Camping up a storm sounds like fun but camping IN a storm is probably up there as one of the more unpleasant camping experiences.
Here are our tips for camping in a thunderstorm.
Watch the weather forecast
Up to date weather information will help you to prepare for whatever weather conditions come your way. Weather bureaus, park managers, local visitor centres and local radio stations will all provide regular up to date weather forecasts as well as any other warnings.
Your eyes and ears will also provide the most immediate assessment of the warning signs and signals of an approaching storm, such as ominous cloud formations, a darkening sky, increasing winds, thunder and lightning.
Choosing your campsite
If storms are possible, choose a safe place to pitch your tent. A campsite in a flat area where the tent is the highest point is NOT a good place to be. It will be vulnerable to a lightning strike and could be battered by the high winds. When choosing your campsite:
- Choose a site with a windbreak, such as near a wooded area or close to buildings, caravans, motorhomes and other campers.
- Avoid sites on high ground or in flat or open areas that will be battered by the high winds, especially if the tent will be the highest point
- Avoid areas susceptible to flooding, such as low-lying areas and those in close proximity to rivers that might become torrential in a storm. Just as you don’t want to be on high ground and exposed to high winds, you also don’t want to be vulnerable to flooding either.
- Avoid pitching close to a lone tree or other structure that will naturally be vulnerable to a lightning strike.
- Avoid pitching under trees in storm conditions because of the likelihood of a tree or limb falling onto your tent. If your options are limited, check for signs of stress and if there are any dangerous loose or dead limbs.
When setting up camp
Properly setting up your campsite can really minimise the problems associated with a storm. When setting up camp:
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when pitching your tent and shelter using all of the pegs and guy ropes. At vulnerable corners, peg out two guy ropes.
- Direct the smallest side of your tent into the wind to reduce the surface area to help the wind pass around your tent.
- Position the main tent door away from the wind to prevent wind gusts from entering your tent and turning it into a kite or ship’s sail. If the wind changes, at least keep the door closed as much as possible.
- Use good quality and sturdy pegs, at least for the highly exposed areas such as the awnings and the sides facing into the wind. Invest in some additional good quality pegs if those supplied with your tent are on the flimsy side.
- Hammer your pegs at a 45-degree angle away from the tent rather than vertically for extra strength to withstand the pressure caused by the wind.
- Angle your guy ropes at a 45-degree angle (or more) away from the pole for added strength.
- Use a separate peg for each guy rope rather than pegging multiple guy ropes to a single point.
- Peg out two guy ropes at awning corners to provide additional strength.
When the storm arrives
As soon as you are aware of approaching storm like conditions:
- Survey your area for a safe place to shelter in case you ultimately need to abandon your tent, such as an enclosed building or vehicle.
- Check the guy ropes to ensure the tent and awnings are correctly and evenly tension to facilitate water run-off, and to prevent water pooling on the roof.
- Check the pegs / stakes to ensure they are securely in the ground.
- Drop down your awning poles to increase the likelihood of water run-off.
- Secure your camping gear and any other loose items lying around. Place heavy items on tables and other furniture to stop them from blowing away, and move non-waterproof items under cover, such as chairs, towels and clothing.
- Dismantle anything not designed to withstand the expected conditions, such as shelters, and remove any detachable solid walls not required.
- Secure your rubbish and other small items.
- Use your car as a windbreak by parking it upwind of your tent.
- Look out for potential missiles or loose items in your surrounding area and secure them if possible.
- Regularly assess any damage during the storm and secure any loose pegs and guy ropes.
When the thunder roars
Chances are small of being hit by lightning, but it does happen and you don’t want to be a statistic. Most lightning strike victims had safer shelter options but they either chose not to relocate, were unaware of what they should do to better protect themselves or they left their shelter too early.
Essentially, you need to avoid locations that are vulnerable to a lightning strike and find a safe (or at least safer) place where you should remain until at least 30 minutes after the thunder and lightning has ceased. If you are faced with a thunderstorm:
The safest place in a thunderstorm is a sturdy enclosed building, but avoid open shelters such as pergolas, marquees, porches and bus shelters. After you have closed all windows and doors:
- Do not touch metal doors and window frames as metal is a conductor.
- Avoid touching concrete, such as concrete floors and walls, as concrete often contains metal.
- Avoid using electrical appliances and the landline telephone as lightning can travel along the wiring.
- Avoid running water, such as for a bath or shower or for washing dishes, as lightning can travel through the plumbing.
Seek shelter in your car
The next safest place after a building in a storm is an enclosed car or other vehicle. The metal shell of the vehicle will disperse the lightning strike down the walls and then to the ground. Unsuitable vehicles include convertible cars and open golf carts. Once in your vehicle:
- Close all doors and windows.
- Avoid touching any metal.
- Avoid charging your mobile / cell phone using the power socket in your car.
Shelter in a lightning safe place
Tents provide very little protection from a lightning strike. If you are unable to find a suitable enclosed shelter in a thunderstorm, you have two options:
- If your tent is pitched in a lightning friendly place, stay in your tent but place any metal objects a safe distance away from the tent. Crouch down into a ball like position with your feet and knees together and with as little of your body as possible touching the ground. DO NOT lie down in your tent.
- If your tent is vulnerable to a lightning strike, such as being situated in an open area and / or the tallest object around, leave the tent and move to a low-lying area nearby taller objects like a wooded area. Place any metal objects a safe distance away from you. Crouch down as above into a ball like position with your feet and knees together and with as little of your body as possible touching the ground. DO NOT lie down. If you are in a group, spread out to minimise the number of people injured should lightning strike.
A positive frame of mind will help you to embrace the conditions rather than focus on the negatives. It will also help your brain to think broadly about what is going on around you and to get into problem solving mode. This will definitely come in handy when you are dealing with sub-optimal camping weather.
No matter how well prepared and equipped you are for a storm, the best you can do is to minimize your exposure to the associated risks, and not eliminate them altogether. At the end of the day, the pragmatic approach might be to simply pack up and go home before the storm commences if you have adequate warning, or at least find alternative accommodation such as a cabin.
You may even decide to stay home and not go at all if the weather forecast gives you adequate notice. There’s definitely no shame in that. Miserable camping experiences can really turn people off camping for life, and that’s definitely not what we want.
Summary of lightning safety tips
Chances are small of being hit by lightning, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. In summary, to help protect you from a lightning strike:
- Find an enclosed shelter such as an enclosed building or car.
- Avoid pitching on hilltops or flat open areas, especially if your tent will be the tallest item in the area.
- Pitch in lower lying areas and nearby taller buildings or woodlands, but be aware of the potential for flooding.
- Avoid pitching close to isolated trees or other similar objects that might be vulnerable to a lightning strike.
- Avoid pitching under trees that might be vulnerable to a lightning strike. In heavily wooded areas, shelter beside smaller low lying trees or bushes.
- Leave your tent if it is vulnerable to a lightning strike. If there are no enclosed buildings or cars accessible, move to a safer area, such as to lower ground and closer to taller objects such as trees. Don’t stay so close however that you might be injured if they are struck by lightning.
- Get low to the ground but don’t lie down. Crouch down in a ball like position with as little of your body as possible touching the ground. This applies if you are outdoors or in your tent.
- Stay away from water and don’t touch wet objects, including tents, guy ropes, towels, wet ground, swimming pools, rivers, the beach and puddles.
- Do not touch metal objects such as doors, window frames, metal taps, poles, fences, antennas and vehicles. If you are carrying any metal objects, place them at a safe distance away from you.
- Do not touch concrete, such as walls and floors.
- Don’t leave your shelter until at least 30 minutes after the thunder and lightning has ceased.
- Stay positive and you will be better able to problem solve.
- It’s better to be safe than sorry.