As the days get longer and the evenings become warmer, the outdoors beckons campers. However, heading out into the wilderness or backcountry carries weather-related risks. Each year, the United States experiences more than 100,000 thunderstorms, which peak in the spring and summer months. Packing light with only basic protection from the elements might be one of the perks of the outdoor lifestyle, but it can leave you exposed if a storm rolls in. Here’s how to stay out of the way of thunderstorms and keep safe if you’re caught out.
What Causes Thunderstorms?
Hot and humid days are a typical feature of the Gulf Coast and the Midwest Plains, as well as of summer in the Southeastern and Western states. As warm, moist air rises, it cools and condenses to form clouds packed with ice particles. These develop an electric charge that ultimately erupts in thunder and lightning accompanied by heavy rainfall. Late afternoons in summer are the sweet spot for storm activity, especially in areas where geographical features such as mountains or hills force warm air upwards.
Learn more about how thunderstorms develop!
What Are the Dangers of Thunderstorms for Campers?
Hikers and campers and those participating in outdoor activities account for most of the injuries from thunder and lightning. Large, open areas are vulnerable to ground current when the voltage from lightning strikes spreads through the earth, while tall objects such as trees attract side flash. A tent offers no refuge from lightning, only protection from the rain. Bear in mind that the secondary dangers associated with thunderstorms also pose a risk. Below are a few you need to be the most cautious of:
- Flash floods ‒ Avoid canyons or dry riverbeds, particularly if you see signs of smashed wood or large boulders.
- High Winds ‒ In excess of 120 mph are possible, not to mention that thunderstorm weather is often ideal breeding conditions for tornadoes.
- Forest fires‒ A single lightning strike on a tree can quickly develop into a forest inferno.
- Hail ‒ Stones the size of golf balls can reduce a tent to shreds and shards in minutes.
How to Steer Clear of Thunderstorm Activity
Before heading out to a particular region, familiarize yourself with the conditions associated with its terrain and the season. Even if you’re staying closer to home, don’t get complacent, and have a plan in place for bad weather. If you are within mobile service range, tune in regularly to the National Weather Service for updates and beat a fast retreat to safe cover if a thunderstorm watch or thunderstorm warning is announced.
While you’re out on the trail or away from shelter, prepare for all kinds of scenarios with a bag that includes weather safety gear along with the latest and greatest camping gadgets. Since storm activity may not be immediately apparent to the eye, include a portable lightning detector in your kit to sound the alarm following any ominous changes in air pressure.
Places to Avoid Pitching Your Tent
The warm cover a tent provides can give you a false sense of security in a storm. It’s always safer, however, to shelter indoors if a place is available. Even a car or vehicle is preferable, providing it’s covered and you don’t touch the metal bodywork. When you’re pitching a tent in good weather, increase your odds of avoiding trouble should a storm roll in by staying away from higher ground (such as exposed ridges). You also should avoid large open fields or prairies or pitching beneath trees or metal poles. Remember too that if you’re camping in a desert ravine, even a thunderstorm that’s miles away can create flash floods in your chosen area.
What to Do in a Storm
If you can’t evacuate, for example, when a storm strikes during the night, the safest plan of action is to spread out and stay low. Conditions might be frighteningly loud and lightning can be disorientating, but you’re much safer if you can make yourself lower on the ground than the objects around you. Remove any larger metal objects and crouch close to the ground. Even when the storm has passed, it’s prudent to wait until at least a half-hour after you hear the last rumble of thunder before breaking cover, since rogue lightning strikes are possible. If you can hear the thunder, you’re still within 10 miles of the storm.
Even if you’re inside, a thunderstorm is an alarming natural event, but getting caught in a storm while camping can be terrifying. That said, the odds of being struck by lightning are reassuringly low ‒ roughly 1 in 700,000. But as any experienced outdoor lover can confirm, good luck is no match for thorough preparation.