Summer in the United States: Not Always a Picnic


A rain soaked picnic table after an unplanned storm. (Suzicate)

I usually say that one of the great things about the U.S. is the guaranteed summer we have. There’s nothing worse than enduring months of gray drizzle or frozen tundra, only to have one fleeting week of sunshine as your summer (eh, England 2012?). Remember the Queen’s Golden Jubilee river flotilla? Yeah, that was my summer trip back home last year, where the temp hovered around 60 Fahrenheit (15.5 Celsius) for the entire month of June. Apparently I missed the “summer” which happened in March of that particular year.

In the U.S., most states have a long, hot summer, some a little too hot for me, (I’m looking at you Texas, Louisiana, Arizona, New Mexico … in fact, the southernmost parts of the country in general.) A word about those torrid, southern summers by the way: you’ll need a sweater if you go anywhere. Most inside spaces in the South are air-conditioned to arctic temps and the hairs on your arms literally stand on end. Malls, movie theaters, restaurants — take a sweater or a light jacket. You’re welcome.

What often surprises visitors to the U.S. is the unreliability of the summer weather in many parts. Anyone who’s visited Florida at that time will know that not only is it fiendishly hot, your vacation itinerary is at the mercy of torrential rain and the odd hurricane or tornado. Thunderstorms occur on about half of all summer days, and the lightning that can accompany them packs a higher than average punch.

Here in Chicago, with its legendary winters, summer can be just as brutal. Last year I returned from England’s freezing June to temperatures in the 90s (30s Celsius) and energy-sapping humidity. In 1995 (when I was 7 months pregnant and the size of a small house), there were 750 heat-related deaths in less than a week, and 2012’s record heat wave also claimed lives. I always advise visitors to the U.S. to heed the weather advice; when they tell you to stay inside and drink lots of water, don’t even question it unless you want to end up in the emergency room on an IV drip. If you’re over here in hot weather, have a gigantic headache but haven’t touched a drop of booze, you are dehydrated and need to start pounding non-alcoholic liquids.

When planning parties, the question is often either “Will it be too hot to sit outside?” or “What happens if it rains?” Assuming they have air-conditioning (called A/C here as opposed to air-con), seasoned hosts always make sure they have enough room inside their homes to accommodate all their guests. You can be sure that if you have A/C and it’s hot outside, most Americans will head indoors. If you are near standing water with its ever-present mosquito population, and of a delicate British pallor, you’ll also want to get indoors pronto and escape the pesky things.

When the summer storms begin they also cause havoc with flight schedules. Any frequent flier will tell you that you’re just as likely to be weather delayed in the summer as the winter. Although today’s planes are designed to fly safely in lightning, such weather forces ground crews to stop fueling and loading planes, leading to the delays. And while on the subject of lightning, fatalities here are commonplace. According to the Lightning Safety web site, the U.S. averages 54 deaths per year, and being under a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties. Every year also, herds of cows, sheltering from storms, are killed when the trees get hit by lightning, so it’s no laughing matter. When the sirens go off, get inside.

All is not lost though. It’s not unbearably hot everywhere in the summer; if you’re looking for a cooler climate this web site gives the average temps for the coolest cities, the top city being San Francisco.

Oh yes, and wear your sunscreen!

Any other tips for surviving the wet hot American summer?


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Eamonn

    Public pools are also a good idea in the middle of summer. Most counties and cities have them and they usually cost just a few dollars. Or you could join a pool club which are also fairly common.

    Most of the US in summer is like southern Spain without the beach.

    • Toni Hargis

      Then there’s the deep south which is more like Hong Kong it’s so humid!

  • Heather J

    When at the beach, heed all life guard warns and flags. Getting caught in a rip current can cause the strongest of swimmers to drown. Also, reapply sunscreen! Sun poisoning isn’t fun and can lead to a trip to hospital. Drink plenty of water. Avoid sodas and alcohol when out in the sun, especially during the hottest part of the day which is usually between 2 and 6 pm.

  • Joyce Chamberlain

    When the sirens go off..don’t wait for ANYTHING…….GET UNDERGROUND….Tornados are fast and wicked……they can level an entire town in less than a minute.. ( watch movie TWISTER to find out why)

    • Parmenter

      Unfortunately, they’ve ‘dumbed down’ the watches, so that a tornado watch means “a typical summer day” and tornado warning now means “some circulation in the clouds, on radar” It used to mean one was seen on the ground. People have caught on to that crying wolf, which is why there are now more fatalities.

  • Graeme Robinson

    Move to Southern California. Problems solved. Mild, winters, pleasant summers, no humidity.

    Of course, you do have to deal with smog, wildfires, earthquakes, high taxes and crazy politics, but the weather’s definitely nice. :)

  • mo

    Find out a lot of alternate routes to work or school or whatever, with construction repairs from the potholes and the occasional flooded street, this is handy

  • nappyvalleygirl

    Also watch out for poison ivy and Lyme disease – our family have experienced both in four years on Long Island!

  • Danielle Warren

    I have the privilege of living in central Alabama (literally geographic center!), and some of my tips may make you look silly, but they’re a lifesaver. Wet a handkerchief (doo rag) and wrap it around your forehead or neck. Carry one of those little handheld fans (some even squirt water!). ALWAYS wear sunscreen (people often end up in the hospital with sun poisoning or sun stroke, like I had last year). Don’t stay outside too long (heat stroke). Last year we had drought conditions, now it seems we can’t get a day without rain. And in case you’re wondering, temps sometimes get as high as 100+F (37.8+C) in the shade. And always take advantage of a pool (or someone with a pool). BTW, love reading this blog! So much fun!

  • 42nd Highlander

    I have lived in both Southern California (San Diego) and Southern Alabama (Montgomery). It is much hotter here in bama in the Summer, and most people find a vacation by the lake, one of the many rivers, or a trip to the Gulf (of Mexico) to be the best getaway.
    Always watch out for sun burn, and stay out when there are warnings for extreme heat. Other than that, bring your pleasant attitude and lots of money (you will need that).

  • Emily Nemchick

    I recently visited Tampa from Pittsburgh, and was cooking in temperatures of about 30 celsius every day. Glad I visited in Spring! I miss those mild English summers… although not the cloudy days and chilly barbecues.

  • Jennifer Howze

    The sweater is key, as you say. I think one of the benefits of an American summer is how casually everyone dresses ALL THE TIME. That means you can pack light — a couple of shorts and skirts with a variety of light tops and cardies and sandals — and leave room for stocking up on affordable clothes to bring home to the UK.

    My other tips: plan to get up early and do things outside before it becomes too hot or the weather changes. In Central Texas, if it rains in the summer it tends to be in the afternoon. Spend that time at the mall, seeing a movie or chilling at home or hotel between activities.

    Last year we went to Houston expecting the usual 100-degree weather and it was hurricane weather for a week. Ah well, that’s variety.

  • gn

    Summer is completely reliable out here in California :) — well, except for the city of San Francisco

    • Gertrude

      San Francisco is lovely at any time of the year. The problem tourists have is that they visit in Summer, whose months tend to be foggy (but pleasant enough). You just have to wear layers. Even within SF city limits, it can be 20 degrees (F) warmer on the Bay side of the city, and even warmer in Berkeley/Oakland to the east and Marin, and Sonoma counties to the North. If you want warm weather in SF late September and October are your best bets. The SF Bay Area is famous for its ‘micro’ climates. So, dress in light layers, like the natives, and know, at least in SF proper, that even if it is hot during the day (which does happen) the fog will roll in in the evening, making it ideal for sleeping. It will not snow in the winter, though it can get mildly cold on the odd day.
      The rest of California is different, but, as the above poster said, reliable. Still, it can get quite hot (but not sticky) inland, and South.
      Many visitors don’t realize just how LONG this state is. It is even fairly wide by US east coast standards. But mostly long. Which means many different climates, landscapes and people. Worth a go. Really.

  • BritInFlorida

    You can get sunburnt even when it’s cloudy, so always wear sunscreen.

  • Jeff K.

    I live in So Cal and love it. Just a bit of advice if you are planning a summer vacation/holiday – avoid June, especially in San Diego. When I lived there, we used to get a chuckle when tourists would arrive in June expecting sunny weather!

  • sky

    If a person is fortunate enough to have ever lived in southern Florida for more than a few months, they likely will come to realize that there are only TWO seasons here. The dry season and the rainy season; also known in the tourist trade as “in-season” and “out of season.” We do not experience the summer-fall-winter-spring seasons of our northern sister-states.

  • hoppytoad79

    The best tip I can offer is find out what the weather is like in the area you plan to travel to in the summer, and pack accordingly. Temperature and humidity and weather vary from region to region enough that you have to talk to people from where you want to travel.

  • Amber Riley

    Don’t forget the mosquitoes or skeeters depending on what part of the country you’re in. Though not as widely publicized as it once was, West Nile Virus is still not something to ignore. Plus in some southern states they’re MASSIVE. Another southern summer phenomenon…palmetto bugs. When I was working at The India House (backpacker hostel) in New Orleans it was quite entertaining watching folks experience them for the first time. They’re completely harmless, but creepy nonetheless.

  • Respectfulguest

    This is going to sound crazy, but except for the month of July, summer and Fall are quite nice in New York and now, having moved to Florida, I will miss the weather there desperately! There are many days that are very clear and lovely (not a cloud in the sky and low humidity) in spring, summer and fall. Of course, many days in winter are also very clear, but that generally means cold.