Extreme to me is clear and present danger of getting hurt or losing your life.

I try not to be extreme often but sometimes extreme is what I want.