What are some short-term chase strategies?

Nov 21, 2004
What strategies do you folks use for maunevering around a storm once upon it? For example, what positions and distances relative to the storm are the best for a beginner chaser to take? Which positions offer the most photogenic opportunities? Which positions do you NOT want to be in? Where do you go if you get caught between a hail core and a hard place?
I certainly don't intend to be condescending or flippant with answers to these questions, and they are excellent questions, but here are a few thoughts:

A) Get to a severe weather workshop first, so you can learn some things about storm structure. Contact your nearest Skywarn or NWS Forecast Office for places/dates/times. New chasers MUST MUST MUST do this. It's not optional. If you're into severe wx enough to chase, you'll really enjoy it, too.

B) Every chaser is well-advised to have an experienced nowcaster for help with navigation around storms, but especially newbies! Where to find a nowcaster? Right here on good-ole ST.....or join the folks in "the chatroom". You'll find one.

C) This isn't cut in stone, but if you can get out of your vehicle, look straight up, and see blue sky, you're probably safe. If you're somewhat south of the core, you MIGHT be in a good position. (see: A) If there's grunge everywhere......(see: B)

D) GPS is recommended. "Network" it with a laptop. (or you won't be able to read your position well) You'll probably want some aftermarket mapping software.

E) Don't expect to be safe by following other chasers. Most of the time they don't know WTH they're doing, either.

F) When (not if) you get in a hairy situation, pray.

I hope this helps!

Tim V's Storm Chasing Handbook has a nice section on this, with a diagram showing potential positions relative to a storm where newer chasers might feel more comfortable as opposed to where chasers might have poor visibility or no visibility for important features.

In generalized terms, I guess we stay east or southeast of the rain free base in a position where important features (wall clouds and tornadoes) are backlit. Not applicable in all cases; in some cases, like northwest flow events, the anatomy is entirely different and requires a different strategy. What you know about thunderstorm anatomy and behavior will inform your decisions regarding approach and maintenance of position. Distance is a matter of personal preference and safety tolerance. I guess the key is good position for visibility into the region of interest. Where this is will vary from storm to storm or even meso to meso on the same storm.

A rule of thumb might be to stay a mile or more away from the Bear's Cage if you're uncomfortable with close proximity or haven't seen many storms. I think it's fair to say that only by chasing hundreds of storms will you begin to get a feel for what sorts of unpredictable things they can do in terms of movement and violence. I was pinned under a hail core on June 1 this year by a storm that exploded in intensity and made a hard right turn on me, more suddenly than I had ever seen before. I was in tight with no southern options and paid the price.
I like to stay at a 45-90 degree angle from the SRM, that is, right of the storm direction. Here's an example of what I mean:

SRM northeast, I want to be east or southeast
SRM east, I want to be southeast or south
SRM southeast, I want to be south or southwest

The preferred area for me is about 45 degrees starboard of the updraft, as this maximizes the tornado's potential to pass very close to you (for photo/video ops) without necessarily putting you in the path. I stretch this preferred area to as far out as 90 degrees starboard of the updraft to account for any right-turning cells, which many discrete supercells become. This way you've got a cushion should the storm suddenly shift, allowing for both good viewing and _relative_safety.

The main obstacle I try to avoid is hail. Unless you're into it, giant hail is nothing but a hinderance and a headache (sometimes literally). Approaching a storm from the front (or head-on) is not only hazardous but a very bad angle for photogenic tornadoes. Even when you gain experience and get decent at punching cores safely, there's still the issue of visibility. I only approach a storm through the core if I've got no other immediate option; I won't leave a storm and go out of my way to stay safe......I'll take whatever quick solution seems the wisest. Granted, sometimes you find yourself in positions where there is no way to safely view the storm's updraft, and one must give in to the storm and let it go.....there will always be others.

As far as photo/video ops, direction of approach greatly influences this. Depending on your taste, you can opt for the classic, high-contrast backlit tornado (the tornado between the sun and you) or go for the equally-enchanting frontlit tube (you between the sun and the tornado). For backlit shots you'll want to be generally east or southeast of the updraft; for front lit tornadoes you'll want a more southwesterly or westerly approach. This is actually the safer method, because it puts you behind the updraft and away from most new mesocyclones that will develop in a cyclic storm...they tend to develop east of the older, occluding mesocyclones. However, as with all things supercell, there are exceptions. Sometimes new mesos can develop on the western flank of an occluding meso. But visual clues that got you there in the first place will give you a heads up that this is happening, so long as you're paying attention to things other than the meso-in-progress. The important thing is, always think ahead of the storm, always anticipate something new, something closer.

The one drawback to a westerly approach i.e., following behind updrafts, is sometimes the RFD will smack you around a bit. Just make sure you're nowhere within "reach" of power poles or other possible harmful debris and it's nothing more than some fun high wind that will provide a thrill in itself. Hopefully some of this will help you.
I like being southeast of the storm - especially if it's fast moving and/or HP. It can be very difficult to keep up with a faster moving storm once you're behind it. If the storm is not moving as fast and the storm's precip core isn't as dense you can get a good view if you're southeast, south, or southwest of it while still being able to keep up with it.
Get to a severe weather workshop first, so you can learn some things about storm structure. Contact your nearest Skywarn or NWS Forecast Office for places/dates/times. New chasers MUST MUST MUST do this. It's not optional. If you're into severe wx enough to chase, you'll really enjoy it, too.

Absolutely. I agree 100%. This is the best way to get more knowledgable on the subject in a quick way. It's free (unless its a special seminar like at FermiLab which I think is like $20) and the NWS/Emergency Management does an excellent job.

The best advice is never to get too sure of yourself because you never know when mother nature will throw you a major curve. It happens to the best.

I also agree about the idea of nowcasters. I am not a major chaser but I do a lot of nowcasting and have gotten people right where they needed to be before. Generally you want a nowcaster from your area so they know the layout of the land but any good nowcaster will do.

...Alex Lamers...
1000% agree with Bob that all new chaser begin by taking some SKYWARN spotter classes. The basics you can learn there are invaluable!

One other tip I will add that should be obvious, but anyway, never, EVER turn off your vehicle in the vicinity of a severe storm. It may not happen the first time, or the the 100th time, but sooner or later, if you do turn it off, it will fail to start at the worse of all possible times, when you need it most.

Nothing like having something nasty bearing down on you and you go to turn the key and hear that familiar dead battery sound. clicktyclickclickclick! Almost as recognizable as the L&A sound, BONK BONK!

And yes, this was a lessen learned from experience, several times. :roll:

Also, avoid big metro areas, whenever possible, most particularly during rush hour. Later at night it's not so bad. Even small towns, if your gps map shows a road you can take around town you can often safe valuable time from getting stuck at the invariable traffic lights in town that last forever, or all the lookylous that came out to see what's going on. Many towns now have some sort of truck bypass that is quick. Avoid limit access toll roads at all cost during the actual chase.
Originally posted by Skip Talbot
I like waiting for a red box to go up, and chasing tor warnings via the weather radio.... of course I always bust. :wink:

So what does that tell you Skip? :roll:
Originally posted by David Drummond+--><div class='quotetop'>QUOTE(David Drummond)</div>
<!--QuoteBegin-Skip Talbot
I like waiting for a red box to go up, and chasing tor warnings via the weather radio.... of course I always bust. :wink:

So what does that tell you Skip? :roll:[/b]

Well to keep this newbie thread going...

It is usually too late to start the chase after the red box has gone up unless you are already in it. Ditto with the warnings. These are more of confirmations that you are in the right location. This is especially true in the midwest. Our supercells usually aren't slow moving with long lived tornadoes like the panhandle monsters so you have to be on the storm when it's ready to tornado or immediately ahead of it.

In reality I did start chasing using the weather radio as my main guide. Since then I have learned through trial and error what needs to be done before and during the chase in order to be successful. I think of much of the little details about what happens during a chase need to be learned from direct experience anyway. I do have all of my "lessons" posted at the end of my chase logs though.
My rule of thumb from listening to weather radio. I always rotate their stated storm motion 30 degrees to the right. When I started chasing, I took their motion literally and busted several times due to it. I have learned if you rotate the motion 30 degrees, you will correct for backbuilding and right turning motions.