A beautiful day can turn into a brutal thunderstorm in minutes. It doesn’t matter what the weatherman says, you can run into bad weather fast. What if you were camping in a tent? Are tents safe in a thunderstorm?
Tents don’t necessarily attract lightning, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe in a thunderstorm. Even though you are protected from the rain tents offer no additional protection from lightning. Although the risk is low, you still have a chance of getting struck by lightning. There are ways to minimize risk, but you should still try to plan your camping trips according to the weather.
Is it Safe to Camp In a Thunderstorm?
There’s a debate on whether or not it’s safe to camp in a tent during a thunderstorm. One side says you should always seek shelter in a car or building and the other says most of the risk can be minimized by choosing the right campsite. Sometimes you won’t be able to avoid bad weather.
While I wouldn’t recommend camping in bad weather, at some point you might have to deal with a thunderstorm. Camping in bad weather is all about understanding and minimizing risk. It’s more risky to camp in a thunderstorm than a clear night, but that doesn’t mean you should cancel your trip at the first sign of rain.
Some of my favorite nights were spent listening to the rain pour down on the roof of my tent. People even use the sound of rain on tents as white noise to help them sleep.
The risk of getting struck by lightning on a camping trip is extremely low. You’re far more likely to win the lottery than be struck by lightning sleeping in a tent. Obviously, it’s safer to seek shelter inside during a storm, but the risk is low. More people (mostly children) are smashed in recliners each year than die by being struck by lightning.
People seem to amplify risk by voicing baseless fears. You can minimize risk by choosing the right campsite location (keep reading below) and going into the lightning position when the strikes draw close.
Go Deep Into The Forest During A Thunderstorm
It’s been drilled into my head that you should never stand under a tree during a thunderstorm, but that’s only partially true. You shouldn’t stand or set up a tent under a single tree or at the edge of a forest, but going deep into a densely grown forest is perfectly safe.
As you go deep into a forest your chance of getting struck by lightning is exactly the same as anywhere else (highly unlikely). Lightning usually hits the tallest object it can find, but the forest canopy works as a giant flat surface.
You shouldn’t set up camp under the tallest tree in the forest, but everywhere else is fine. Just make sure you look up into the tree canopy to check for dead or loose branches (aka widowmakers). Branches are far more likely to fall during a storm, and you don’t want to be on the receiving end of a falling branch.
Do They Make Lightning Proof Tents?
A normal tent offers no protection from lightning and would most likely catch on fire during a direct strike. So you would have 2 problems to deal with. Luckily as technology progresses we will likely see lightning proof tents in the near future.
There are a few companies trying to design lightning proof tents, but as of today none of them have went into production. They work by using specialized angles to direct the lightning strike around the tent and into the ground. The aluminum poles are designed to handle both direct strikes and ground contact strikes.
Who knows how much these tents will cost, but I’m sure they’ll be pricy. There must be a reason why they haven’t gone into production over the last 5-10 years. There’s obviously a demand, so the only other reason would have to be cost.
Always Try To Seek Shelter
Always try to seek shelter if it looks like a serious storm is coming. That’s not always possible in the backcountry, but you should be able to find shelter in a building/car in most campgrounds.
Look for large enclosed buildings with plumbing and wiring. If properly wired a building will send the electricity around the outside edge and into the ground. The size of the building doesn’t really matter as long as it’s completely enclosed. Pavilions, shed, lean-to’s, etc, with exposed sides aren’t safe during a storm.
You can also seek shelter in your car if there’s no way to get to a building. A metal car frame is designed to protect you from electric shock. Avoid contact with the car doors and steering wheel since they come in contact with the metal frame.
As a last case scenario, you can travel deeper into the forest away from the tallest trees. This isn’t the best place to go, but it’s better than inside a tent in an open field. It’s way better to be among shorter trees than a single tall one.
Taking Sensible Risks
Learning when to take sensible risks is key to any outdoor activity. While I wouldn’t encourage you to seek out a storm for your next camping trip, sometimes they’re unavoidable. At some point you’re going to have to deal with bad weather if you go camping a lot.
Don’t cancel your trip at the first sign of bad weather. You can still have a fun trip if you know how to manage and mitigate risks. Dealing with the weather is all about understanding/minimizing risks and knowing how to deal with them.
Knowing how to deal with stormy weather is valuable knowledge. Paying attention to your tent placement, waterproofing and sturdying up your guylines/stakes is 99.9% of the battle. The other .1% boils down to bad luck.
Tighten Up Your Guylines and Use Proper Stakes
Stormy weather usually brings high winds and heavy rain. Make sure you tighten up your guylines and use heavy duty tent stakes. Tent stakes are cheap so don’t settle for the flimsy steel stakes that come with your tent.
I highly recommend picking up a set of MSR Groundhog tent stakes (pictured above). They’re lightweight, compact, and really hold up in horrible conditions. Look at the how the stakes spin in the picture above. The design works as a screw drilling through the dirt. They’re by far the best all around stakes for almost every ground condition.
Drive your stakes into the ground at a 45 degree angle at each corner of the tent. Use your tents guylines at each of the attachment points and make sure you use the tensioners to strengthen the hold. Your tent probably came with guyline tensioners/adjusters, buy you can buy them on Amazon cheap.
What are Your Tent Poles Made Out of?
The vast majority of tents these days come with carbon fiber poles. Carbon fiber is strong and very light, but it has one major benefit during thunderstorms. Unlike steel and aluminum (doesn’t conduct electricity well), carbon fiber doesn’t conduct electricity.
Honestly, your tent poles won’t make all that much of a difference anyway. Don’t go out and buy a new tent just because your poles are made out of steel. Learning how to choose the correct campsite will give you a much better chance of survival than switching poles.
Choosing a Campsite Before a Thunderstorm
I’m sure you’ve heard not to stand under a tree during a thunderstorm. That’s both good and bad advice depending on where the trees located. You don’t want to setup camp underneath a single tree, but you can setup underneath a group of trees.
Lightning tends to strike the tallest object in the vicinity. That’s probably your tent if you’ve setup camp in an open field. Look for a tree canopy instead of setting up in a large open field. Just try to avoid setting up near the biggest/tallest tree in the area.
A Few Places to Avoid During a Thunderstorm
- Open Spaces: Never setup camp in an open field during a storm. Your tent would likely be the tallest object in the field opening you up to a direct lightning strike.
- Solitary Trees and Tall Objects: Lightning will usually strike the tallest object in the vicinity since that will be the easiest path to the ground. That will usually be a tree, tower, electric pole, etc in a large open field. You can easily get struck by lightning if you setup near of those tall objects.
- Open Buildings (Pavilions, Canopies, Etc.): I’m mostly referring to building that don’t have any type of grounding from electrical lines and plumbing. Don’t seek shelter under large open side pavilions, canopies, and barns.
- High Altitudes Above The Tree Canopy: Do everything you can to get below the treeline if you’re hiking/camping in high altitude terrain. Ditch your gear if you have to. Just try to get below the tree line so you’re not exposed to deadly direct strikes. Stay in a crouched position, close to the ground if lightning draws near and there’s no way to seek shelter. You want the least amount of contact with the ground as possible so don’t lay down in a storm.
- Water: This is another one that probably seems obvious. Water attracts lightning so stay away if there’s a chance of storms.
Are Tents Safe in a Thunderstorm?
Unfortunately, your tent won’t be safe from lightning strikes during a storm. Since tents aren’t lightning proof, they won’t be able to protect you from electricity. Your best bet is to find shelter or wait until the lightning draws near and get into the lightning position. I’ll go over the lightning position in the following section.
What Should I Do If I’m Stuck In a Tent During a Thunderstorm?
Sometimes you won’t be able to seek shelter in a thunderstorm. Hopefully you setup camp somewhere that you won’t be exposed to lightning strikes. Unfortunately, it’s too late to change your campsite once a storm starts to roll in. So what should I do if I’m stuck in a tent during a thunderstorm?
Watch and listen for lightning strikes and pay attention to the thunder clap. Pay attention to the time between thunder and lightning. Light is faster than sound so you’ll see a delay between the lightning and thunder strike. Longer delays mean the lightning is farther away. Loud, fast strikes mean the lightning is nearby and you need to seek shelter or get down into the lightning position.
There’s not much you can do if you’re trapped in a tent. The goal is minimizing the damage of potential strikes and avoiding direct strikes. Once the lightning draws near, move to the center of the tent and get down into a crouched position (lightning position).
You want to have as little of your body touching the ground as possible. Sit in the center of your tent if you can’t crouch(never lay). The following short 2 minute video will show you how to get down in the lightning position and give a few other great tips. I highly recommend giving it a quick watch.