Staying safe when you’re camping is always the top priority. The danger is often nearby when you camp, as you don’t have the same substantial shelter as you do at home. Thunderstorms are especially dangerous when you camp.
So can lightning strike your tent?
Lightning can strike your tent but the most likely scenario is that lightning will strike something near your tent and this can cause and electric current to flow to you and your tent. There are some simple ways to help insure your safety in case lightning does strike your tent directly or something close by, such as being aware of the weather forecast, and choosing the safest location for setting up your tent to reduce the chances of lighting strikes.
Here’s what we will cover to help you stay safe.
Ways to reduce the chance of being hurt by lightning
Since lightning will most likely not be a direct strike but within a certain distance, laying directly on the ground is the main cause for camping injuries from a lightning strike. Using a rubber air bed or cot with plastic feet can help reduce the transfer of electricity. It is best to never lay directly on the ground during a thunderstorm.
Even if lightning does strike your tent directly, if you are on an insulated surface, the tent and poles should direct most of the current away from you.
Dangers of Camping in a Thunderstorm
Camping in a thunderstorm can be dangerous, but we don’t always know when a storm will hit. If you’re merely going on a weekend trip, you can check the weather forecast. If you’re on a multi-day trip, you may not be able to check the weather.
Camping during a thunderstorm can pose many threats. Lightning, although lethal, is not the most common one. In certain areas, you’re at risk of flooding, falling trees, and even fire in some cases.
Always keep an eye out for “flash flood” signs. These notify you if there’s surrounding water that can quickly rise. These signs are usually posted in areas with rivers or streams that can quickly rise due to high runoff waters.
Always keep falling trees in mind. If there are dead trees around, that’s not the best spot to camp during a thunderstorm. In fact, it’s not a good place to camp at any time. Dead trees are unpredictable, and even wind can cause them to topple over sometimes.
Also, always read the ground. If it has been a very wet season, and the ground is very soft and damp, trees may uproot much more easily. This situation is much more dangerous because you don’t know which tree could potentially fall.
Lightning is a huge risk when camping during a thunderstorm no matter what your camping situation is. Although the chances are improbable of getting hit by lightning in most cases, being outside puts you at a much higher risk than usual.
Being prepared for a thunderstorm is a critical step when planning a camping trip. Always be conscious of your surroundings, check the weather forecast, and have a plan before the storm hits. These things may save your life.
Staying Safe During the Storm
When camping, safety is always the top priority. There are many steps that you can take to be prepared, but nothing completely guarantees protection in a thunderstorm. The following steps teach you some of the precautions that you can take to make sure you stay as safe as possible.
- Never camp in an open area. Lightning is going to find its closest way to ground. If you’re the tallest thing in the area, you’re a certain target. Find lower grounds during a thunderstorm.
- Never camp near an isolated tree or the tallest tree. Again, lightning will find its closest way to ground. If you camp near either of these trees, you’re at risk of getting hit, even if the lightning hits the tree instead of you. If shelter is not available, find a well-wooded area and stay away from the tallest trees.
Research states that lightning strikes can be fatal up to ten meters away from where it strikes. This means that if it hits the tree that you’re next to, you’re still at high risk of injury.
- Find shelter if possible. If you’re camping in a designated campground, there’s often a ranger station or campground office. If you can make it inside, this is the safest option for you.
Shelters such as gazebos or picnic shelters with open sides are not considered safe unless they have a proper way to ground the lightning, such as a lightning rod or electrical wires to follow.
- Never camp on a high peak or open face of a mountain. High ground is one of the worst possible places to camp during a thunderstorm, especially if there’s no tree cover. Make your way to lower ground as soon as you hear the first roll of thunder.
- If caught outside, and you can’t get to a safe location, stay away from tall trees or open areas. Take shelter in low-lying areas if possible.
- Have an emergency plan. Falling trees, lighting, and flooding are some of the dangers during a thunderstorm. Fire is also very common in some areas, especially during dry seasons. Trees that have been hit by lightning can often cause forest fires.
Having a plan means to know a way of escape in case a tree falls on or near your campsite, flooding occurs, or a forest fire is started.
The same rules apply when camping as with a swimming pool during a thunderstorm. Always remain in the sheltered area for at least thirty minutes after the last sound of thunder.
This will assure that the storm has passed. Most casualties during a thunderstorm happen immediately after a storm because once the storm has passed, people tend to go back out in the open immediately.
Planning Ahead if You Know There Will be a Storm
This typically goes without saying, but if you know there’s going to be thunderstorms on the forecast, reschedule your trip. There’s nothing worth risking your life over.
If you’re on a long trip, this may not be ideal. There are ways that you can determine the weather, even while you’re in the backcountry.
- Study the weather in the area before camping and learn when storms typically occur. This will prepare you to find shelter if needed, as well as planning where to set up your tent. Some seasons tend to face thunderstorms and even tornados much more than other seasons.
- Read the weather. Sudden drops in temperature, significant changes in wind, and dark or green clouds are a sure sign that a storm may be approaching.
- If you hear thunder way in the distance, prepare for a storm. Although it may be far away, winds can change and push the storm towards your campsite.
- Count seconds between lightning and thunder to determine how far the storm is. To do this: Count the seconds after a flash of lightning until you hear the thunder. Every five seconds between lightning and thunder equals one mile. I.e., if you count ten seconds, the storm is two miles away. If you count two or three seconds, the storm is around one half of a mile away. If the time increases, you know that the storm is passing.
Be advised, mountains and wind can reduce the distance that thunder can be heard.
- Purchase a portable weather radio. There are many options that are small enough, even for backpacking. Some of these radios require batteries, and some also charge via hand crank or solar chargers. Many of these compact options weight around one pound, so they’ll fit nicely into your pack and won’t add too much weight.
Camp Trailers and RVs
Camp trailers and RVs are at risk as well during a thunderstorm. Although in some cases they can be safer, they’re still not as safe as a building that is properly grounded.
Fiberglass RVs, camp trailers, or soft-top cars are just as dangerous as being outside in the open. Lightning will strike right through all of these. If you’re in any of these types of vehicles during a thunderstorm, find shelter immediately.
Metal or aluminum RVs, camp trailers, or cars are still at risk of getting struck by lightning. As long as you’re not in contact with anything touching the exterior metal of the vehicle, you’ll be safe. Although this effect keeps you safe, fire and other damage can occur.
This effect is called the Faraday Cage effect. Lightning will strike the vehicle and follow exterior metal to the ground, keeping you much safer inside than if you were in a fiberglass or soft-top vehicle.
Many of the same rules apply when camping in an RV, camp trailer, or car. Never camp near isolated or very tall trees. Even though you’re in a more structured shelter, falling trees can still be hazardous.
Flood waters are also hazardous in all types of vehicles. In some flash flood areas, currents can actually move the vehicle, which can cause both body injury and damage to the vehicle.
Additional Threats During a Thunderstorm
While most of the threats of a thunderstorm have been covered, there are other threats that may come with a storm. Heavy rain and hail can be very dangerous.
In the event of hail, be sure you’re in a well-covered area. In most cases, a tent will shelter you from hail, but in some areas, it can be strong enough to damage the tent and potentially hurt you.
Isolated tornadoes are also possible depending on what region in which you’re camping. Although not very common, this is a very dangerous threat. In the event of a tornado, find shelter immediately. Ravines, ditches, or under a bridge are your best options.
Tornadoes pose the threat of falling trees, flying objects, and even picking you up off the ground. This is a storm that you don’t want to be caught in, not even inside.
All in all, the best solution to staying safe during a thunderstorm is to either reschedule the trip or find a properly grounded shelter. Always remember that there’s not a completely safe place outside during a storm. Plan ahead and be prepared!