black sky with two tents with lights camping during a thunderstorm with lightning in the distance

Camping in a Thunderstorm: How to Stay Safe

Camping in a thunderstorm is not something that anyone ever plans to do, but sometimes it’s completely out of our control. Nevertheless, it’s still a frightening situation to find yourself in, and one you don’t want to be in unprepared. So learning how to stay safe while camping in a thunderstorm is essential for keeping you safe. 

Staying safe while camping in a thunderstorm requires proper preparation and knowledge. Certain conditions, like open fields or trees with loose branches, make camping during a thunderstorm extremely dangerous. But, if you’re able to find safe shelter and insulate yourself from the ground then you can keep yourself safe while camping in a thunderstorm. 

Let’s explore the factors that make camping in a thunderstorm dangerous so you know how to prepare and prevent yourself from winding up in this unsafe situation.

black sky with two tents with lights camping during a thunderstorm with lightning in the distance

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Dangers of Camping During a Thunderstorm

The thought of camping during a thunderstorm is frightening for most people. The wind can whip through your tent making an incredibly loud sound. The rain pelts down so hard that you aren’t sure if your tent can withstand it. And then the thunder cracks so loud you’re sure it was right next to you. 

But, even if these sounds are frightening, they aren’t the cause of the real dangers while camping during a thunderstorm. The dangers you should be aware of while camping in a thunderstorm are: 

  • Lightening: Although in everyday life getting struck by lightening is a rare occurrence, if you’re camping in open areas without any tall objects around you, then your chance of getting struck is much higher. 
  • Tree Branches: Before pitching your tent always look up. If you see dead branches above you do NOT pitch your tent there. During a thunderstorm those branches can and will fall, and if you’re underneath them they will crush you. 
  • Hypothermia: Although hypothermia is typically associated with colder weather, if you get drenched during a thunderstorm then you’ll be at risk. This is true even in warmer conditions. Wet bodies and high wind make for conditions favorable for hypothermia and are extremely dangerous for you. 
  • Tent Blown Away: Thunderstorm winds can become very strong, and tents aren’t always made to resist that wind. A strong gust at the right angle can pick up your tent, with you and your gear in it, throwing it around. You’re unlikely to make it out of this situation without injury should it occur. 

Safety Tips for Camping in a Thunderstorm

If you find yourself caught in a thunderstorm, or see one approaching, you should know what to do to keep yourself safe. Following these 5 safety tips can make it more likely that you’ll make it through a thunderstorm safely while camping. 

1. Choose an Appropriate and Safe Camping Spot

The campsite is the first thing that determines how safe you’ll be in a thunderstorm while camping. And, you should be thoughtful about this choice even if you don’t expect a thunderstorm. 

The thing to keep in mind about campsites and thunderstorms is you don’t want your tent to be the tallest thing around. Since the tallest thing around tends to be the thing to get hit by lightening, you want to make sure you’re more protected. So, open fields, beaches, or ridge lines aren’t ideal for camping during a thunderstorm. 

But, the lowest point around may also not be safe if there’s a chance for flooding. 

So, don’t find the highest, most open spot, but also don’t camp next to rivers prone to flooding either. Find a nice middle ground to pitch your tent when you’re protected from the elements should a thunderstorm roll through. 

2. Properly Prepare for Incoming Storm

If you find yourself realizing you’re about to be caught in a storm, there are some immediate steps to take to keep yourself safe. These include: 

  1. Evaluate your campsite: Ensure you aren’t the tallest thing around and that there aren’t dead branches or tall trees above your tent. Determine whether your tent will be safe to stay in (more on that below), or if you should find other shelter. 
  2. Move to lower ground: If your campsite is higher than you’d like use the time before the storm hits to relocate. It’s better to move and be safe than to try to stick it out. 
  3. Secure your tent: Thunderstorm winds are strong, so checking your tent stakes and rain protection are essential to ensuring you can withstand the entire storm safe and dry
  4. Put on rain gear: Protect yourself, your tent, and your gear from getting soaked in the storm. Cover with rain protection as much as possible.
  5. Move to safer shelter: It’s always best for you to be in the safest place possible in the storm, which may not be in your tent. If a safe shelter is available (more on that below), then you should move to it before the storm hits. 
black sky with a big bolt of lightning in the background while camping in a thunderstorm

3. Find Safe Shelter

Your tent is unlikely to be the best place to ride out a thunderstorm. If one is available, it is always better to go to a safe shelter to ride out a storm. A safe shelter is one that is secure and protected from the elements. Your car, or a campsite building are both examples of safe shelters.

Picnic areas or gazebos are not safe shelters as they do not protect protection from the elements.  

Now, safe shelters aren’t always readily available, but if they are head there first. You should never choose to ride out a storm in your tent over a safe shelter. 

4. Spread Out Large Groups

Lightning loves large groups. Why? Well, because when you’re all hunched together then it can jump from person to person once it strikes. 

So, if you’re camping in a large group and there isn’t a safe shelter around don’t all stay huddled in one place. It’s better for you to split into smaller groups, where lightning can’t strike the entire group at once. That way, if something does happen, there will be other members of your group able to seek help. 

5. Insulate From the Ground

You may not be aware of this but lightning strikes don’t typically come from above, they come from below. This is because when lightning hits the ground, it can travel up to 30 feet away through the ground, giving you a pretty strong shock from your feet upwards. 

So, wherever you have decided to seek shelter, you need to have a way to insulate yourself from the ground. This could be as simple as a foam sleeping pad, but you need something that doesn’t conduct electricity (don’t stand on a sheet of metal), to be on during the storm. 

When (if ever) Should You Leave Your Tent?

At this point you have a good idea of how to protect yourself while camping in a thunderstorm. But, you may be wondering, how do I decide when I should leave my tent in a thunderstorm?

Well, it’ll be good to leave your tent when:

  • You’re camping in an open field, or on a ridgeline
  • Your tent is a bell tent, or is built with metal poles
  • Your tent is not aerodynamic and is a wind risk
  • There are a lot of dead branches and/or tall trees around your site 
  • You’re at risk of flooding 

If you have pitched your tent in a lightning safe spot then your risk inside your tent is not very different from your risk outside the tent. So, only in these cases is it okay to stay in your tent during a thunderstorm. 

Overall, camping in a thunderstorm can be a frightening experience. But if you’ve prepared yourself and your campsite for the possibility, then there’s no need to panic. You can keep yourself safe while camping in a thunderstorm by being aware of what to do and feeling confident about how to handle yourself while camping in a thunderstorm.

If you want more hiking or camping recommendations please check out our hiking tips page, or check out any of the articles below. 

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