How Does Elevation Affect Precipitation?

Rilor Staff
Update: April 12, 2021
Table of Contents

How does elevation affect precipitation?

This seems to be a basic science question, but not many are aware of its answer. Of course, if you are a hiker or backpacker, you should have a good understanding of these factors. After all, many of your adventures will require you to set off on mountainous or hilly areas. You should come well-prepared so that you can combat the effects of elevation to the weather. 

Terms You Should Know

  • Elevation - Elevation is the term used to describe the difference between the height of various places in the world. Low elevation means that an area is just close to or within the sea level. Meanwhile, the peak of the mountains sits higher on the ground and sea level; hence, they can be considered as highly elevated.
  • Average temperature gradient - The atmosphere's upper layers can deflect most of the energy coming from the sun. But those that cannot be reflected pass through and hit the ground. Heating occurs as this happens. The lower the ground, the higher the heat becomes. Every time the elevation increases, the temperature drops significantly. It is said that for every 1,000 feet, the temperature drops at 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Hence, if you are climbing a peak of 20,000 feet, the temperature on the top would be 72 degrees Fahrenheit colder than the ground. It is for this reason why mountain climbers are required to wear highly insulated clothing to combat the cold.

  • Elements of precipitation - Keep in mind that cold air is heavier than warm air. Every time the air in the ground rises, cold air at the top naturally falls. This process produces the convection currents in the troposphere. The currents cause the air to move freely since they have lesser density. 

Meanwhile, winds at high elevations are stronger than in low elevations. The cold temperature on the top could also promote excessive precipitation. After all, cold air doesn't hold moisture well as compared to warm air. The moisture comes from the condensation of ice and snow.

  • Convection currents - These convection currents pass upward in the windward portion of the slopes, which, in turn, generate eddy currents as you approach the peak. When the air condenses at higher elevations, thick clouds form. Because of this, peaks are often surrounded by clouds and hide them completely. Since these clouds are made from cold air, the moisture it holds falls as rain or snow. They combine with the strong winds at the peak, causing unfavorable weather conditions. 

On the other hand, the leeward portions of these mountains remain parch because the clouds don't reach them. 

How Does Elevation Affect Precipitation?

Based on the explanations I've made, one could say that the elevation affects the weather in a number of ways. The higher you go, the windy and rainy it becomes. Conditions at the top are susceptible to sudden and heavy precipitation due to their proximity to the troposphere. 

Always remember that most of the things that are related to weather take place in the troposphere, which contains up to 75% of the atmosphere of the total mass. It also holds roughly 99% of the Earth's water vapor. Generally, the troposphere is just a few kilometers higher than Mt. Everest. 

Within the troposphere, air pressure and temperature are volatile. The higher the elevation, the lower these factors become. Because of this phenomenon, it is not surprising that snow and rain are common on mountain tops rather than at sea level. 

What Happens When You Camp / Hike Higher?

The short answer is simple: you'll experience coldness and a lot of precipitation. You have to deal with rain and snow frequently, especially if the season is cold.

But allow me to expound these things further: 

  • Less oxygen - When you climb mountains, you often notice that the air is thinner, and you can't breathe as well as you can at sea level. Why is this? It's all about oxygen. The less oxygen there is in the air, the harder it is for your body to move enough air into your lungs. It can be hard to get enough oxygen in the air that is too thin to breathe.

While you ascend to a mountain, air pressure decreases and altitude increases. At sea level, the air around us has a pressure of 14.7 pounds per square inch. As elevation increases, air pressure decreases. If you go to the top of a 10,000-foot mountain, such as Pike's Peak, air pressure will have decreased to the equivalent of around 8,000 feet above sea level. This means you will have less oxygen in your lungs and bloodstream than at sea level.

  • Harsh environment - High elevations have extreme environments, just like the snow-capped mountains, the Himalayas, and the Andes. While trekking to elevated destinations, you should know how to adapt to the extreme environment to avoid altitude sickness, frostbite, and hypothermia and protect your knees, ankles, and feet. When the altitude is high, make sure you have your sunscreen, and your clothing should be appropriate to the condition. Hike slowly and have breaks whenever necessary. 
  • Altitude sickness - High altitudes can be an incredible experience, but they are not for everyone. When you go to high altitudes, you expose yourself to new environments that your body is unaccustomed to. If you are not prepared, the lack of oxygen and high altitude can cause altitude sickness, a condition that can be dangerous. The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to know what causes it and learn how to prevent it.

As you climb to higher elevations, your body has to work harder to get oxygen to your brain. At high altitudes, there simply isn't enough oxygen for everyone. Altitude sickness occurs when your body has trouble getting enough oxygen even when you are breathing normally.

Precipitation In The United States Per Region


The Northeast houses some of the most beautiful summits in the United States. It gets windy and snowy in this area during the winter. Most of the time, the conditions are too brutal that high-elevation camping or hiking is not recommended during the cold season. Hence, it is ideal to go during the fall and summer season, where the daylight hours are long for an all-out adventure. The picturesque foliage can also make your trip eye-catching. 

Recommended hiking destinations:

  • New Hampshire - White Mountains (1,917 m)
  • Acadia National Park - Cadillac Mountain (1,530 m)
  • Vermont - Green Mountains (1,340 m)


The Southeast is popular for its panoramic mountains, rapid rivers, and the ever-conspicuous Great Smoky Mountains. It is a place that welcomes you to an all-year-round adventure. Since the winters in the Southeast are calmer than in the Northeast, you are free to do off-season hikes. During the summer, you can take advantage of the swimming holes that are scattered around its popular hiking destinations. 

Recommended hiking destinations:

  • Tennessee - Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains (2,025 m)
  • North Carolina - Mount Mitchell (2,037 m)
  • North Carolina - Grandfather Mountains (1,812 m)


The Midwest hides some of the finest hiking destinations that the United States can offer. On its own, the region is filled with natural grandeur. Its Great Lakes hold a lot of wonders, while the cave networks in the south will certainly marvel you. Every time you hike in the Midwest, you have to anticipate the coldness to kick in. Mountains and hills are always frequented by rain and snow. Therefore, the best time to hike remains to be in spring and summer. Interestingly enough, the elevation gains in the Midwest are quite minimal.

Recommended hiking destinations:

  • Illinois - Starved Rock State Park (137 m to 198 m)
  • Minnesota - Superior Hiking Trail (557 m)
  • South Dakota - Black Hills National Forest (2207 m)


The American Southwest is a sight to behold. It boasts a plethora of natural wonders, ranging from the California Coast to the majestic American Desert. The sprawling ancient trees and the rolling hills also prove that the Southwest is heaven-on-earth for many outdoor enthusiasts. During the summer season, most trails and hiking destinations are dry and hot. In the winter months, highly elevated areas get some snow. Lower elevations don't receive that much snow. Again the ideal time to explore the region is during the spring and fall seasons. 

Recommended hiking destinations:

  • California - Yosemite National Park (648 m to 3997 m)
  • Arizona - Grand Canyon, South Rim (2,100 m) 
  • Utah - Arches National Park (1,723 m)

Pacific Northwest

Of course, the Pacific Northwest is definitely a place-to-go in the United States, especially for hikers. It is the haven of unadulterated rainforests and exotic coastlines, all worthy of being explored. Valleys and volcanic peaks are also among the unique natural formations that this particular region has to offer. During the late fall and early spring, rain riddles its elevated landscapes. On winder, strong gusts of winds manifest on the lowlands while snow accumulates at highly elevated areas. During summer and early fall, the weather can be ideal for all-day exploration.

Recommended hiking destinations:

  • Washington - Olympic Mountains (2,432 m)
  • Washington - Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Mount Stuart (2,700 m)
  • Oregon - Mt. McLoughlin (2,894 m)

How To Deal With Precipitation While You Are Hiking?

What do you think you need to do in order to be able to hike in the rain? Most people would suggest you need to wear waterproof clothing, but that's not the only thing you should do. Here are some tips for how to hike in the rain:

Protect Your Gears

It is essential that you provide protection to your gears if you are expecting precipitation along the way. Keep in mind that heavy downpours can defeat water-resistant fabrics. Additional defense is essential to keep your items dry.

Here are some items that can help you protect your outdoor equipment from precipitation

  • Waterproof cases
  • Dry sacks
  • Ziplock plastic bags
  • Raincovers - 
  • Trash bags

Meanwhile, here are some pieces of hiking/camping equipment that can help you overcome the ordeals of hiking in a wet or snowy season:

  • Trekking poles - They can provide traction to your feet if the ground is slippery.
  • Hand warmers - If things get cold, you have to protect your hands and other extremities. Hand warmers can help you with that. 
  • Headlamps - You have to consider that clouds can lower the daylight illumination. If that's the case, you have to bring a headlamp or flashlight along with you.
  • Multi-towels - You might need these things to wipe off your wet equipment. 

Clothing Tips

Don't wear cotton - Cotton absorbs a lot of water, so it is a no-no when hiking during heavy downpours. It can even absorb your sweat, too. If the temperature is low, cotton clothing can contribute to the development of hypothermia. Pick polyester, nylon, and wool as your primary clothing fabrics instead. They can effectively wick moisture. 

  • Use synthetic insulation - If you use ordinary down, you can't rely too much on its insulation. Once it gets wet, it will not provide enough warmth to you. You should go with water-resistant down on your jacket to ensure that you can retain a certain degree of heat even if it is raining or snowing.
  • Apply durable water repellent (DWR) - Most rain gear today have DWR coating. The latter is an application that can help restore the water and moisture defense of your equipment. Of course, the DWR wears off over time. You should treat them with a new DWR coating to guarantee sufficient waterproofing.
  • Use the right footwear - It is ideal if you use waterproof footgear when hiking on a rainy or snowy season. Waterproof shoes and boots can keep your feet warm and dry throughout the hike. Footwear with a mesh design is great if you are trailing in areas with water bodies such as swamps, rivers, and creeks. If the terrain is slippery, your footwear should have deep crevices and lug soles. They can amplify the traction on your feet. 
  • Store dry clothes - Having an extra pair of dry clothes can help you beat the chilly temperatures. Things get extra cold if you are drenched and fully wet. 
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