When the weather forecast promises storms, you very well may want to change your hiking and camping plans. It’s not fun to have to reschedule an adventure you were really looking forward to, but it’s even less fun to be struck by lightning or have your campsite washed out and your gear wrecked.
But what should you do when you can’t avoid a thunderstorm? If you’re already out in the backcountry and a storm sneaks up on you, there are some things you can do to weather the storm with minimal threat. It’s very important to be prepared and to know what to do in case a sudden storm does happen.
Is It Safe To Camp During a Thunderstorm?
This question doesn’t really have a simple answer. Generally, if you know a bad storm is coming, you should reschedule your trip. Camping during a thunderstorm is not fun (most of the time). But at the same time, it’s also possible to stay safe and weather the storm. Staying safe while camping during a thunderstorm requires preparedness and a level head. You should know what to do before you go camping, just in case!
Signs A Thunderstorm Is Coming
When you’re out on the trail, it’s likely that you’re paying a lot of attention to your environment. You’re out in nature to enjoy it, after all! While storms can come on abruptly, there are always going to be some signs that the thunder is on its way. These include:
- Large, puffy cumulus clouds
- Darkening sky and clouds
- Abrupt changes in wind direction
- Sudden drop in temperature
- Drop in atmospheric pressure
- Of course, thunder sounds in the distance
When you feel a storm coming or hear on your emergency weather radio that one is on the way, you need to prepare. There are several safety precautions you can take to get through the storm more safely. First, get to lower ground, especially if you’re above the treeline or on a ridge line. You may need to relocate your tent if it’s not in a lighting-safe place.
Lightning takes the path that gets it to the ground most quickly, so the tallest or most conductive things are the most likely to get struck. If your tent is the only thing in a large, open area like a field, that puts you at risk. But if you’re directly under a tall tree, you’re also at risk. A lightning-safe place to set up your tent is under some cover, but not the tallest trees in the area.
You also need to make sure that your tent’s guy lines and stakes are secure, and if you have to relocate your tent, you must make sure that you set it back up securely. Downburst winds during a thunderstorm are strong and fast— they can exceed over 100 miles per hour. If your tent isn’t secure, it might be gone with the wind. Use every guyline you have and make sure that your rain fly is taut for the best protection from the elements.
Finally, try to get your rain gear on before the rain gets there. Thunderstorms can intensify quickly and go from a light preceding rain to a downpour in minutes. If you get your gear on before you need it, you’ll have a better chance of staying dry.
Weather Band Radios
If you like to travel outside of the geographic area you know well to backpack, hike, or camp, it’s a good idea to carry a weather band radio with you. A weather band radio is a specialized radio receiver that is designed to receive a public broadcast service, typically from government-operated radio stations. In the US, these stations are dedicated to broadcasting weather forecasts and reports from the National Weather Service continually.
While they constantly broadcast routine weather reports, they also broadcast emergency weather reports whenever necessary. Another key feature that makes these radios different from other types of camping radio is that they are typically equipped with a standby alert function. This means that if the radio is muted, it can automatically sound an alarm or switch to a pre-tuned weather channel for emergency weather information.
Opting for a crank-powered weather band radio means that you never have to worry about your radio being without power. Battery-powered radios are also good options– just remember to check the batteries before you leave!
When most people think about the dangers of a thunderstorm, lightning usually comes to mind first. But the reality is that you are far more likely to experience danger from the rain and exposure to the elements. If you get soaked, you are at risk of hypothermia. The wind can also be dangerous— not only can it pick up your tent and throw debris around, but it can also increase the risk of hypothermia and make it harder for your body to maintain its temperature.
Hypothermia happens when your body gets cold and loses heat faster than you can make it. Hypothermia accounts for nearly all temperature-related deaths, but if you’re prepared and understand the risks, you can avoid it. There is an acronym you can remember to help prevent hypothermia: COLD.
C is for clean. Keeping your clothing layers clean helps enhance their insulating value.
O is for overheating. Adjust your clothing layers so that you don’t sweat excessively. Sweat wicks away heat. Make sure your sleeping bag doesn’t make you sweat too much, too.
L is for loose layers. Clothing should not be so tight as to restrict blood flow to your extremities. Also, the air between layers helps trap heat and insulate your body.
D is for dry. Keep your clothes dry with rain gear and don’t wear waterproof jackets that trap moisture.
In a thunderstorm, “D for dry” is the most important aspect of hypothermia prevention. More people die from hypothermia during summer than in winter, because they aren’t expecting it and they aren’t wearing layers. If there’s a chance that a thunderstorm might happen while you’re camping, make sure that you have good rain gear that doesn’t trap water.
Thunderstorms can bring flash floods, which are extremely dangerous because you have little warning. While flash floods can happen anywhere, they’re more dangerous in dry areas because you’re often not aware of the possibility of water in an area. Even if you hike in arid places, like the Great Basin or the Mojave, don’t become complacent around storm safety! Sudden storms in the desert are often more dangerous than sudden storms in other terrain because of the threat of flash flooding.
Sandy, rocky desert soil doesn’t soak up water quickly, so heavy rains can produce flood conditions rapidly and without warning, sometimes within minutes of the storm starting. Any depression will fill quickly and the water can be strong and violent. Even if it doesn’t look like rain, flash floods are so dangerous that you should make sure never to rest or sleep in slot canyons, dry creeks, arroyos, ditches, washes, or any place that could quickly fill with water.
This is also a major concern if hiking or camping in a canyon or near a river. Rivers rise, and high canyon walls can result in flash flooding more easily. Getting to higher ground that is still sheltered would be ideal in these situations.
Falling Branches And Debris
With lightning, there is also the chance of high winds. High winds put stress on trees, and can cause trees to topple over, or branches to break off. When setting up tents under or near trees, it is very important to look up for large branches (also known as widowmakers). Large branches can break off and come plummeting to the ground killing or seriously hurting anyone below. Setting up a tent below large branches like this should be avoided, especially if high winds are present. A lighting strike to a tree could also cause damage and branches to fall.
Now that we’ve talked about water and wind, it’s time to address the dangers of lightning. When you’re camping in a thunderstorm, your tent won’t actually do anything to protect you from lightning. The upshot is that your tent won’t attract lightning. Even if you’re using a tent with aluminum poles— it is a myth that lightning is attracted to metal. However, because metal is conductive, being near or touching metal objects can lead to you getting shocked or burned.
Ideally, you should pitch your tent away from trees and in a lower-lying area that isn’t at risk of flooding, like a shallow depression. Camping directly on a ridgeline or under a tree puts you at greater risk of lightning strike, as do these other locations.
- Open areas: Don’t be the tallest object around!
- Near or under isolated trees: Camping near an isolated tree or tree cluster in an open area like a meadow or field makes you vulnerable to side flashes, which occur when lightning jumps from the object it strikes to other objects in the area.
- Open buildings: An open building like a lean-to or picnic shelter is not a safe shelter. You are at risk from side flashes in these buildings.
- Caves: First, unless the cave is deep enough that you can’t see the entrance from where you’re sheltering, a cave does not protect you from lightning. Second, caves are prone to flooding.
- Above the timberline: The higher up you are, the more at risk you are when it comes to lightning. Staying below the timberline is safer for mountain camping.
Should You Stay In The Tent?
It depends! If your tent doesn’t use metal poles and is set up in a relatively safe place, you can stay inside. (Metal tent poles only increase risk by a very small amount). It’ll be drier in the tent than outside, certainly. If you have a foam rubber sleeping pad, stay on that for the duration of the storm. Never lay directly on the ground or your tent floor, and stay away from anything metal. Even if there isn’t a side flash from electricity being conducted into the metal, it can still burn you.
If you have the option to get to a safe shelter, then you should leave the tent and go there. A safe shelter could be a vehicle or any type of campground building with metal to ground the lightning. Campground bathrooms, for instance, are good for this because the metal plumbing will conduct the electricity safely to the ground. Keep in mind that most structures called “shelters” are not safe shelters for lightning. Only an actual building with something to ground the lightning is safe.
What Does It Mean To Be Struck By Lightning?
When most people think of lightning strikes, they envision somebody being struck directly. But that type of strike only occurs about 5% of the time! Most lightning strikes are indirect and either caused by side flashes or ground current (also known as step voltage).
- Ground current: About 50% or more of lightning strikes are caused by ground current. This happens when lightning strikes the ground and travels up one of your feet and down the other.
- Side flash: 30-35% of lightning strikes are caused when electricity travels from an object that was directly struck (like a tree) and then travels to nearby objects or people
- Upward leader or streamer: Lightning can cause an electric field buildup on the ground, and if you’re in this electric field, you may be the starting point where the ground field strikes the sky on the return flash. This accounts for about 10-15% of lightning injuries.
- Direct strike: Only about 5% of lightning strikes are direct hits.
- Contact injury: Responsible for 3-5% of lightning strike injuries, contact injury occurs when you’re in contact with something that conducts electricity, like water or a fence, or other metal objects.
Lightning strikes can also end in concussive injury from the massive energy flow experienced during a strike. You can be thrown into other objects and be injured that way as well.
What To Do When Lightning Strikes
Death by lightning strike is rare. To put this in perspective, zero people died from lightning strikes while camping in 2020. That said, if the worst happens and you or a camping buddy are struck by lightning in the backcountry, you need to radio or call for help immediately. A person struck by lightning does not hold a charge, so it is safe to help them. The CDC notes that it’s unlikely that a person who is struck by lightning will have any major broken bones, paralysis, or major bleeding complications unless they suffered a severe fall or were thrown for a long distance. This means that it’s recommended to move them to a safer area.
Once you’ve moved the person, if they’re unconscious you should check to see if they are breathing and have a heartbeat. Lightning can cause cardiac arrest (heart stopping), and if that’s the case, you should start CPR if you know-how. If the person isn’t breathing, you should begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. You should also get a protective layer between the person and the ground, as hypothermia is still the biggest risk during a thunderstorm.
Ultimately, while it’s inadvisable to camp during a thunderstorm, the risks can be mostly mitigated by good safety practices and preparedness. Never camp alone, and always be aware of the weather. Knowing basic safety precautions can keep camping in a thunderstorm from turning truly dangerous.
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about