I got caught in a brief, but crazy, thunderstorm last week while I was camping on the Spanish River. We were about two kilometres from our campsite when heard distant thunder. Rather than spend any more time on the water, we made camp at an earlier campsite. As we set up the tarp and collected firewood, the thunder got louder and more frequent. All of a sudden there was a simultaneous flash of lightning, a booming crash of thunder and an immediate downpouring of rain. We were camping in a thunderstorm… and the lightning was right on top of us.
I’ve been camping – mostly canoeing and backpacking – for over ten years now. For years, thunderstorms were my biggest fear in the outdoors. Because… what do you do? What’s the fix? Thunderstorms were a problem with no clear solution: “don’t be near trees, but don’t be out in the open, and don’t stay in your tent, but don’t be without shelter.”
Part of that is because lightning is unpredictable, and the only truly safe place to be during a thunderstorm is inside a building. But if you regularly wilderness camp, you’re inevitably going to encounter thunderstorms.
Over the last few years, I’ve learned how lightning actually works and how to best act if you do find yourself camping in a thunderstorm. In this post, I’ll explain what makes lightning dangerous (hint: it’s not what you think), where to go when the lightning is close and whether you should stay in your tent.
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Side note: I wrote this blog post over a few days, during which time we got two days of crazy thunderstorms. Coincidentally… a close friend-of-a-friend got struck by lightning when on her porch! She is totally okay though!
Understanding the Dangers of Lightning
Extreme Weather-Related Deaths
Lightning Strike is the most well-known danger while camping in a thunderstorm, and I’ve gone into detail about the different types of lightning strikes in the following section. Of all the ways to die in the wilderness, a lightning strike is actually one of the rarest. A US study examined weather-related deaths between 2006 and 2010 and found that just 6% were related to extreme weather events (floods, storms and lightning).
Cold Exposure, on the other hand, was responsible for 63% of weather-related deaths in the wilderness. Whenever you’re outdoors, you need to be cognizant of your body temperature and the environment. This holds true even during a thunderstorm – it is so easy to become hypothermic when you are wet for prolonged periods of time.
Side note: Heat Exposure was responsible for the remaining 31% of weather-related deaths, so you should also be careful about sun exposure, body temperature and dehydration.)
Another consideration should be made for the effects extreme weather can have on nearby objects. Lightning, floods and high winds can tear down shelters and trees, potentially injuring you in the process.
So in addition to lightning strikes, you should also be careful about cold exposure and nearby objects when you’re camping in a thunderstorm.
Getting Struck By Lightning
When most people think of getting struck by lightning, they imagine being struck directly. However, this is actually one of the least common ways to be struck by lightning.
I found an organization that studied different types of lightning strikes based on the hospitalization rate. The most common type of lightning strike was a Step Voltage, which was the cause of ~50% of hospitalizations. This occurs when lightning strikes the ground and your feet are parallel to the path of electricity. Electricity travels up one foot and down the other.
The next common type was a Side Flash, which caused about a third of hospitalizations. This is where a nearby object gets stuck by lightning (i.e. a tree) and electricity travels from the struck object to nearby objects (i.e. you). This is why you don’t want to be near the tallest object, like a gazebo in a field. It has the highest chance of being struck by lightning, and then the electricity travels to the nearby objects, including you.
We usually think of lightning as coming down to the ground from the sky, but lightning can also travel from a grounded object up to the sky when enough electricity builds up in the ground. In this case, we call the object the Upward Leader. Between 10 and 15% of hospitalizations are the result of a human becoming an Upward Leader. This is another reason to avoid being the tallest thing around – you become the perfect upward leader.
Just 3-5% of hospitalizations are the result of a Direct Strike, where lightning came from the sky and hit you directly. Most people expect this to be the main way people get struck by lightning, but it’s actually a very small percentage.
The final cause of lightning-related hospitalizations is Contact Voltage, comprising 3-5% of hospitalizations. This is when you are in direct contact with something that gets struck by lightning (i.e. water or a platform).
While this doesn’t constitute being struck by lightning, it’s also worth calling out Concessive Injury, in which the lightning strikes an object and the force generated from the strike is enough to throw you into another object (i.e. the lightning strikes the ground around you, throwing you into a nearby tree).
So most lightning strikes are the result of the lightning hitting the ground or hitting a nearby object, not a person.
How to Stay Safe While Camping in a Thunderstorm
As discussed above, there are three things you need to think about when you’re camping in a thunderstorm.
- Getting Struck by Lightning (in any of the ways listed above)
- Getting Hypothermia from Exposure
- Getting Crushed Under an Object
Get into a Safe Shelter or Vehicle
The absolute safest place to be during a thunderstorm is in a large building. The wiring from electricity and plumbing carries the electricity from the building to the ground, so it won’t travel through the rooms within the building. Likewise, these buildings tend to be strong enough to remain structurally sound even if they are struck by lightning.
The next safest place would be a fully enclosed small building that has plumbing / electricity, like a comfort station at a campground or a ranger station (for reasons similar to those listed in the previous paragraph).
If neither of those options is available to you, get inside your car – so long as your car has a metal roof (i.e. not a convertible). The metal frame of your car acts as a Faraday Cage, which is a concept used to describe an object that sends current from strike to the ground. Basically, your car’s metal frame will disperse electricity through the frame and to the ground (yes, through the tires), rather than inside the car. Tip: Don’t touch the steering wheel or doors, as these are connected to the frame.
What if you’re in the wilderness and none of these are available to you?
Avoid Being the Tallest Object in the Area
You never want to be the tallest object around you. That means if you are camping on a mountain above the timberline, you need to get down to the cover of trees. Likewise, you should not be in the middle of an open field or the desert. Being the tallest object in the area puts you at risk of a direct strike or upward leader.
In the wilderness, you are safest in a forest.
Avoid Being Next to the Tallest Objects in the Area
When camping in a thunderstorm, don’t set up next to the tallest trees in a forest, as this puts you at risk of side flash (the electricity jumps from the object to you).
Likewise, don’t be inside or next to an unprotected structure, like a gazebo or shed. Unlike a small building with electricity and plumbing, these structures won’t channel the electricity to the ground. Instead, the electricity will jump to a nearby object, in addition to travelling through the structure. That nearby object could be you.
Similarly, if the lightning strike is enough to break the tree or collapse the shelter, you could be crushed by the object coming down.
Avoid Prolonged Exposure
Being wet and cold causes hypothermia, even in the summer (I have personally experienced this). Wear your rain gear. If possible, you can drape an emergency blanket or tarp over yourself, keeping the rain off. Most outdoor educators, myself included, don’t recommend groups huddle underneath a tarp (see the point below). However, if you are alone and have a tarp set up away from the tallest trees, you could sit underneath it.
Once the storm is over, it’s critical to get out of wet clothing and into dry clothing as quickly as possible. Water transfers heat 25x faster than air, and you will get VERY cold VERY quickly when wearing wet clothing.
Stay Away from Other People
Don’t have everyone huddle in the same location. If lightning strikes near where you are, everyone could get struck, causing multiple injuries. If everyone is separated and one person gets struck or injured, the others in the group can tend to the injured person.
Put Something Between You and the Ground
To avoid step voltage, the most common cause of injury, you want an insulator between you and the ground. There is some debate over the insulating effectiveness of different objects, and none of them are perfect. As a general rule, a closed-cell or inflated sleeping pad can act as an insulator. If possible, try folding it in half to increase the thickness. Crouch on the pad; don’t lie down. Likewise, some outdoor professionals claim a life jacket can be an adequate insulator. More research is needed to determine the relative effectiveness of different strategies, however, one thing is clear: put something between you and the ground.
Get Off the Water
My canoe and kayak friends, get off the water immediately – even if you aren’t at your campsite yet. This is for two reasons: you are the tallest object when you are on the water and water conduct electricity. This puts you at risk of a direct strike, upward lead and contact injury. Get off the water and into the forest if possible.
Can you Stay in your Tent During a Thunderstorm?
This is perhaps the most common question about camping in a thunderstorm. And everyone wants a quick answer – should you stay in your tent? Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a trickier answer because… it depends.
People often say “No”, citing that the metal poles of a tent act attract lightning. This has been proven false. Determining whether something is at a higher risk of lightning struck has very little to do with the material, and a lot to do with the height. That said, your tent may offer protection against wind and rain, but it doesn’t offer any additional protection against lightning. Your tent is just as likely to be hit by lightning as you are.
Is your tent in the vicinity of large trees? These are more likely to be struck by lightning and a) cause a side flash, or b) fall down? If so, you should get out of your tent.
Are you camping on a mountain, in a field or desert or in a clearing? If that’s the case, it’s possible your tent is the tallest object around. You should get out of your tent and seek shelter in a forested area.
How many people are in your group? If there are multiple people sharing a tent, you aren’t able to spread out. If the tent gets struck, you’ll all be struck. This makes first aid much more difficult.
Also, consider cold exposure when deciding whether to stay in your tent. Especially in the middle of the night, pouring rain and blowing wind will quickly make you cold and wet… the perfect recipe for hypothermia.
If you do choose to stay in your tent, stay on your sleeping pad (you can fold it in half to make it twice as thick) and stay on your feet, rather than lie down. In the event of a lightning strike nearby, you reduce your body’s surface area in contact with the ground.
Camping in a Thunderstorm – Final Thoughts
If you read the post above and found it a little overwhelming, don’t worry. Here are the golden rules for camping in a thunderstorm:
- Don’t be, or be next to, the tallest object in the area
- Try to put something insulating between you and the ground
- Do your best to stay warm and dry
- Get off the water / mountain
Getting struck by lightning is very rare and most strikes are not fatal (and many don’t even cause serious injury). If you’re still feeling uncomfortable about camping in a thunderstorm, I recommend taking a wilderness first aid course. Most courses will teach you about the best practices mentioned above, in addition to the first aid treatment if someone does get struck by lightning.