If you could choose the perfect time of year to go hot air ballooning, it would be in the spring or summer when being outdoors is pleasant. Yet knowing that hot air balloons use warm air to achieve elevation, you can’t help but wonder if cold or warm conditions make for better ballooning weather. Which is it?
Hot air balloons fly better in cold weather due to the density of the air temperature within the balloon (which is hotter) versus the air outside of the balloon (which is colder). By keeping the warm air inside the envelope consistent, the denser outdoor air will help the balloon maintain buoyancy. That said, the balloon pilot will have to use more hot air in the balloon to offset the cold air.
In this article, we’ll explain further the science behind why hot air ballooning in colder weather is better than doing so on a balmy, warm day. We’ll also talk about all facets of wintertime ballooning, from how cold you might be (hint: it’s less than you think!) to what you should wear. Keep reading!
Why Hot Air Balloons Fly Better in Colder Weather
Since hot air balloons rely on warm air to fly, it makes sense to you that in the spring and summer when the temps and humidity are up, flying would be easier. Yet that’s not the case. To explain why that is, let us first recap how hot air balloons fly in the first place.
Hot air balloons don’t rely on the temperature of the outside air to fly. Instead, the balloon pilot activates the burner system through a blast valve, which heats the air at a rate of up to 12 million British thermal units or BTUs an hour. It’s the heat from the burners that warms the air and allows for flight.
Cold air is denser so it doesn’t rise to the same extent as hot air, which is how the hot air balloon gets lift. If the balloon is surrounded by cold air and the temperature inside the balloon stays reliably warm, then its buoyancy will be greater than flying in warm weather. The balloon has to have more buoyancy compared to its surroundings to rise, and that’s easier to achieve in the winter.
However, the balloon pilot and their crew must prepare accordingly when flying in winter temps, as the rate of fuel consumption should increase. Bringing extra fuel makes it easy to overcome this issue.
Can Hot Air Balloon Propane Tanks Freeze?
Speaking of those tanks, you’re concerned about them. If you were to consider hot air ballooning in the winter (and you’re still not completely sold on it yet), wouldn’t the tanks be at risk of freezing?
Not really. Propane tanks come in three different materials, all of them metal. The materials are aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium. The tanks themselves are unlikely to freeze.
What about the contents inside, you ask? The temperature limit of propane is -44 degrees Fahrenheit, so it would have to be seriously, seriously cold for the propane to freeze.
Even still, balloon pilots and their crew like to prepare, so they’ll usually enwrap the propane tanks with heating tape. If the propane is already close to freezing, then by charging with nitrogen or another inert gas, the propane should be ready to use.
Won’t You Be Freezing If You Go Hot Air Ballooning in the Winter?
This is all kind of a moot point anyway since you couldn’t imagine hot air ballooning in the winter. Won’t you be shivering cold the entire time you’re flying?
While the outdoor air is usually colder as altitude increases, temperature inversions can cause temps to warm as you ascend so you’re not cold during wintertime hot air ballooning. Even without inversions, the residual burner heat should keep you warm.
Here’s how air temperature usually works when ascending. Per 1,000 feet that you add to your altitude, the temperature will drop by 5.4 degrees or so. Yet we’ve also heard of hot air balloon pilots who mention that the temperature increases slightly once you reach altitudes of only 200 feet.
How can that possibly happen? It’s due to a meteorological phenomenon known as temperature inversion. An inversion is the opposite of the norm, meaning that while increasing altitude typically decreases the temperature, not in this instance.
The warm air, which is less dense and has more lift, rises over the cold air. This causes the air nearer the earth’s surface to be colder than the air temperature as you increase altitude. A somewhat warm air mass with less density than hot air usually can cause a temperature inversion.
If you’re along the California coast, oceanic upwelling can lead to these inversions, as can a warm front moving in on other parts of the country. The inversion prevents atmospheric convection to an extent. Convection is a mix of moist and dry air masses, neither of which are very stable, that combine. The result can reduce surface dew points, produce more cumulus clouds, and cause wind.
When inversion stops atmospheric convection, it’s known as a capping inversion. The cap will prevent convection unless it’s broken. In that case, thunderstorms or even tornadoes can follow.
Getting back to hot air ballooning, if you happen to fly on a day where a temperature inversion is at play, then no, you won’t feel colder as you gain in height. Even if the weather was normal with no inversions, it’s not like you’ll feel the cold all that much.
Hot air balloons might not be insulated, but they are heated in a way. The burners, of which there are often one or two, are positioned in the middle of the envelope. In other words, they’re over your head as you sit in the basket. The warmth of the burners should be enough to fight off any impending chills.
If you have a serious intolerance to cold, then yes, we’d suggest you reconsider hot air ballooning in the winter. For everyone else though, you usually don’t feel the cold as much as you would expect to!
What Should You Wear When Hot Air Ballooning in the Winter?
If you decide to try hot air ballooning in the cold, here’s what your wardrobe should look like.
Dressing in layers is always smart in the winter, as you can hold your body heat closer to you. Whether you wear several light shirts, a light shirt over a sweatshirt or hoodie, or even a sweater with a shirt underneath, get nice and cozy. Don’t just wear layers up top, but put on some long johns under your pants as well.
Please don’t leave your winter coat at home. Even though you’ll be toasty in the hot air balloon, unless the balloon’s basket is enclosed, then you’ll be out in the open, so you’ll certainly need a coat.
We recommend a coat you can maneuver in easily, as you’ll likely have to climb into and out of the basket. If your coat is so bulky that you can’t lift your arms over your head, choose a coat that allows for more movement. Watch the length of your coat as well, as you don’t want it getting caught on the basket when you climb!
What else are you going to wear on your bottom half in the winter than pants? That said, we had to mention it anyway. Women should skip the skirts when hot air ballooning, and that goes for warmer-weather ballooning too. If you have to climb, you’ll create an indecent situation.
You can pass on the snow pants when ballooning in the winter unless you get very cold. You’re better off in a pair of jeans with long johns underneath.
Hot air balloon companies will suggest boots or shoes and long socks any time of the year you go hot air ballooning. You will likely land in a field after your ride ends, and you don’t want to scratch up your ankles on burrs and rough grass.
In the winter, the insulating quality of boots makes them the perfect choice for outdoor activities. That said, don’t wear snow boots or any thick, clunky boots. You need to be surefooted when getting out of the hot air balloon basket especially.
Hot air balloons fly better in cold weather as the chilly temps provide more buoyancy than hot, humid weather would. If you’ve never tried wintertime hot air ballooning, it’s truly such a lovely experience. Why not schedule a ride this winter?
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