Camping in a thunderstorm can be a scary experience, especially f you are not used to setting up camp or sleeping through bad weather. When preparing beforehand you need to be aware of your surroundings, take necessary precautions, and make sure you are familiar with the area.
While day hiking may allow you to leave and take refuge in a car a thru-hiker typically has little access to the normal relative safety of a car or house without planning and preparation and in the end, you will be caught out in inclement weather at some point.
This means making sure you understand what dangers a thunderstorm presents, how to set up camp quickly and efficiently in poor weather, and what gear you will need to stay dry and comfortable.
The Dangers of Camping in Thunderstorms
To manage the issues related to thunderstorms and a nightly camp spot you need to understand the issues a storm can present.
Most people are very aware that lightning is the most dangerous and unpredictable hazard associated with thunderstorms but there is more to think about also.
Lightning is the number one safety concern when camping in thunderstorms. When camping, you are often in an exposed location which can make finding safe shelter difficult.
If you hear thunder, that means lightning is close enough to pose a threat.
The best way to avoid being struck by lightning is to get inside a hard-sided vehicle or building. If neither of those options is available, camping in a thunderstorm becomes much more dangerous.
Cold Weather and Exposure
The rain that comes with a thunderstorm can lead to serious exposure-related problems that can be compounded by camping in cold weather.
Storms can cause your gear to wet out down clothing and sleeping gear to lose its insulating ability, which can lead to hypothermia even in mild weather.
If your sleeping gear gets wet and you don’t have additional gear in dry bags you can face serious problems maintaining your core body heat while finding refuge.
Trees and Other Nearby Objects
It’s not just what falls from the sky you need to worry about, trees and other objects can pose a serious threat as well.
During thunderstorms, high winds can cause trees and branches to fall, which could seriously injure or even kill you if you are camping under them.
In addition to falling trees, other camping gear such as tents and tarps can be blown away or broken in high winds making it difficult to find or maintain shelter.
Flood Prone Areas
Another serious hazard associated with camping in thunderstorms is flooding. Heavy rains can quickly lead to flash flooding, which can cause rivers and streams to rise very rapidly.
This can be especially dangerous if you are camping near a body of water as you could be swept away or drowned in a matter of minutes meaning you should focus on camp placement as a priority.
Staying Safe in a Thunderstorm
There are many ways to approach your personal safety if you maintain your overall awareness of the weather during your hikes, to help you be as prepared as possible should a storm hit.
Limit Overall Exposure
This means understanding before a thunderstorm hits that you either have a plan or know how to limit the impact a thunderstorm will have on you while on the trail, with the knowledge you could be in town while a heavy storm blows through.
If this isn’t possible making sure you have shelter and are aware of the risks will help you limit your exposure as much as possible.
Tent Provides No Protection From Lightning
While your tent is an amazing shelter to many elements it is not a form of protection from lightning itself and camping in a thunderstorm inside your tent is not recommended except as the last resort as you are exposed and on the ground.
If you can’t avoid it make sure you place, if possible, a foam pad under you to help insulate you in addition to any sleeping pad you generally carry.
For me, this is why I always carry one of those 1/8th foam pads as it works for breaks and so many other functions if emergencies should happen.
You Don’t Have to Get Struck to Get Hurt by Lightning
While many are worried about being struck by lightning the bigger worry is in the current that flows through the ground.
These ground currents are known to spread out further than 30+ feet from the site where the ground is truck and can knock people out of commission.
If you are caught out in a storm and trying to find shelter you want to make sure everyone in the group is spread out as much as possible.
This helps to provide protection against lightning and ensures someone is available to help should anyone get an electrical shock from the lightning storm.
Put Something Between You and the Ground
As I stated above, you want to insulate yourself from the ground, for many the fastest way is with their sit pad which is typically made from closed cell foam and a good insulator but they are small and won’t protect your whole body.
While exposed you want to present as small a target as possible and this makes sense but inside a tent to layout, the 1/8th pad can give you more of a place to sit if folded up well giving a slight ability to relax tense muscles.
Is it Safe to Camp In a Thunderstorm?
Generally speaking, you would want to avoid this at all costs, but as with everything in the backcountry, you can always work to maximize safety and limit exposure.
Like choosing to camp in a tramily you can help each other out.
As long as you take the proper precautions camping in thunderstorms is manageable always understand the risks before heading out but it is always risky.
How to Stay Safe Camping in Thunderstorms
There are a few key things you can do to help stay safe camping in thunderstorms:
Stay Clear and Calm
For many, these storms can be scary and cause poor decision-making. If you can, try and stay calm and clearheaded as this will help you make the best decisions for you and your group.
You should always have a plan for when you will be active when thunderstorms are possible, know what you will do if one hits while you are on the trail, and make sure everyone knows the plan.
Choose a Safe Camping Spot
You want to make sure you choose a camp spot where you are as safe as possible from storm-related issues, not only focusing on lightning and open areas.
This includes when under tree cover that there are no dead trees or widowmakers that could drop on you from high winds and saturated ground.
Make sure that if you need to shelter in a tent make sure you have plastic or carbon fiber poles and not metal poles that could be attractants to electricity flow.
In addition, you want to be placed with your tent away from tall trees by at least 30+ feet to avoid the ground charge and possible tree strikes impacting you.
The final part of a “safe” camping spot would be to make sure you are not in the lowest area where water can pool and flood but also not be the tallest objects in the area as to be a potential direct strike lightning rod.
Knowing How to Spot a Thunderstorm Building
This will be a skill you will grow and evolve over time on many of the longer thru-hikes as you will see firsthand how it rolls in, giving you the opportunity to make plans and adapt to the trail ahead.
You can always check the weather around you using electronics if you own something like a Garmin InReach or many other GPS devices that can tell you more about upcoming weather to be well ahead of any impact.
You want to learn to hear storms well before they come, being able to listen and hear those unique thunder rumbles early helps to give you more chance to develop the plan and make changes.
For example, if you are up and above treeline knowing and hearing these first rumbles may give you the time to get down safely from being very exposed.
This can be the same for you if you are out on a ridgeline or in an exposed area.
If you already had a shelter setup this can be the time to go check all the guy lines to make sure they are placed and will hold through hard wind and rain.
Seek Shelter If Possible
Most AT-Style shelters aren’t perfectly safe shelters as they aren’t grounded and. have an open side but on the trail, beggars can’t be choosers with limited options they will be your best coverage option.
If caught out you would want to avoid less safe options like outhouses and those open picnic shelters you find in many parks with wide open areas and no real walls to protect you.
Once sheltering up make sure to stay in place for at least 30 minutes after it has passed as many fatalities and injuries happen due to the false sense of security that the storm has passed.
Choosing to leave too soon as charge can stay in the area even after the storm passes visibly, practice safety always.
If There Is No Shelter
This is the worst case overall if there are no clear protection or shelter options like when caught above a treeline, in open grasslands, or in other large open areas.
You will want to get rain gear on and then try and get as low as possible to the ground, making yourself a small target, and avoid being in any bodies of water like ponds or lakes as these can be attractants for strikes.
If possible try to find any land depressions, ravines, or similar to get you lower and closer overall to ground level and to stop being a possible lightning rod due to being the highest object.
When in mostly flat land you also want to avoid all isolated objects like a lone tree as they are excellent conductors and get as far away from them as possible, at least 30 feet.
You will want to place your sit pad down on the ground then crouch down on the balls of your feet and tuck your head as close to your knees as possible.
This helps to make yourself the smallest target while also placing any metal objects away from you like backpacks with frames, trekking poles, and other gear.
Since shocks will run through the ground from lightning strikes you want to limit your contact as much as possible to protect you from the ground as it is very conductive and when raining this can be very dangerous overall.
Due to the fact the electrical current can carry you want to make sure any of your group are split apart from each other so that there will be members not impacted by a strike should it occur and can render aid as needed.
Camping in a Thunderstorm FAQ
Can You Stay In A Tent During A Thunderstorm?
While it is possible you should try to avoid camping in a tent as they are not grounded and don’t offer much protection. If you must stay in your camping make sure to keep all metal gear away from you and limit contact with the ground.
Can You Get Struck by Lightning in a Tent?
Yes, the tent itself isn’t protected from a lightning strike and you can get seriously injured or killed if struck while camping in a tent.
What is the 30-Minute Rule for Thunderstorms?
The rule is that you should stay sheltered for at least 30 minutes after hearing the last rumble of thunder as charge can be stored in clouds for longer than many expect(source).
Do Tents Attract Lightning?
Most lightweight tents don’t utilize metal poles as much anymore so they aren’t an attractant but being the tallest object in an area can make them more likely to be struck.
Should your tent have metal poles it could make for an arc point and possible conductor for a strike so be extra cautious if camping in one during a storm.
Can you get struck by lightning in a hammock?
Most hammocks aren’t a direct strike but as you are anchored to the trees themselves you have a high chance of electric shock if a strike were to occur close by and the path of electricity decides to flow from the tree across your hammock lines.
Does Water Attract Lightning?
The simple answer is yes, standing in any water greatly increases your chances of being struck by lightning as it is an excellent conductor.
This goes for small bodies of water like puddles all the way up to large ones like lakes and oceans.
Final Thoughts on Camping in Thunderstorms
Camping in thunderstorms can be a dangerous activity, but if you take the proper precautions you can minimize your risk.
I have outlined some of the best practices to follow when camping during a storm, including staying sheltered for at least 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder and more.
Always focus on safety and try to avoid camping in thunderstorms if possible, but if you find yourself caught in one follow these guidelines to stay as safe as possible.