Are Tents Safe During a Thunderstorm?
Whilst thunderstorms can often be quite relaxing to watch from the comfort of your own home, the onset of one whilst you’re out and about can be fairly anxiety-inducing. The logical part of our minds often remind us that thunderstorms are nothing to be afraid of and that the chances of being injured or killed are incredibly low. But what about when you’re camping? Camping during a thunderstorm can include its own specific set of risks dependent on where you’re camping.
If you’re camping during a thunderstorm, there are several things you should be aware of and keep in mind.
What are the Odds of Being Struck by Lightning?
The odds of being struck by lightning in the worst of times are incredibly low. In fact, it’s estimated that you have a 1 in 500,000 chance of being struck by lightning every year of your life, according to the CDC. Despite lightning being one of the leading causes of weather-related death, it’s still an incredibly uncommon occurrence. 24,000 people are estimated to be hit and killed by lightning each year across the globe, which feels like a lot considering how low the chances of being struck are. There is a 10% chance that a lightning strike will be fatal, meaning that the 24,000 individuals who are killed each year only make up 10% of lightning strike victims.
Your location can affect those odds, as you’re more likely to be hit by lightning during a storm if you’re higher up, and more likely to see the end of it unscathed if you’re at a lower geographical location.
Odds of Being Struck by Lightning While Camping
It goes without saying that lightning is more likely to hit an individual if they spend more time outdoors. Whilst your odds of being struck by lightning are incredibly low regardless, you are at an ever so slightly increased risk when spending more time outdoors.
Different Ways Lightning Can Hurt You
One might assume that the only ways in which lightning can hurt you is through a direct strike and through touching something that has been struck. However, there are other ways in which lightning can get to you and each can have disastrous consequences.
- Step Voltage is the most common way in which lightning can injure a person. This occurs when lightning strikes the ground, and your feet are in the way of the electricity’s path. Step voltage travels up one leg and down the other one.
- Side Flashes occur as a result of standing too closely to an object that was hit by lightning. Whether it be a tree or a pole, standing too close will lead to the electricity jumping over to you.
- Being the Upward Leader is incredibly dangerous when it comes to lightning. If the electric field is built up on the ground, there’s a chance that you could become the main conductor of electricity, and the point where the lightning hits the ground.
- Direct Strikes happen when the lightning hits you directly. This is possibly the most dangerous way of being hit by lightning, but luckily it’s one of the most unlikely ways of being hit by lightning.
- Contact Injuries happen when you come into contact with a conductive material, such as wire, and it electrocutes you in the process.
Effects of Being Hit by Lightning
Being hit by lightning doesn’t always result in death. However, there are lots of unpleasant consequences of being hit by lightning, including cardiac issues, neurological damage, seizures, severe burns and memory loss.
Is Rain Dangerous Whilst Camping?
Rain can also prove to be dangerous whilst camping, depending on where your tent is situated. Flash flooding can prove deadly in the right conditions, especially if your tent is assembled near a stream, lake or low area, such as a ditch or at the foot of a mountain. It’s important to bear this in mind when choosing where to pitch your tent, as some areas can prove dangerous in certain situations without originally appearing so.
Are Tents Safe During a Thunderstorm?
Tents aren’t considered a safe option when it comes to camping during a thunderstorm. This is due to their materials and structure, which do not act as a faradic cage.
This means that if a bolt of lightning were to hit the tent, the electricity will be unevenly distributed throughout, and into the soil below. This runs the risk of energy breaking through, which could lead to electric shocks, burns or even more serious consequences.
Tents also run the risk of producing step voltage, which we’ll discuss later, which can cause some pretty serious damage to people simply standing by the tent but not inside it.
Due to their structure, tents offer no additional protection when camping.
How to Stay Safe During a Thunderstorm While Camping
When you see a storm approaching the campsite, you have several options when deciding what to do. Just because you can’t see lightning, doesn’t mean it’s completely safe. Being able to hear thunder is enough warning that the storm is close, even if it may seem miles away.
The best thing to do when a thunderstorm is coming is to seek appropriate shelter. This could mean a secure hut, visitor’s center, or any large or secure structure. Alternatively, a smaller structure that is fully enclosed will also do the trick, like an outhouse, but be wary of any electrical wires or metal that may be bare.
Cars and Vehicles
Cars can also prove to be suitable shelter providing they have a solid roof. If you’re hiding inside your car and waiting the storm out, make sure you’re not touching the doors or steering wheel, as they can act as conductors as the energy is being transferred. Cars act as a faradic cage, meaning they can transfer the electricity from its surface into the ground successfully. Cars are certainly a viable option if there are no other enclosed structures available.
Wait 30 Minutes
If you’ve hidden away during a thunderstorm, make sure to wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before leaving your hideout. 30 minutes ensures that the threat has dispersed and the storm is far away enough to not cause any additional issues.
Hiding in the Open
If you have absolutely no other options, there are ways to keep yourself safe despite being out in the open. These options should only be considered if there is absolutely no available shelter that is suitable.
- Deep within a forest within a valley – This may seem counterintuitive, but it is certainly an option if you are already in a forest or close to one. Make sure you’re far into the forest and not near any trees that are taller than their neighbors. Taller trees will naturally be the first to be struck by lightning, so ensuring you’re nearer shorter trees, you’re less likely to encounter any lightning.
- A large and deep ravine is another option for those who have nowhere else to go during a thunderstorm. For this to work, it needs to be a large ravine. A smaller one or a slot canyon could cause more damage than it’s worth.
- A deep cave may also work if one is available. If you do choose to hide out in a cave, make sure that in the event of flash flooding, it wouldn’t cause any issues.
What Not to do During a Thunderstorm
Just as there are places you should hide during a thunderstorm, there are also places you shouldn’t hide. The risks associated with these places could cause serious injury or even death if lightning strikes.
Avoiding these places is necessary during a thunderstorm.
Stay in the Open
Staying in the open with no objects around is especially dangerous, as you are making yourself the only possible target for lightning. You’re more at risk of being the target of a direct strike or becoming the upward leader if you were to stay in the open.
Staying Near a Single Object
Standing next to, or near, an object that is likely to become the target of a direct strike makes it more likely that you’ll suffer from a side flash. The energy transfer from the object may hit you as well. You’re at much higher risk of being hit with a side flash if you’re stood next to or by an object which is the tallest one in the area, such as a tree or even a copse.
Staying Near Peaks or Ledges
Staying on a peak or ledge inadvertently makes you the highest object in that area.
Staying Near Water
Water is a natural conductor of electricity. Being anywhere near a large body of water can be dangerous should that water make contact with lightning. Additionally, if there were to be a flash flood, you would be at additional risk by being near a source of water.
Staying Inside Open Buildings
Whilst closed, secure buildings are a safe option when waiting out a thunderstorm, small, open buildings are not. Open sheds, barns, picnic pavilions etc are all terrible choices if seeking shelter from a thunderstorm.
Staying Above the Timberline
The timberline refers to the height at which trees stop growing. Staying above the timberline during a thunderstorm is a surefire way of making yourself a prime target for a direct strike or becoming the upward leader.
How to Stay in a Tent During a Thunderstorm
Unless you have absolutely no other options, you should not stay in a tent during a thunderstorm as they offer no additional protection. If your circumstances mean that you must stay in the tent, there are a couple of ways to prepare and attempt to stay safe whilst inside.
Tents are generally only considered safe when they are pitched in a forest amongst trees that are not the tallest in that area.
WARNING: These are intended to be last ditch attempts. If at all possible, it’s better to find a secure place to stay during a thunderstorm.
As tents offer no additional protection during a thunderstorm, you should behave the way you would if you were stuck in the open. The added issue that tents bring is whatever conductive materials they may include, and the danger of step voltage and side flashes.
If you are inside a tent during a thunderstorm, you should:
- Reduce contact with the floor. Due to the risk of step voltage, reducing your contact with the floor also reduces your chances of being on the receiving end of a bolt of step voltage. This could mean standing on one foot, putting one foot atop of the other, or pushing your feet as close together as possible. You’ll have to remain like this for a while, so choose a position which is most comfortable.
- Make yourself small. Lightning is attracted to height as opposed to metal, so crouching down or squatting will lessen the likelihood of becoming a target. Do not lie down on the ground or put any part of your body on the floor that doesn’t need to be there. In the event of step voltage, you would be putting your entire body at risk by lying down.
- Do not sit on the bare ground. An air mattress, pile of towels or even a backpack is much more preferable. Make sure your boots are on.
- Remove any electrical equipment possibly leading into your tent. Whilst lightning isn’t attracted to metal, it can and will be conducted through metal.
Can a Tent be Struck by Lightning?
If a tent is the highest point in the vicinity, it has every chance of being hit by lightning. Lightning is attracted to height rather than metal, meaning that the material your tent is made of is irrelevant. A tent could also act as an upward leader if you’re unfortunate enough.
Preparing for a Storm When Camping
If you’re camping and expect a storm to arrive at some point, there are several things you can do in preparation. Of course, this depends on whether thunder and lightning is expected with the storm or whether it just includes torrential rain. If the storm will have thunder and lightning, then the first priority should be yourself and the people you’re camping with. If not, then you should have some peace of mind knowing that you have the time to make adjustments to the tent to help keep it as dry as possible.
Be Wary of Flash Flooding
The onset of a storm could promote flash flooding in a variety of different areas. Ensuring you aren’t camping in an area that could potentially flood should be one of the first things you consider when you predict rain rolling in.
Any depressions or ditches in the ground are worth keeping a lookout for when camping in the best of times, but even more so when heavy rain is going to make an appearance. Along with this, be wary of camping too close to water sources that could potentially overflow, or other places where rain could potentially pool around your tent. For this reason, mountain bases are also not ideal to camp by during wet weather.
Being wet and cold whilst camping can prove to be dangerous, as hypothermia is found to kill more people each year than lightning.
Making your Tent Waterproof
You should be making sure your tent is waterproof before you plan to go camping. There are effective ways to effectively waterproof your tent before you travel, such as waterproof sprays, but it’s a different story once you’re out and about. In fact, waterproof sprays and seam sealer sometimes aren’t totally effective against heavy rain – so additional preventative measures need to be put in place.
There are a couple of makeshift ways to make your tent more waterproof whilst already camping. One of the most reliable of these ways is to put additional layers of tarpaulin over the tent. Tarpaulin makes a great shelter in the rain, as the material is durable and waterproof. These additional layers of tarpaulin should be pegged down to make sure they don’t fly away in the strong winds often associated with storms. In addition to tarpaulin, there are other materials which are waterproof which can also be used to layer up on the tent.
Along with the exterior of the tent, it’s important to remember that the interior of the tent is also susceptible to leakage or water getting in. Luckily, we’ve covered this and more in our article about Camping in the Rain.
Additional guy lines should be utilized whenever possible – especially during a storm. While torrential rain is a problem during a storm, high winds can cause an equal amount of issues. Tents being blown away is quite a comical concept, but it can become a reality if it isn’t tethered enough. It can also serve as an added boost for your waterproofing system, as keeping the rainfly tight and secured can help rainwater roll off the tent more effectively.
Keeping Items Safe
Certain items, especially electronics, are at higher risk during a storm of getting damaged, especially if left out in the open or if esports are hanging out of the tent’s port. Be wary of these items in particular, and ensure that they can be kept in a dry area of the tent. If you have plastic bags at your disposal, wrap the items up as a way of keeping them safe.
Make Sure your Ground Sheet Fits
The ground sheet, or tent footprint, is a piece of tarpaulin designed or cut to fit under your tent, to provide extra protection under the tent against the rain. Tent footprints or ground sheets are normally slightly smaller than the base of the tent, as if they were too big, it would increase the chances of rain becoming trapped between the ground sheet layer and the tent’s flooring. Making sure your ground sheet is the right size for your tent is good practice before you leave for a camping trip- but also worth double checking when rain starts coming in.
How to Guess a Thunderstorm’s Distance
Being able to guess the thunderstorm’s distance can provide you with the much needed time to find safety. Of course, this isn’t fully accurate but it does provide a basis to go off.
The distance of a thunderstorm can be measured by the frequency of the sound of thunder and lightning.
Counting the seconds between thunder and lightning can provide a rough estimate of how far away the storm is. Multiplying the seconds by 342 will estimate the thunderstorm’s distance in meters.
For those who don’t want to do the mental gymnastics to estimate a storm’s distance, anything less than 5 seconds between thunder and lightning is considered the most dangerous as it could be less than a kilometer away.
Camping during a thunderstorm is certainly doable, but comes with a significant set of risks that must be considered as soon as a storm approaches, or if you’ve checked the forecast before deciding to travel. The absolute safest thing you can do when a thunderstorm approaches whilst you are camping is to find a strong, closed off structure such as a visitor’s center. Other reasonable options are also available, but a large closed structure will provide both more safety and comfort whilst you wait 30 minutes for the storm to pass over.
Tents offer no additional protection during a thunderstorm and if you’re inside a tent, you must treat it as if you were standing in the open.
Understanding the different ways in which lightning can hit you is also important, so you’re less likely to stand in the way of a potentially dangerous situation. In addition to this, having our tent prepared for heavy rainfall beforehand will save a lot of hassle and stress if a storm were to occur, as staying dry and warm is paramount when staying outdoors.
The risk of being harmed by lightning is incredibly low as it is, but with the correct precautions and preventive measures in place, it can be reduced even further.