Storm chasing is now mainstream! The exposure on television programs and news stories has moved storm chasing into the limelight. In the last couple of years, storm chasing has attracted thousands of new participants, many hoping to find the holy grail of severe weather, the tornado. But many of those people are vastly unprepared, unequipped, and unknowing in what they are looking for. This is geared to those new people looking to successfully get into the art of chasing and do so without as many of the frustrations many experience early and often. And this will show you how to do it for less than $1000. This article assumes you already have a properly maintained vehicle.
Yes, a grand is a lot of money, but chasing isn’t cheap. The price of gas alone will detour a lot of newbie chasers from venturing very far. Add to that food on the road, hotels, and just the general upkeep of the vehicle, it will add up fast. Those looking to get hardcore into the hobby will find it easy to blow through thousands for the proper setup.
TRAINING: Estimated Cost – FREE
The single most important piece of equipment you can possibly have is training, and it is the cheapest of everything on this list, FREE! The National Weather Service has offices all over the country that offer dozens of free training seminars every spring and summer. Get in touch with your local National Weather Service office and they’ll send you a schedule of the training offered. You can also go online to weather.gov and find your local office and check out the available trainings offered in your area.
Trainings are often held on a county-by-county basis, typically at fire stations or other county emergency station. This is more typical in the smaller towns. Larger metro areas will have numerous trainings during the spring and summer to allow for many chances for anyone interested.
Trainings are generally basic spotter classes that teach the basics of what to look for in a severe weather environment. They teach fundamentals of identifying low level rotation, wall clouds, funnels, and tornadoes. They also teach how to properly measure hail and rainfall rates as well as safety tips such as where to position around a storm. More advanced classes are offered, but not as frequently as the basics and they teach you more about how to chase and cater more toward mobile spotters.
The classes are offered free of charge every year by the National Weather Service offices and all you have to do is show up!
MOBILE COMPUTER: Estimated Cost - $500
Computers have dropped drastically in price over the years and that makes it very affordable to get your hands on a laptop computer that will easily allow you to run the various programs that will be helpful in storm chasing. This is generally the most expensive single piece of equipment you’ll need to get started.
Running at least a dual-core processor will give your machine enough power to run effectively. Both major processor makers, AMD and Intel, have a wide range of dual-core processors. And all laptop makers include these processors in just about every laptop. Quad-cores and even six-core processors are also available, but will drive up the price with each core you add.
A minimum of 4 gigs of RAM is needed to run the various programs you’re going to be running. Again, this is standard in most laptops now-a-days. You can go more with a few machines offering as much as 16 gigs, but 4 is plenty to run with. The more you have the more programs you can run at once and the faster those programs will run. Obviously with more RAM comes more expense, so unless you’re planning on doing some high-end processing, stick with the 4 out of the gate.
What you’re looking for in a laptop is what’s considered average specs. A 500GB hard drive is a good start for storage and will have ample room for not only programs, but for any media you may collect on a chase. A decent video processor will also be needed to run some of the radar programs on the market as well as process video and imagery. You don’t need anything that runs the high-end 3D games on the market, but most laptops typically are equipped with enough power in video to get you going.
I use Gateway for my mobile computing, but any brand will work. Asus, Acer, Gateway, and HP are on the lower end of the price scale as opposed to Alienware and Sony, but will work just fine for your needs as a chaser.
Check out discount electronic stores online such as Tigerdirect and Newegg. Amazon occasionally has good deals on mobile computers and in some instances, you can go to your local big box stores such as Wal-Mart or Best Buy and pick up a good deal. Also look for refurbished models which are reconditioned as are just as good as new and carry similar warranties as new. These may save you a lot of money and allow you to invest in higher-end gear for a cheaper price.
SOFTWARE: Estimated Cost - $200
There are some very important pieces of software to put on
that new laptop! While I am only suggesting a few, there are a multitude of options available for you.
Mapping software is the first and most important piece. With a USB GPS (often comes with the software), you can track your position on a map and know exactly where you are in real time without fussing with paper maps. GPS is extremely reliable and good mapping software will allow you to easily find your way around the rural routes in the middle of nowhere! Delorme gets my pick with their annually released “Street Atlas software which can be purchased for as little as $40 (add $10 for a USB GPS unit). While they offer annual updates, you can usually get by with updating every couple of years. Microsoft has similar software available which you can check out.
Radar software is the next most important piece and will be used almost as much as mapping software, particularly during the height of a chase. When used with mobile internet (see below), you will have real-time access to weather radar in the field with extreme detail. The best one on the market is the $79 GRLevel3 which is the most used software by storm chasers. StormLab is another great piece of software loaded with more bells and whistles, but also comes at a slightly higher cost. Both programs are one-time only fees and do not require any subscriptions for monthly use which is a huge plus for these types of programs. Both offer options for addition add-ons, many of them free, which customize the programs to your personal taste. Placefiles can be found all over the web that can be installed to the software that can overlay a variety of helpful items to the radar software.
A GPS splitting software is extremely useful and makes the list. A program such as Franson’s GPS Gate allows you to take your single GPS unit and divide it over multiple programs. This is extremely helpful cause not only are you running a detailed mapping software, but you can plot your GPS position on the radar program to show you your exact location in relation to storms and help you better plot routes or even escape a storm by knowing exactly where you are in relation to the storm. GPS Gate is a $40 purchase, but will be extremely useful, particularly if you want to use your GPS location on multiple programs.
Spotter Network is the last piece of software to consider, and it’s free to install. Spotter Network is a program that allows you to easily make severe weather reports to the National Weather Service. It does require the user to take a general knowledge test to use, but once you pass, you can then make reports to the National Weather Service. When used with a GPS, it eliminates the need to store multiple phone numbers for multiple offices and saves you from having to figure out what office forecast area you are in. The program requires no typing and is click and send.
MOBILE INTERNET: Estimated Cost - $60/month (may include one-time setup/activation fees)
There are several options for mobile internet, but the key is finding a company that allows for a month-to-month setup so you’re not tied into a contract. Several smaller companies such as Pioneer and Millenicom offer excellent deals and work on the major network towers. They have high-bandwidth (or unlimited in some cases) plans with no contract that allow you to use only during your peak chasing times. If you’d prefer a bigger company, Verizon is the only one that offers a month-to-month plan package.
Without a contract, you’ll often have to purchase or rent a data card. USB data cards can be found very cheap online through sites like Ebay. Millenicom offers you a purchase option for cards compatible with their plans. It’s a one-time purchase and you can use it each year you do one of these plans.
Be wary of data limits that are imposed. The general limit is 5 gigs, which is my experience will be more than enough for you if you’re not doing heavy video work. In most cases if you’re just using it for radar software and data collection, then you will rarely even come close to that amount. If you start streaming video, then you’ll want to consider higher bandwidth plans.
With those three keys of equipment, you’ll be set to chase! Of course, the options are unlimited and you can shop til your heart is content for whatever it is you want to do. Here are a few other suggestions that may help you.
LAPTOP MOUNT: This piece of gear will allow you to mount your computer in the vehicle and keep it steady and professional looking. Mounts come in a variety of setups or can be build out of your garage. The mount you’ll need will depend mostly on the vehicle you have as some companies offer no-drill models that attach to your seat bolts. Ram-mount and Jotto are the two big companies and Ram offers the most options for different vehicles. The desks themselves will fit just about any laptop of any size, so just pay attention to your vehicle make and model.
MOBILE RADIO: A CB radio is a good suggestion
as it allows for vehicle-to-vehicle communication without the need for a cell phone. However, a HAM radio offers better range and higher-end communications abilities. The HAM radio requires a license which needs you’ll need to take a test, but CB is free for anyone.
SATELLITE RADAR: Baron offers a service called Mobile Threatnet which is a satellite-based radar program. The pros to this are it offers continuous radar data regardless of where you are as opposed to mobile internet which may limit where you have service. However, because of the limited bandwidth available with satellite, the radar is not as detailed and does not offer the wide range of products that you get with GRLevel 3 or Stormlab. I use this in conjunction with mobile internet radar and it acts like a backup to that service. On its own, it’s risky, but will save you in a few instances.
PHOTO/VIDEO EQUIPMENT: You’d think this is a must, but there are many people who are out for the shear desire to be in the weather. The suggestions could be an article of their own, but a few basics when you shop. Get a video camera good in low light as storm environments will be very dark. If you’re big into photography, a lower-end DSRL from Nikon or Canon will get you started just fine. But I’ve shot dramatic lightning pictures with a decent point-and-shoot camera and can easily say you’d be fine with that. Of course, cell phones have amazing cameras now and that could easily suffice for not only photos, but video as well.
So there are some suggestions to get you started. As I said above, the two most important items are training and a reliable vehicle. You could go out very bare-boned and get the job done, but those recommended toys will certainly help reduce overall frustration and lead to better chances of success.
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.