StormchasingUSA.com 3.0 – Same, same but different

storm chasing usa

When I first made StormChasingUSA.com back in 2009, it was not a pretty website but quite useful from the start. It was made in php with a lot of “cut and paste”-coding that made it buggy and without any really useful tools. A couple of years later I made a complete makeover of it, with a new version made with Ruby on Rails. That allowed for a lot more functionality, like an admin area etc. For the third time now, the website is made more or less from scratch in a new environment. This time in WordPress.

There are numerous reasons for going to WordPress. Since I made the CMS in the previous version more or less myself, I had a lot of bugs that were really tricky to solve and it often took me ages to solve. There are far less programmers specialized in Ruby on Rails as it is in WordPress so moving to WordPress makes it much easier for me to outsource, which in turn will make updates faster.

In addition, it will make it much easier for the tour companies and others to update the website with info on new tours. It was quite a mess in the old website so I hope this will make the website updated more often.

I wanted to publish this new version before I go chasing on Friday so I had to cut some corners, mainly in terms of tour company logins (not existing at the moment) and web design. The design is somewhat worse, for now, compared to the old version but it will soon be much improved. It is a “one step backwards to take two step forwards” kind of deal.

I hope you will enjoy the new version. Please let me know if you encounter any problems with it!

Beginner’s guide to storm chasing with organized tours

Everyone can experience the amazing feeling of seeing a tornado or a supercell, without being a professional meteorologist or an experienced storm chaser. In this blog post I will explain what your options are and how you can make it happen.

Why should you listen to me?

I have personally chased storms with four different tour companies (five this summer). I have talked with most of the active tour companies while on the roads and follow the storm chasing community closely. I dare to say that there are very few, if any, who have the same experience about different storm chasing tour companies as I do. I am not an experienced storm chaser myself, but I am a very experienced storm chasing tour guest.

Go with someone who knows

First of all, as a complete amateur you should never chase storms by yourself. This is not what this blog post is about. It is just as possible to chase storms by yourself as it is to go to Florida and wrestle crocodiles Steve Irwin-style, but equally stupid. Supercells and tornadoes are dangerous. Do not think you can chase them by yourself without proper knowledge. Please.

So, in order to experience severe weather safely you should go with someone who knows how to chase storms. For this you have two options: find a chase partner and convince him/her to take you along or go on an organized storm chasing tour.

Finding a chase partner is quite difficult if you don’t have a good friend that you can tag along with. Typically, chasers tend to chase with other chasers in order to exchange expertise. However, many storm chasers chase by themselves which can be boring (during the transportation part) and expensive. If you pay your share for gas and do a fair share of driving you may be lucky someone will bring you along. Your best shot to find a chase partner is the annual storm chase partner forum thread at StormTrack.org.

Chasing storms with an organized tour company

tempest tours chase van

Chasing with an organized tour company allows you to experience storms without having to know anything, you can just “come along”. There are about 15 different tour companies operating. Each year, between April and July, they bring a few hundred tourists in total to the storms – which is, in fact, very few.

So, going with a storm chasing tour company is most likely your best option. I am not saying that because I run a website about storm chasing tour companies but because this is your only real option, and a good one as well. Going with an organized means, above all, you will be chasing with an experienced tour guide.

The three reasons you want to go with an experience tour guide are:

  1. He (almost all tour guides are male) will find the storms and position you so you can actually see them. This is nowhere near an easy task. An inexperienced chaser may get lucky but an experienced tour guide will bring you to the best storms on a regular basis. If you take one week vacation to chase storms, make sure you actually see them.
  2. The tour guide will keep you safe. An experienced tour guide knows what a storm can, and likely will, do. He knows where to position you in order to observe the storm safe from tornadoes, damaging winds, hail and lightning. He will keep track of escape routes and make difficult decisions for you.
  3. The tour guide will explain what happens. Even though storms and tornadoes are visually striking it is a lot more fun if you understand the mechanics of what is happening. If you know what is going on during each part of the event, the tour will be more exciting as well. In addition, understanding the mechanics of the storms allow you to appreciate days that may not have tornadoes (and you will have those days for sure).

Another benefit of going on an organized tour is that you will also not have to bother with finding hotel rooms every night, which can be a hassle when you are in Nowhere, KS, at 10 a.m. while being tired from an entire day of chasing.

The experience of chasing storms with organized tours

Most, if not all, storm chasing tour companies started from a passion of chasing storms rather as a business plan. Chasing storms is expensive and bringing people along can make you turn a bit of a profit instead, as well as meet new people. The result is that many tour companies are often “family styled”: small, friendly and you are likely to be chasing with the owner himself. The experience is often more of driving with a (new) friend rather than with a company.

Chasing “family style” or “organized business”

There is of course a range on how “family style” the tour companies are. All companies try keep it nice and friendly but some companies have grown into more of an organized business. There are advantages and disadvantages with each style.

The benefit of small family style tour companies is that they are usually a bit cheaper, they bring less people and are more personal. They have no fixed rules or guidelines so the one tour could be different compared to the next depending on the tour owner.

The benefit of the tour companies that fit more into the organized business category is that you are more likely to get more of a professional and reliable experience. Organized business tour companies have guidelines in how to perform each tour, like having morning meetings every day with an extensive debriefing, feedback forms etc. The organized business style of tour companies often chase with more than one van on each tour, i.e. have more guests.

Of the tour companies I have tried myself PDS Storm tours and Extreme Chase Tours fall more into the “family style” category. Tempest tours fall into the Organized Business category and Cloud 9 tours I would say is somewhere in the middle.

Choosing tour company

So, which tour company should you choose? I can, personally, only vouch for the ones I have chased with myself. They are all good, solid tour companies with highly skilled tour guides. I can recommend each of them, for different reasons.

extreme chase tours vanOn StormChasingUSA.com I have put every tour company that is currently operating. Most of them have reviews and ratings that will help you with your decision. The tour companies themselves also explain why you should choose them and for what reasons. On StormChasingUSA.com you can search for tours according to price, date etc. as well.

If you want the “organized business” tour experience your options are likely to be Tempest Tours, Silver Lining Tours or Extreme Tornado Tours. Most other would fall more or less into the “family style” category.

Is it not dangerous to chase storms and tornadoes?

Lastly, a question I get all of the time: is it dangerous to chase storms? Tornadoes are dangerous and several unfortunate people die and get their homes devastated by them every year. One major difference between living in Tornado Alley and chase storms is that when you chase storms you are informed and mobile.

When you chase storms with a professional you have access to weather models, radar and the experienced eyes of the tour guide. You literally chase the storms yourself – they don’t chase you. The tour guide knows where to be, how to get there and how to get out of there.

tornado aftermathWhen you live in Tornado Alley, on the other hand, you are living your every day life when the storms appear. You are probably informed by the news reports if storms are likely or if there is a risk for tornadoes that particular day but you still need to go on with your daily life and rely on caution and tornado sirens. If a tornado approaches your town you may not know for sure until you hear the tornado sirens and then you have very little time to get into shelter – if you have any shelter at all. Thus, you are not as well informed or as mobile as a storm chaser.

Still, there is a certain danger to chase storms. The dangers are, however, not likely to be the tornadoes but rather the vast amount of driving you will do. When it comes to the storms, the lightning is the most dangerous part because it is the least predictable weather phenomenon you will encounter around these storms.

Ask questions

Please read up on more articles like this one on StormChasingUSA.com. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comment section below.

Let me know if you have decided to go chasing!

 

Just when I open up the box of StormChasingUSA.com merch…

If this blog post would be a true click bait the title of this would be: “Just when I open the box the incredible thing happens”. It was really cool though.

A couple of days ago I ordered some merch for StormChasingUSA.com: some t-shirts, business cards and a cap. I want to be able to distribute them during this year’s storm chasing season. Today I got the box and brought it back home to unwrap it and take a photo with me in it. Right when I have opened everything and put on the t-shirt and the cap I look outside the window and see this:

double rainbow
Double rainbow just outside my window in Malmö, Sweden.

Actually, when I looked outside it was only a single rainbow. I got out to take my selfie with the rainbow and realize, when I look at the photo, that it is in fact a double rainbow.

If this is not a sign that 2016 will be a great storm chasing season, I don’t know what is!

selfie with double rainbow
The selfie with me wearing the merch.

New logo for StormChasingUSA.com

When I remade StormChasingUSA.com some 2 years ago I created a logo that was supposed to be temporary but I got stuck with it for two years and never really took the time to change it. Now I have finally taken that time, with the help of my illustrator Vineta. I wanted to have one that would look as good on the website as on a business card and have a professional but also action look to it.

This is what she came up with and I am really happy with it!

stormchasingusa.com logo squared

Changing the logo for StormChasingUSA.com

When I remade StormChasingUSA.com my plan was to improve every part of the site, including the logo. The logo was changed but I was never really satisfied with it. I am no designer and the current one (below) was only meant to be something temporary. I mean, it’s ok but it really look like it was made in Photoshop in like 5 minutes (which is pretty much the case):

stormchasingusa.com logo

Now, I have finally taken the time to focus on making a new logo. Well, in fact, hiring my incredibly talented illustrator Vineta to create one for me. It is not yet done but we are getting somewhat close. It would be great to hear some feedback on it!

Below are a few of the sketches she has provided me with. They are just rough ideas of how the logo could look based on my suggestions to include a chaser, a tornado and/or lightning together with “StormChasingUSA.com” (which was misunderstood in some of the samples, the website is not changing name to stormchasers.com).

 

logo suggestions

logo suggestions

logo suggestions

 

Out of these I really liked the #4 and #7. Sample #4 had a really cool motion in it and it made sense. Sample #7 had was visually very pleasing and I like the circular shape of it. The latter one did not make much sense though since the vehicle is driving away from the tornado.

What do you think?

 

Now allowing anonymous reviews

After I made a great update on StormChasingUSA.com last year I added validations of the reviews to make sure that the site would not get any fake reviews. Before I had this validation some angry letters from tour operators who claimed that competitors purposely wrote bad reviews of their company.

Almost everyone who writes a review now validates it  which make the existing reviews quite trustable. A negative side effect of this, however, seems that there are hardly and negative or at least balanced reviews any longer. I would guess 95% of all the reviews on the site are a 5 out of 5-rating.

Now, I have been on four tours with four different tour operators (Cloud 9, PDS, Tempest and Extreme Chase Tours) and I have been quite satisfied with all and I could easily recommend each of them. I have felt secure, well catered and certain that each of the tour companies would find the storms if there were any. Still, my rating has been 4 out of 5 for each of them (and I have not considered the weather in my reviews). Basically, what I am trying to say is that many tour companies are great but there is still room for improvement.

I pictured many won’t dare to write a bad review since they just spent one week in close contact with the tour guide – who, most likely, was very friendly. Even though the general feeling may not have been a great one that person may not want to write a bad (or even neutral) review for social reasons. Another reason would be that the tour companies only remind their guests about writing reviews after a good tour.

So, for that reason I just implemented a “screen name” for each review so that one could write a review and remain anonymous on the site. I hope that this change will allow for more varied reviews and ratings.

The reviews won’t, however, be perfectly anonymous since they still need to be validated (against a receipt) or verified. If, and only if, a review is not validated an email is sent to the tour company with the “full name”, and tour date, so that they can verify that the person was a guest. This email does not contain the review or rating, however.

It is a tricky business trying to get the real truth out of the experiences guests have on each tour!