When the time comes to camp in the great outdoors, you’ll be exposed to all the splendor, and the might, that nature can muster. When the weather turns bad, this can prove quite a severe test of your ability to endure and improvise.
It is important when camping that you know when to pack it in and head for safer ground. Thunderstorms are entirely common in most parts of the world, but just because they are common does not mean you can ride things out in your tent.
Will your tent keep you safe in a thunderstorm? No, it will not. Not at all, in fact. At best your tent offers no more protection from the dangers of a thunderstorm than simply being in the open exposed. At worst, you could be more vulnerable to a direct or near-miss lightning strike. If you’re in your tent when a thunderstorm approaches, you must take action to improve your position.
This is probably not what you wanted to hear if you are a prepper or just an enthusiastic outdoorsman, but it is the truth. In the remainder of this article we will share with you tips, procedures and warnings that will help keep you safe when rumbly weather approaches your campsite.
Tents are Not Shelter from Thunderstorms
Regrettably, tents are not shelter from thunderstorms, even if it is a frightening and wondrous thing to be outside when a thunderstorm is occurring all around you. It definitely takes on an entirely new aesthetic when you are out there in it, versus watching it from inside your home!
But you cannot let your sense of wonder override your common sense. Your tent is only going to protect you from light to moderate rains and gentle winds. A tent is only going to help keep you warm, and keep bugs and other small critters off of you while you sleep.
It absolutely will not protect you from torrential downpour, flash flooding, gusting gales, and it definitely, positively will not protect you against lightning strikes. Regarding the latter, it might actually increase your chances of being struck by lightning. Major bummer.
To better understand how our tents will let us down when thunderstorms threaten, let’s look at the following storm danger factors, and then at some ways to stay safe when camping.
Risk Factor: Lightning
Lightning is the most spectacular and outright lethal threat posed by thunderstorms, even though it is statistically the least likely to actually kill you.
No matter what kind of material your tent is made of it will offer you absolutely no protection from lightning, and any sort of metal poles, frames, stakes or other components will only serve as conductors, and possibly attract lightning.
This is particularly hazardous when camping in the open, or above a tree line.
Though the risks of lightning striking your tent poles or frame directly are reduced if you have tall trees nearby or are camping in a low-lying area, they are never zero and you cannot ever depend upon your tent to afford you even a scant molecule of protection in this regard.
Also consider that lightning does not have to directly strike you in order to kill or severely maim you.
Lightning that strikes the ground nearby or another object can easily “splash” or jump to you directly, and trees and other objects will sometimes violently explode when struck, posing secondary hazards. Once again your tent will offer no protection in either case.
When lightning is nearby or a thunderstorm is likely you must abandon your tent.
Risk Factor: Torrential Rain
Most people of the outdoor persuasion have experienced the sublime misery of trying to sleep or shelter in a leaky tent while it is raining.
Typically, thunderstorms bring with them even more copious amounts of rain than a typical passing shower. This means that your tent will be put to a severe test when it comes to waterproofing.
Aside from potentially soaking you and your possessions inside the tent, torrential rains bring with them the threat of flash flooding.
If your tent is pitched in the path that water typically takes in such events or, even worse, in a low-lying gully or dry river bed prone to turning into a raging rush of water, you could be in big trouble if you are inside your tent when this happens.
Your tent could be swept away and collapsed with you inside it, posing a severe risk of drowning.
But even if you are fortunate enough to have pitched your tent on ground that will stay comparatively high and dry during a thunderstorm, or your tent remains miraculously waterproof, you won’t be out of danger yet.
Risk Factor: High Winds
The other standout feature of many thunderstorms is high sustained winds, or at least gusty winds.
Very few tents are built to withstand significant winds for any length of time, and fewer campers know how to properly and safely secure them in order to capitalize on their advertised performance.
The high winds produced by thunderstorms pose a very real risk of knocking your tent down, or ripping it away entirely.
Even more pressing, high winds are capable of knocking branches off of trees, throwing debris through the air, and even knocking over trees, signs and other objects entirely.
If you are camped near any of these objects, you definitely don’t want to be underneath whatever is falling down lest you be crushed, and airborne debris is always a substantial danger when you are out of doors during such an event.
When the wind is blowing hard, it is time to give up the scant protection of your tent for safer ground.
Finding Protection During a Thunderstorm
If you are in your tent when a storm approaches, you need to act right away to find safer ground. But, you want to make sure you don’t jump out of the frying pan and into the fire, as it were.
Take a moment to assess the situation, identify your best course of action and then execute as quickly as possible.
If you are camping in the wilderness far away from civilization, your best bet is probably just to head for your vehicle if it is not too far away. The rubber tires and metallic frame and bodywork of your vehicle will protect you from a lightning strike much of the time.
Try not to touch the doors or steering wheel while inside your vehicle, and note that open-topped or soft-top vehicles will likely not protect you from lightning.
Lacking a vehicle, assess the terrain and see if you can’t get under a substantial overhang or even inside a cave to protect yourself from lightning.
As always, be aware of a flash flood risk, especially if sheltering inside a cave or lowlands. At no time do you want to be up on a hill or above the tree line in a wooded area.
Being in deep woods is safer than sparse woods or a copse of trees, or most especially being near a lone tree- that is never a good idea!
If you are near civilization, your best and safest bet is simply to head for a sturdy and completely enclosed structure of any kind.
If at a campground, avoid the covered but otherwise open picnic pavilions, stages and other gathering places as they will offer no protection against a near lightning strike.
It is absolutely not safe to be inside a tent during a thunderstorm, and a tent will offer no protection against lightning, flooding and high winds.
When a thunderstorm threatens you must be ready and willing to give up the tent, and seek safety in better terrain or inside a structure.
Don’t make the mistake of trying to “ride out” a thunderstorm, even a minor one, inside your tent. It could prove a fatal mistake!
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.