Choosing the best seat in a storm chasing vehicle

view from inside chase vehicle

I have just finished a thorough investigation of all the tour companies on this website (that offers scheduled chase tours) and was positively surprised to realize that every single tour company nowadays have a window seat guarantee! Historically, this has not always been the case and with some tour companies you could risk ending up in the middle seat on some days. If you are stuck in the middle seat it is not only less comfortable but also the place where you see the least and you may risk missing out on brief tornadoes etc. when you don’t have time to stop.

All tour companies I have chased with encourages the tour guests to rotate the seats throughout a tour so no matter which seat you have on a particular day, you are likely to get another the other day. So, which seat should you choose, if you have the chance? As most tour companie have chase vehicles with room for 5 tour guests, this is what I base this blog post on.

There is one seat with the best overall visibility of the storm action and that is the driver’s seat but that is off course out of the question. Actually, the driver has to keep his/her eyes on the road so it is questionable this is the best “viewing place” anyway.

…and the winner is…

Some tour companies offer the front passenger seat to the tour guests but not all. I don’t, however, believe this to be the best tour guest seat in a van – the best seat is the one behind the driver! Let me explain.

Usually, when you are chasing storms you want to be south/southeast of the storm and that is usually where you end up as well. The storms moves east in one way or another which will make you drive east while looking left towards the storm just north of you. During the most active part of the storm chasing the best view will thus be in the seats to the left in the chase vehicle! During chases when the storm motion is fast you hardly have any time to stop at all so the “front seat of the action” is actually in the back seat, behind the driver.

Your second best option

The exception to this rule is, however, when you are driving under the base of the storm or towards a storm where the front seat usually will provide better visibility. Actually, if you are driving under the base a tornado could happen pretty much anywhere so it does not really matter where you are sitting in the car but since you are likely to look upwards, the view through the windshield is preferable as it allows you the best look upwards. Thus, the second best seat is in the front seat. Another benefit of the front seat is that you are close to the tour guide/driver in case you want to ask something.

Other things to consider

Depending on which type of chase vehicle you are chasing with you should also consider the ease of getting out and if you have the ability to roll down your window. If you are sitting behind the driver and can’t roll down the window you may see much but with a lot of dirt on the windows it can reduce the quality of your view and your ability to take good photos.

In a van with six seats the left, back seat is likely to be better than any of the other two right hand side back seats in the van in terms of view while chasing. If the van, however, is difficult to get out of, like if you need to fold the seats to get out – this can be a source of frustration when there is a tornado on the ground and you have a very little time to get out!

The last thing to consider is comfort and space for your stuff, like cameras. If you sit in the back seat, you are more likely to have the center seat to put bags etc providing you with some extra, valuable space.

So, in any given 6-seated chase vehicle this would be my top list of seats, excluding the driver’s seat:

  1. The seat just behind the driver (+B est view most of the time)
  2. Front passenger seat (+ Best view close to the storm, – Difficult to see north)
  3. Left back seat (+ Good view to the north, – Difficult to get out)
  4. Right middle seat (+ Easy to get out with a sliding door)
  5. Right back seat (- Worst seat in the vehicle)

Why do I chase storms?

The three most common questions I get when I tell people I chase storms are: Isn’t it dangerous?, How? and Why? The first one I usually respond with: “Yes, a little bit but not much more dangerous than skiing”. The second, How?, I usually explain like in my previous blog post. The last one, the most important question, is Why? So, why do I chase storms?

mothership supercell striations

I would like the photo above to explain it all but I guess it doesn’t. For me it represents some of the essence of storm chasing. That feeling of looking at something that does not belong on this planet. It’s like waking up one day and see that our planet has got rings like on Saturnus. And, if Earth would get planetary rings, would you not go out and have a look? For me it is the same, the videos and photos I have seen of tornadoes and supercells – and the ones I have seen myself – brings me to an endless fascination about how our world is set up. It just blows my mind!

The few times I have had intense encounters with severe weather and especially tornadoes that stretch from the ground all the way up into the sky like a twisting pillar of destruction – it really gives me a feeling of insignificance. It gives me a glimpse of realizing how tiny we are on this rock floating through space. That may not sound as a particularly positive thing but watching the extremes of the planet we live on somehow gives me a greater understanding of the universe. I can find a similar fascination to other things in nature (I love nature and wild animals when I travel) but not at the same level.

So, that is the core reason to why I chase storms but I have grown to appreciate a lot other factors as well.

I love the visual beauty of it. Even reducing the whole philosophical part of chasing storms I just find supercells and tornadoes incredibly beautiful. The rounded shape and striated layers of an LP super cell or a white, roped-out tornado is just amazing!

I love the adrenalin rush and the power of the storms. Yes, the adrenalin is an important part of it but it is only a fraction of my love for storm chasing. Still, the anticipation of waking up to a day with good potential, driving up to a storm that is firing up and waiting for a rotating wall cloud to produce a tornado gets my heart pumping. Knowing the power of a tornado (or large hail and lightning for that sake) adds to the thrill.

I love how sciency storm chasing is. There is so much to learn about forecasting, how storms behave and how to predict what is going to happen next. I am a learnoholic and and an engineer and love to find out how it all comes together and I love the challenge of it, because it sure is not easy.

I love the travel part of it. The US Midwest is not the prettiest place in the US in my opinion but it really has a specific charm. When you chase storms you visit places that no one would ever really go to. You end up in small towns in Kansas that rarely get any visitors, you drive through ghost towns, you bump into people that have not seen a tourist in their area before and you experience the vast fields and the endless skies they bring. In one way it is the essence of adventure travelling since you go wherever the trips leads you to.

I love the people I meet. People sharing the same hobby usually get along because they have something to talk passionately about. You meet interesting people you travel and chase with and you meet fun people when you stop at gas stations waiting for storms to pop up. After chasing a few seasons I have found myself bumping into people I know in random fields and places all over the Midwest (not completely random though, we all chase the same storms).

I love, and hate, how unpredictable storm chasing is. I guess it is the same psychological factor as with watching football. You have no idea how things will end – you can be bust or you can win big. There is also “Yet, another day” to try again if you miss…or, in worst case, another season.

 

How do I chase storms?

One of the most common questions I get regarding storm chasing is How I actually chase them. People may ask if I go to a specific place, if I plan my flights from Sweden according to the weather or if I just drive around and look. Neither is correct but the confusion is quite understandable so let me explain.

I never chase alone since I don’t have the skill for it (yet). Chasing alone would be dangerous and boring, since I likely would have a hard time finding any storms. Thus, I have often gone with storm chasing tour companies before and lately with my chase partner David.

I always plan my storm chasing trip way ahead. Like more than six months ahead. I do this mostly because I want to make sure I can go on a certain tour on some specific dates and I don’t want to risk those seats getting taken. Lately I have been going in late May/early June since April, May and June are high season for severe weather in Tornado Alley. Also, David is a school teacher and that is the time of year when he gets on summer holiday. Obviously, I have no idea in November what kind of weather it is going to be on May 27th so it’s just a matter of hoping for the best and playing the odds.

I usually fly in to Oklahoma City or Tulsa but it depends on the tour operator. When the tour starts the tour guide makes a forecast to try to understand in which general area the potential for tornadic supercells are the greatest that day (and the upcoming days). That could be within a range of “north central Kansas around Fredericksburg” or “Oklahoma panhandle”.

These forecasts are always updated and the area redefined continuously but in the morning we start driving towards that target area. The goal is to get into the general area in the early afternoon, before the storms start “popping up”. All storms start as convection in the atmosphere and a single, fluffy, white cloud will hopefully grow into a monster storm. When a cloud has grown into a certain size we can see it on the radar. If it looks promising in terms of size and growth we drive towards it.

After that is is “merely” a matter of prioritizing and positioning. There could be more promising storms popping up in the vicinity that will look better and in that case we re-group and go for that one – if there is a good chance of catching it. Otherwise, we try to stay in the vicinity of the base of the targeted storm in the beginning and when the storm matures we stay a bit further away – away from damaging winds, rain, hail and tornadoes.

As the storm moves we drive along, re-group and observe. Sometimes the storms are slow (like in Canadian, TX, last year) which accounts for a very comfortable chase where you hardly need to re-group at all. Sometimes the storms are really fast (40-50 mph) and you may only just get one or two shots to stop and observe before it passes and you will never catch up again.

There is always an issue with road network and visibility when you chase the storms. The storms often go in a SE or NE direction and the roads often go North/South or East/West so you have drive zig-zag to catch up (which is why you will not catch up on a 40 mph NE moving storm). Sometimes the only road options are gravel roads or long detours which can slow you down to the point you have to give up on the storm.

Certain areas are notorious for having horrible chase conditions in terms of many hills or trees (making it difficult and thus, dangerous to see tornadoes) or just bad road network. Kansas is very popular among chasers because the road network is usually great and there are hardly any hills or trees in most of the state.

If you are lucky enough to see a tornado, there is a tradition to have a steak dinner in the evening. The Great Texan in Amarillo, TX, is a popular place for that if you chase in the Texas panhandle (which is quite common).

Let me know if you have any questions!

Peoples reaction to storm chasing

When I tell people I chase storms I usually get five types of reactions:

  1. What? Why?!
  2. Wow! What? How?!
  3. Cool, but isn’t it dangerous?
  4. OMG! I have been wanting to do that since I was a X years old!!
  5. Ok, but you stay safe you hear!?

The first ones (“What? Why?!“) are the people who have not heard of it and/or really just don’t get it. They look at me as I am slightly retarded and seem to categorize me as “Nerd with a Stupid Hobby”. I guess they think of average thunderstorms, rain or just wind. I don’t know. I always mark it down as “I need to show them the right photos or videos so they get it!”.

The second ones (“Wow! What? How?!“) are similar to the first ones but quite the opposite. They are the people who have never really heard of storm chasing and don’t get it – but are super interested! They look at me as a “Nerd with a Fantastic Hobby” and throw 1.000’s of questions. With these group of people I always feel: “I need to show them as many photos and videos so I can continue to share how amazing it is”.

The third ones (“Cool, but isn’t it dangerous?“) are the ones who probably have seen Twister or at least realized there is something fascinating about tornadoes and severe weather. They usually like to travel, nature and/or adventures. They can understand why I chase storms but usually have no real interest in doing it themselves. They are mostly concerned with the safety of it all and curious on how I do it. I usually try to show them some photos and videos and explain that it is not as dangerous as one might think.

The fourth ones (“OMG! I have been wanting to do that since I was a X years old!!“) have seen Twister several times as well as Storm Chasers on TV. They are extremely fascinated with tornadoes and are usually super jealous of me for being able to chase storms. I hope to bring them all along on a trip someday! They are usually the first ones I send new photos to.

The fifth ones (“Ok, but you stay safe you hear!?“) is my mom. She is happy I have a passion but commonly suggests safer hobbies to me. I carefully select the photos I share to her – the one that looks pretty and non-violent.

What reactions do you, as a storm chaser, get? Which category do you, as a friend of a storm chaser, find yourself in?