If you want to chase tornadoes and the thunderheads that spawn them, you need adventure-tested tech and gear that can weather any tempest
TORNADO SEASON IS IN FULL SWING this month, and if you’re the type who gets giddy watching Storm Stories on the Weather Channel, you should consider an adventure vacation centered around seeing a twister touch down. The place to be is Tornado Alley, a roughly 300,000-square-mile swath of storm-lashed plains, stretching from South Dakota to central Texas, where, according to the National Weather Service, nearly 700 tornadoes were spotted last year.
Storm GearSHATTERPROOF: Durable and reliable gadgets make tracking down violent weather a breeze.
If you go for it, we recommend that you hook up with an experienced guide (see “Foul-Weather Safaris“) and take along the right gear. To help assemble our manifest, we consulted Martin Lisius, 45, of Tempest Tours, in Arlington, Texas. Last season, Lisius intercepted 23 tornadoes, relying on 18 years’ experience and a Ford Explorer rigged with digital cameras, a rooftop weather-satellite receiver, and multiple communications devices. Listen closely to his guidance: This gear makes it a breeze to track and document nature’s wildest shows, whether you’re standing in the backyard or someplace much more out of the way. Not interested in the funnel clouds? That’s all right. Our all-weather kit is built to tackle and survive almost any rough-and-tumble experience you dive into.
1. FLY AND DRY “When storms break up, they blow out cold, rain-cooled air—it gets pretty chilly,” says Lisius. Be prepared with Outdoor Research’s hooded Zealot jacket, a storm shell that uses waterproof-breathable Gore-Tex PacLite to keep you dry. $199; www.orgear.com
2. THE WEBMASTER Lisius uses a Nokia cell phone like the 6230 for quick Web access. “I can connect to the Internet at the same speed as a land line,” he says. Using Nokia’s wireless connection to his laptop PC, Lisius surfs for up-to-the-minute weather reports. $300; www.nokiausa.com
3. SLOP MONSTERS Salomon’s XA Raid 3D high-top adventure-racing shoes won’t bog down in the mud. The 14.3-ounce kicks offer firm ankle support and beefy plastic-and-rubber protection over the heels and toes. Mesh uppers allow wet feet to dry quickly. $110; www.salomonsports.com
4. SPEEDING CLICK-IT To shoot a tornado rotating at 300 mph, you need a digital camera with a fast shutter. Canon’s EOS 20D digital SLR clicks off five frames per second and up to 23 shots in a row, with professional-grade 8.2-megapixel resolution. $1,599 with 18–55mm lens; www.usa.canon.com
5. LOCATION, LOCATION “If I see towering cumulus clouds going up, I’ll use a pocket compass to get an accurate bearing on the developing storm,” says Lisius. The Suunto DP-65 matchbox compass sits inside a batterproof housing. $72; www.suunto.com
6. RADAR LOVE Baron Services’ Mobile Threat Net pipes a live local Doppler map onto a notebook computer’s screen via a portable XM Satellite weather-data receiver. An optional GPS unit pinpoints your location on the screen. $930 for hardware and software; $99 per month for service; www.wxworx.com
7. SEE CLEARLY NOW When a sudden downpour overwhelms windshield wipers, keep your eyes on the road with Rain-X. This transparent polymer—which you spray on your windshield before heading out—fills microscopic pores in the glass with molecules that force water to bead up and roll off. $3; www.rainx.com
8. MIND THE MAP To navigate remote county roads, Lisius relies on a navigation system like DeLorme’s BlueLogger GPS, which is bundled with Street Atlas USA software. The wireless unit sits on a vehicle dash and syncs to a laptop running the road-map software. $150; www.delorme.com
9. FIELD REPORTER Operating a ham radio requires an FCC license—a simple matter of paperwork and a written test—but is worth the effort: It’s the most reliable form of communication in severe weather. The Icom ICV8000 automatically picks up severe weather alerts. $199; www.icomamerica.com
10. ROLL TAPE Portable video cameras like Sony’s DCR-HC1000 MiniDV are standard issue for storm chasers, who need a lightweight camcorder they can carry on the fly. The HC1000 has a high-quality Carl Zeiss lens with 12x zoom, weighs less than two pounds, and uses Sony’s image-stabilization system. $1,700; www.sonystyle.com
11. BRAINS OF THE OPERATION The sleek new M275XL Tablet PC from Gateway comes with a bright 14.1-inch screen, and it capably drives the software for Doppler radar and a GPS navigation unit, thanks to 512MB of RAM, a 60GB hard drive, and a speedy Intel Pentium M processor. $1,699; www.gateway.com
FOUL-WEATHER SAFARIS Hitch a ride with a veteran storm chaser into the heart of Tornado Alley. You’ll fly into a base city, centered in prime storm country, and hit the road. Each day you’ll track down that afternoon’s maelstrom, sleeping at motels along the way. » The meteorologists at Martin Lisius’s Tempest Tours have more than 100 years of combined experience forecasting and tracking tornado-breeding weather. Six- to ten-day packages, $1,900–$2,700; www.tempesttours.com » In addition to working Tornado Alley, Silver Lining Tours chases waterspouts in the Florida Keys. Six- to ten-day packages, $1,950–$3,200; www.silverliningtours.com