Being prepared for camping during a thunderstorm is a major step in our family’s camping routine. Here, we’ll talk about camping in a thunderstorm, including how to minimize risk, stay safe, and still have fun.
Camping is a family-friendly activity for all ages, but it isn’t without risk. Here in Minnesota, the weather forecast is unpredictable. We would never recommend camping in a thunderstorm on purpose, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.
5 Ways to Stay Safe Camping in a Thunderstorm:
If you’re stuck camping in a thunderstorm here are ways to keep your family safer from the storm.
- Have a sturdy tent
A sturdy tent offers shelter from the wind and rain.
- Set up in a lightning safe place
Avoid pitching your tent on a ridge line, or under trees, instead aim for a spot that will be dry ground during the rain.
- Watch for flash floods
Flash floods can happen even if it’s not raining where you are. Keep an eye on all weather forecasts for the area.
- Avoid Hypothermia
If you are wet and cold from the storm, change into dry clothes as soon as you can.
- Seek Shelter When Necessary
It’s best to head for a safe shelter or car the first time you hear thunder.
Is it Safe to Camp During a Thunderstorm?
The answer to this question isn’t black and white. Like any tent camping experience, you’re only as safe as you are prepared.
In short, yes, camping in a thunderstorm can be safe as long as you:
- Have a strong tent
- Secure the tent in place with a rain fly overtop
- Aren’t the tallest object in the area
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), lightning strikes usually (not always) hit the tallest object in an area. This is because tall objects are closer to the sky and more likely to produce a connecting stream of energy.
On the flip side, camping in a thunderstorm is dangerous if you’re:
- Camping in an open space like a field
- Setup under a single tall tree
Tall trees are nice to have nearby, but being too close puts you in the energy field when lightning strikes.
Thunderstorm Safety Hazards
One of the best ways to be prepared for camping in a thunderstorm is to recognize potential hazards. Knowing what you’re safeguarding against helps you pack for worst-case scenarios.
Here are a few safety hazards to be aware of if the forecast calls for a storm.
Tent Getting Blown Down
Shelter in the rain is critical to staying safe, dry, and healthy. Before leaving on a camping trip, we always check our tent bag and supplies for all necessary shelter supplies and tools. This includes things like:
- Tent stakes
- Tent poles
- Extra tarp
- Guy lines
- Spare rope
If winds are high, or you’re concerned the tent could blow over, secure the tent further. Two tricks we’ve learned over the years are:
- Add rocks: Hunt down a few good-sized rocks while setting up. Rest a heavy rock on each tent stake, or secure your guy lines to heavy rocks to keep the tent grounded.
- Weight tent corners: Place your heaviest gear inside the four corners of your tent. For example, place your cooler in one corner, your backpack in another, and camp beds in the other two.
As an added rain protection measure, hanging a tarp over your tent can add additional protection from heavy rains. If you can figure out the prevailing wind direction, try angling the tarp to block the wind and rain.
Branches Breaking Overhead
Wind, hard rain, and lightning can cause branches to break off of trees nearby your campsite. If there’s a potential storm on the horizon, be sure not to set up beneath any questionable looking tree branches. Be prepared to pull up your pegs and move your tent out of range of falling debris if a storm hits unexpectedly.
Breaking branches can be extremely dangerous. The higher a branch falls from, the more dangerous it becomes. As a branch gathers momentum toward the ground it can damage your campsite, injure, or even kill a camper.
Flash floods are extremely dangerous. The name, “flash” is given because of the fast timeline in which these floods occur. According to the National Weather Service, flash floods occur within 6-hours or less of a rainstorm, and are most common near:
- Bodies of water
- Urban settings
- Low lying regions
- Storm drains
If you’re in a high-risk area for flash flooding and a thunderstorm begins, it’s safest to leave the area. The trademarked slogan of the NOAA during a flood is, “TADD. Turn Around Don’t Drown”.
If flooding begins, don’t try to pack up. Leave immediately for a safe shelter. Never drive through a flooded area. Look for higher ground and tune into the NOAA Weather Radio for warnings or statements.
We were in slot canyons in Zion National Park and they warned us several times of flash flooding and what it looks like. Be aware of the weather forecast for the surrounding area as the rain can happen upstream and cause a flash flood downstream.
Hypothermia is most common in cold weather, but can impact you in above 40°F weather if:
- You’re sweating
- Fall into a body of water
- Get soaked in the rain
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn that hikers, campers, and those remaining outdoors for long periods are at high risk of hypothermia, along with:
- Individuals who aren’t appropriately dressed
- Elderly people
- Babies and young children
- Individuals engaged in drinking alcohol (or partaking in illicit drugs)
Hypothermia sets in roughly 30 minutes after getting wet. Symptoms can begin within minutes in cold weather.
Wear proper rain gear and change into dry clothes as soon as you’re able to. If someone in your group is showing signs of hypothermia, get all of their wet clothes off and have them get into a sleeping bag with someone who is warmer. Use the “skin to skin” method to best take advantage of body heat.
The National Weather Service is full of great safety slogans. In the case of camping in a thunderstorm, they say, “When thunder roars, go indoors!”. If lightning is evident, it’s safest to be inside a proper structure or your vehicle.
Given the option between a tent and your vehicle, always choose your vehicle. Even if you’ve got to run a quarter mile back to the trailhead, it’s far safer than a tent.
Vehicles aren’t grounded by rubber tires as some of us believe. Instead, the electricity runs through the metal frame and into the ground. So, keep your hands inside the vehicle, and don’t touch the doors or other metal objects during the storm.
The NOAA recommends waiting 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder to head back to camp.
Some lightning safety rules to consider during a storm include:
- Avoid open areas, hills, and trees
- Spread out from group members to avoid the current traveling between you (of course small children should remain in reach of parents at all times)
- Avoid touching metal objects, water, poles, or ropes
If you can’t leave the tent, and the storm is raging above, stay in the center of your tent, keep your hiking boots on, and stay low.
Safe Places to Set Up a Tent
We touched on a few of these concepts above. Your safety is impacted by tent placement while camping in a thunderstorm. Knowing where to place your tent increases your chances of coming through a storm safe and sound.
Lower Lying Areas
Lightning is lazy. It doesn’t want to stretch far to find a connection which is why it hits the tallest objects first. The lower your tent is situated, the safer you are from a direct strike.
When we choose our campsites, we try to avoid hilltops, and bare fields. Again, you never want to be at the highest point in the area or touch any water in a thunderstorm. Instead, opt for lower ground sites (but stay away from the lowest spot in case of flooding).
Away From a Single or Tall Tree
The best tent site is near trees, but not near enough to get hit by lightning jumping from the tree to the ground, or have debris fall on you. It’s also best not to set up camp next to a lone tree in an otherwise barren field. I know, this is getting complicated, but there’s a reason.
The tallest point in your camp vicinity is the most attractive to a rogue lightning strike. If there’s only one tree, it’s like marking an “x” on the map of places to strike.
If you’ve already set up your tent and it’s safe to do so, move away from that one tree and perch nearer a treeline for protection.
Far From Metal Fences
Avoid metal fences when camping in a thunderstorm. You might think this is because the metal attracts lightning, but this is a myth. Lightning strikes trees, stone buildings, and many other non-metal locations all the time. It’s the height and shape of an object that attracts lightning.
The reason you should avoid the fence is because if a lightning strike hits the fence it’ll travel the length of the fence. No matter where you’re touching the fence, it’ll reach you.
Set your tent up away from any fences to avoid touching this potential conductor.
Making Your Tent Safer
The safest place to be in a thunderstorm is inside a secure structure, like a house. However, if you’re in a tent when the storm begins, you can take a few safety precautions to make your tent safer. Here are a few things we do when the rain starts to fall.
Pad the Floor
The more you have between you and the ground during a thunderstorm, the better. Pad the bottom of your tent with foam tiles, an inflatable mattress, a spare tarp, blankets, or whatever you have.
Stay off the floor if possible, and remain in the center of the tent away from the metal poles.
Use the Guy Lines
Guy lines are ropes or wire designed to make tents more sturdy. (I think common vernacular is calling these guide lines as well)
They’re typically made of nylon cord and used to secure the tent, tarp, or rainfly to the ground. These ropes typically have sliding plastic tensioners on each line. This allows you to tighten or loosen the line.
Use guy lines to add security to your tent, put up the rain fly, or secure a tarp overhead.
Put on the Rain Fly
Some of the most fun we have camping is sleeping under the stars. If you’re expecting rain, however, it’s best to set up the rain fly early. You want to do this before dark, trust me. We have been caught in the rain after dark before, and it’s twice as hard trying to assemble the fly.
Some tents have built-in rain flys, others require you to buy a fly separately, or simply set the fly up separately after the tent is erected. It might be worth having an extra tarp on hand to block rain and wind in a thunderstorm.
When to Leave Your Tent
If a storm has begun and there’s nowhere else to find shelter, your tent is the best place to be. There are a few exceptions to this rule, including the following.
A low-lying area is the best place to set up camp to avoid a lightning strike unless there’s heavy rain. Standing water forms when rain is unable to drain away from the location it’s falling. In the case of a campsite, this puts you at risk.
Water will conduct electricity. Simply put, if anything touching the water is struck by lightning, the electricity travels through the water. If your tent is in or near a pool of water, move the tent (if safe to do so), or get away from the tent.
Poles are Bent/Broken
If the poles on your tent have begun bending in the wind and the weight of the rain, it might be safest to leave the tent. Bent and broken tent poles lead to water pooling inside the tent, which again, puts you at risk when lightning strikes.
Broken tent poles also significantly impede the ability of your tent to protect you from the elements. You may be able to safely fix the pole and secure the tent. If not, it’s time to pack up camp and call it a day.
Tornado sirens are every camper’s worst nightmare. If you hear sirens it means tornados are in the area or heading to the area. It’s important to act quickly as tornados could be minutes from your location.
The National Weather Service recommends seeking shelter in a:
- Storm shelter
- Well-constructed home
- Saferoom approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Avoid shelters in:
- Camping RVs
- Manufactured houses
- Mobile homes
- Highway overpasses
- Large open rooms
This is where planning ahead really helps. Before you select a campsite, note any nearby buildings and have an evacuation plan in case of tornados.
Where to Go for Shelter
Many campsites offer ample locations for secure shelter in the event of a thunderstorm. If you’re backpacking in the woods, you may not have access to these locations. On a private or public campground, however, you might find some of the following.
Many campgrounds have full-service bathrooms on site. If you’re caught in a downpour and fear thunder and lightning aren’t far behind, seek shelter in a campground bathroom. It’s important that this be a secure structure, not a port-a-potty or an outhouse.
Stay away from doors and windows, and wait out the storm until thunder and lightning have passed. Camping in the rain is much safer than camping in a full-blown thunderstorm, as long as there’s no chance of a flood.
If you’re car camping, your vehicle is an excellent place to hunker down to wait out the storm. Remember that it’s the metal, not the tires that protect you in your vehicle. The car’s metal frame acts as a faraday cage and draws the electricity from the lightning around the vehicle and into the ground.
Don’t open the doors or windows, and don’t touch the sides of the vehicle. Stay inside the vehicle until roughly 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder or flash of lightning.
Outside the Tent
If there’s no structure anywhere nearby and your tent is pitched in an unsafe position to wait out the storm, get out. Bundle up in rain gear (no umbrellas), and seek low-lying land. Stay away from deep valleys where water might pool, and the tallest trees that might draw the lightning.
When it’s safe to return to the tent, dry off immediately and warm up the youngest members of your group first.
Camping in a Thunderstorm FAQs
Is it safe to be in a Tent During a Thunderstorm?
It can be safe to be in a tent during a thunderstorm, but also dangerous. As long as you’ve taken precautions about tent placement and security, you should be safe during a storm.
Still, if possible, you should avoid camping in a storm. Thunderstorms can be dangerous. The main concerns are flooding, falling trees, and lightning.
Will Our Tent Attract Lightning?
People commonly think tents attract lightning, but they don’t. Metal doesn’t attract lightning either, so your tent should be safe as long as it’s not the tallest object in the area. Lightning seeks isolated objects that are tall and pointy. If there are trees nearby, they’re more likely to be targeted than a tent.
Is Lightning Dangerous?
Yes, lightning storms are dangerous, but you’re unlikely to be directly struck by lightning. According to the National Weather Service, about 30 people die from lightning strikes annually, and hundreds are injured. It’s critical to be cautious when camping in a thunderstorm to stay safe.
Camping in a thunderstorm isn’t wise. Avoid lightning by watching for signs of a thunderstorm. If you see lightning, hear thunder, or spot dark clouds forming, consider seeking a safe place to wait out the storm. If you’re already camping when a thunderstorm hits, follow the tips above.
Interested in how to stay dry when camping in a rainstorm? Check out our tips and tricks for staying dry and having fun camping in the rain!
I’m Molly Foss, aka Momma Critter. I’ve been camping since I was 9 years old and I always wanted to be Robin Hood and live in the forest when I grew up. I’m excited to share my love of camping with my son as he grows up. My favorite thing to do while camping is roast marshmallows over the fire.