Over the years, I’ve camped in the rain many times (and written tips on how to camp in the rain here). However, camping in a thunderstorm is a completely different story. On one backpacking trip, it even HAILED for a period!
Thunderstorms Camping are Scary!
I’m not going to lie: it is mildly terrifying to camp during thunderstorms. Of course, I’m not allowed to show my fear because I camp with my young daughter. I need to remain calm and composed so she doesn’t freak out. Being a parent is fun, eh?
When a storm is brewing, the wind will build up around you. The wind starts blowing hard against the tent. It gets under the tent rain fly and makes it flap back and forth violently. During one trip, I recorded a video of it, but the video doesn’t do justice to how LOUD the wind sounded.
As the thunderstorm approaches, the wind gets stronger. Suddenly, you’ll start doubting your tent (I’m surprised how well my cheap ultralight tent held up throughout storms). As lightning and thunder blasts get closer together, you will know that the storm is right overhead.
Fun fact: Count the time between the lightning and thunder. For each 5 seconds between them, the storm is 1 mile away. When the storm is still far away, you’ll see the lightning first because light travels faster than sound.
That leads us to the question…
Is it safe to camp during a thunderstorm?
Yes… And no.
There is no shortage of facts that tell you things like, “the chance of getting struck by lightning is 1 in a million.”
However, that doesn’t mean getting struck by lightning doesn’t happen. In certain areas, the chance of getting hit by lightning is much higher. And camping in an open field with tent poles practically calling out to the lightning certainly doesn’t help the situation.
On top of lightning, there are also these risks of camping in a thunderstorm:
- Widow-maker trees: These are tree branches which fall down onto your tent and potentially kill you. Never pitch your tent under dead or weak branches!
- Tent being blown away: Some tents aren’t very aerodynamic. The wind will catch these tents and blow them away like a kite. WITH YOU INSIDE OF IT.
- Getting drenched: Getting wet usually isn’t a big deal. But if you are wet and all your gear gets wet, you could end up hypothermic.
Tips for Staying Safe Camping in Thunderstorms
Assuming that you set up your tent for rain (see this post), the chance of something bad happening while camping in a thunderstorm is very, very low. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions. Here’s what you need to do.
1. Chose a Lightning-Safe Camping Spot
Tents don’t provide any protection from lightning. Many tents today use plastic or carbon fiber poles, so these won’t “attract” lightning much more than the tent itself (carbon fiber is still a conductor). However, tents with aluminum or oldschool metal poles can really attract lightning.
Lightning will try to find the quickest way to the ground. So, it’s important that your tent isn’t the highest object in the place.
Nor do you want your tent to be right underneath a tall object (like a tree). You risk getting injured by side flash if the tree is hit. Or, you might find yourself in peril if the struck tree bursts into flames. As one backpacker said,
“Lightning really does cause tree bark / limbs to explode off and kill or injure from the shrapnel.”
Ideally, you should pitch your tent in a low-lying area, but one that isn’t at risk of getting flooded. If you are camping right on a ridgeline, your chances of getting struck by lightning increase drastically.
2. When the Thunderstorm is Brewing
If you suspect that a thunderstorm is imminent, it’s time to take safety precautions!
- Get to lower ground, especially if you are above treeline or a on a ridge line.
- Check your tent guylines and stakes.
- Relocate your tent if it’s not already in a lightning-safe place.
- Get your rain gear on.
*Remember that weather can change VERY quickly, especially on mountains. So always plan your trips as though there could be a thunderstorm.
3. Go to a Safe Shelter
When the lightning and thunder are very close to each other, that means the storm is dangerously close. If you have the option, you should go to a safe shelter.
Remember to get to your safe shelter BEFORE the storm is right overhead. You don’t want to touch metal objects like door handles while lightning is crashing down from above!
Stay in your safe shelter for 30 minutes or until you can’t hear the thunder anymore. 1/3 of lightning fatalities occur because people left their shelters too soon.
Safe shelters include:
- Your car: Cars (not convertibles though) are safer than tents. It’s not because of the tires. Rather, because the car acts as a Faraday cage, causing the electrical current to travel around the outside of the car but not get to the people inside. Just don’t touch the door handles and keep your hands in your lap!
- A nearby building with electric or plumbing: A bathroom at a campground is a good option.
UNSAFE shelters include:
*These shelters are unsafe because there is no way to ground the electricity if the building gets hit.
- Picnic shelters
4. When There is No Safe Shelter
Places like mountains above treeline are particularly dangerous during thunderstorms. Your tent poles will be a significant conductor in this environment.
The same goes with large, flat areas. Your tent poles will be the most attractive thing around for lightning.
In these situations, the best thing to do is:
- LEAVE YOUR TENT*: The tent will just attract lighting. Put on your waterproof gear and go to a lower area.
- Get off any ridges or high areas immediately.
- Look for a dry ravine or depression.
- Don’t stand next to tall trees or objects.
*There’s some debate as to whether you should leave your tent during a thunderstorm.
So long as you aren’t in a high-risk area (like above treeline) and don’t have those old metal poles, the risk inside your tent shouldn’t be more than outside the tent. And obviously inside the tent will be much drier.
On one occasion when camping in a thunderstorm with my daughter, we stayed in the tent. It was already late at night and the spot was as safe as you could get: very low ravine and not under any tall trees.
On another occasion, the spot was less-than-ideal. So my daughter and I left the tent and watched the storm in our rain gear from a safer place.
5. Insulate Yourself from the Ground
Most injuries from lightning are not direct hits. Rather, it is ground strike that gets most people. The ground can conduct electricity more than 10 meters from where lightning struck. Some people got injured from more than 30 meters away from where the lightning struck
Absolutely do not lie down on the ground! This will expose your entire body to the ground. Ideally, you should get on a foam sleeping pad or other insulating material.
As this mom who survived a lightning strike while camping talks about, her infant was on a foam pad in the tent when the lightning struck camp. The other members of the family (the ones touching the ground) got a big shock. The baby was fine – even though areas of the tent where metal objects were had holes burned in them.
6. If Camping in a Large Group, Spread Out
If your tents are all grouped together, then they will really attract lightning. But you should be out of your tents anyway if the storm is overhead and you are pitched in a bad spot.
The real reason for spreading out is this: It will be less likely that everyone gets struck by lightning. If only one person gets struck, then the others can administer first aid and get help.
Further, there is less risk of the lightning jumping from one person to another if you are spread out.
Other Random Tips for Camping in Thunder and Lightning Storms:
- Avoid Bell tents: These have a pole in the middle which can act as a lighting rod.
- Don’t stand in water: The water will conduct electricity. Wet vs. dry ground doesn’t make any difference for safety though.
- Hammocks aren’t safe: They do protect against electric carried by the ground, but the tree can still get hit and burst into flames.
- No touching metal objects: Even if it isn’t large enough to attract lightning, it will be an excellent conductor and could burn you.
- Crouch with your ankles together: This position means that electrical current will stay in the ankles instead of going up one ankle, into the body, and exiting the other ankle.
The bottom line: Always set up camp as though the worst could happen. There’s no need to panic: just play it safe. If it does thunderstorm while camping, you’ll feel confident that you did everything possible to stay safe and have a good story to tell afterwards.
By the way, did you know I wrote a book?
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And below is what some of my trail food looks like. Get the book here.