A thunderstorm makes camping an elementary experience. But do tents, caravans and motorhomes offer protection at all? Are campsites safe and how do I behave if I am surprised by a thunderstorm while camping? Here are the answers.
“Zack. Boommmm !!! “A flash, a rattling and the cozy night in the tent suddenly becomes uncomfortable. Another impact and all tent occupants are wide awake on their mat. “Mom, I’m scared!” Uh, yes! At the latest now the question arises: What is it like camping with a thunderstorm?
How dangerous is camping in a thunderstorm?
First of all, the bad news: According to the Association of Electrical Engineers, a normal camping tent offers no protection against lightning, and there is also generally a risk of thunderstorms on campsites – in open areas anyway. The probability of a direct lightning strike can be reduced somewhat by some preventive measures when choosing a location. Correct behavior can also help to minimize the risk of arcing, touch and step voltage.
By the way, not only lightning is dangerous in a thunderstorm. Wind, hail and sharply falling temperatures should not be underestimated. In addition, there is often heavy rain and associated water masses that suddenly appear. These side effects become even more relevant in wild camping and in the mountains. It is therefore particularly important to exercise care when choosing a location.
How can I safely get myself to safety?
A thunderstorm is only safe if you have the opportunity to find a permanent shelter in a building (residential or sanitary building) with a lightning protection system. Alternatively – or if this can be reached – a car is also a safe choice, since the metal body of the vehicle acts like a “Faraday cage” and dissipates the electric shock to earth. The English proverb is easy to remember: “When thunder roars, go indoors!”
- Tip: Many campsites offer their guests behavioral instructions for thunderstorms that identify any protection zones.
How do I behave during a thunderstorm in the tent?
If there is really no safe alternative to the tent, then you should …
- … Keep Calm.
- … crouch on an insulating, dry surface with your feet closed during a thunderstorm (see step voltage *). (However, mattresses do not offer protection against lightning!)
- … do not touch the tent mates *.
- … keep the greatest possible distance from the poles and the tent walls.
- … remove any cables connected to the mains.
- … Remove metal wires and cords that are tied between tents and trees (clothes lines) or do not stretch them at all.
- … remove plastic plates or rubber capsules on the rod feet for better grounding.
- … do not touch or use any devices connected to the cable network.
What does step voltage mean?
When lightning strikes (but also when electrical current flows into the ground from other sources), the electrical voltage of a lightning spreads in the ground in all directions. The voltage that occurs at regular intervals decreases the further you are from the point of impact. If you touch the floor with two different points during a step, or with a large contact surface such as lying down, the current runs through the body. This can have life-threatening consequences. The same effect occurs when two occupants of a tent touch.
Therefore, during a thunderstorm – whether in the tent or outdoors – the feet should be kept as close together as possible to keep the step tension as low as possible.
What is the risk of lightning strikes at a campsite?
Lightning strikes on earth in particularly exposed areas or on objects that tower above its surroundings. Official and commercial campsites are often designed and placed in such a way that at least the basic risk of lightning strikes in a tent, caravan or motor home is as low as possible. Campsites can also be equipped with lightning protection systems. Nevertheless, there are always lightning accidents.
Therefore, the behavior and location tips listed here should be heeded. If the operator provides instructions for thunderstorms, these should be followed.
Where do I place my tent in a thunderstorm?
Ideally not, because a tent offers no protection against lightning. If there is no other way, for example in the mountains or wild camping, the location plays a major role in minimizing the risk of lightning.
If thunderstorms are expected, then avoid:
- exposed areas on hills or mountain ridges and peaks
- the edge of the forest, or individual or small groups of trees. Basically it is important to keep away from trees.
- Possible flood zones such as dry rivers and hollows due to possible heavy rain. A cable bridge can also form over the water if the lightning strikes nearby.
- But: Your tent should also not be the highest point on a wide, empty flat surface.
According to the VDE e.V., the risk of a direct lightning strike is lower in the interior of a forest of trees at the same height. In any case, the distance to the next tree and branches should be at least ten meters. Tree species such as oak and beech are only relevant for lightning strikes in relation to the height of the trees.
However, since trees can also be uprooted by lightning and storms, the forest also harbors this danger during a thunderstorm. Especially in the presence of sick or flat-rooted trees, the distance in the event of a storm should be at least the height of the tree – in the event that it falls. In addition, the surrounding trees should be checked for dead branches that could be swept down by a storm.
According to the experts, the risk of direct lightning strikes is also lower in the vicinity of metal overhead lines and masts, but the distance should be at least one to three meters. The maximum distance should not be further than the height of the object minus 2.5 meters. The National Weather Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, U.S. Department of Commerce), on the other hand, recommends avoiding conductive objects such as wind turbines, masts and power lines.
No matter where your tent is: If you cannot escape the thunderstorm, you should keep your legs closed and keep your distance from other people due to the step tension.
How do I prepare my tent for a thunderstorm?
In addition to a location away from sources of danger, it is important to pay attention to the details when choosing a location. In an emergency, three questions remain:
- Is there a possibility of a safe shelter (safe building or a car)? This should always be the first choice!
- Where does the water come together in the event of heavy rain?
- Is my tent anchored with all possibilities to withstand strong winds?
If you also have enough material and nerves to arm yourself against thunderstorms, you could also form a closed metallic bond around the tent poles to reduce the step tension. It remains questionable whether the time required for this is not better invested in an escape.
The company of individual trees and small groups of trees can be avoided even without a tent. A minimum distance of ten meters is advisable.
How do I behave outdoors?
If the warehouse has not yet been set up and there is no safe building or vehicle nearby, then the best possible option must be looked for. The only safe option is to return to the car or a secure building in good time.
It is nowhere safe in open terrain!
According to the experts, there is at least some protection against direct lightning strikes near metal masts from a height of three meters, under overhead lines (but not near wooden masts), overhanging canopies or under covered metal structures. A distance of at least three meters should be kept from masts, walls, supports and components of the lightning protection system, but not more than the height of the object minus 2.5 meters. In the case of a metal bus stop, the largest possible distance in the middle of the open side is recommended.
If you are looking for protection in stone huts, it is best to squat in the middle with the greatest possible distance from the walls. According to the experts, it is also relatively safe in caves, under rocky outcrops or at the foot of rock walls, but the rock should not be touched and a distance of at least one, better three meters should be maintained. The National Weather Service of the NOAA disagrees in this regard and explicitly advises against rocks and overhangs.
Otherwise, according to the experts, it is important to keep an eye out for hollows, ravines or lower-lying terrain points (but away from sources of danger and flood zones) in order to remain there in a crouching position with your feet closed. A minimum distance of one, better three, meters also applies to people.
- Wooden huts like barns or barns offer no protection. Here you are even better off outdoors.
How do I behave in a caravan?
Caravans without a driver’s cab and metallic frame offer as little protection as a tent. Both can be equated with a stay outdoors. If you can, you better sit out a thunderstorm in your towing vehicle or in the camp’s residence.
How do I behave in a motorhome, campervan or vehicle with a high roof?
Due to the Faraday cage, camping vehicles offer the best protection during a thunderstorm. If the lightning strikes, the lightning flows over the metallic outer shell of the vehicle. This protects the occupants. There are a few things you should keep in mind:
- In the case of partially integrated solutions, alcoves or pop-top roofs, the metal frame is often missing, so these areas of a motorhome or camper should be avoided.
- The metal passenger cabin is safe.
- Faucet and shower remain out of operation during a thunderstorm.
- 110, 230 volt cables should be disconnected in good time before a thunderstorm to avoid overvoltages.
- Do not touch any metallic fittings.
- Avoid the roof area and do not put your head near the roof.
- Close windows, doors, lifting and folding roofs, pull in the antenna and awning.
What needs to be considered when choosing a parking space?
The following also applies to motorhome parking spaces: Avoid exposed places and places in the immediate vicinity of the edge of the forest, poles or flagpoles, to individual trees or small groups of trees. The distance to the neighbor should be at least three meters. Under no circumstances should metallic wires or clothes lines be stretched between several camping accommodations.
Distance: when is a thunderstorm dangerous?
- A first thunder is a warning that it is time to leave particularly vulnerable areas such as peaks and ridges, open fields, the edge of the forest or individual trees. The thunderstorm is within a radius of less than ten kilometers.
- 21, 22, 23 … a thunderstorm is “already” from a ten-second interval between lightning and thunder. A lightning strike can occur immediately, and there is danger to life in unprotected places.
- Estimate distance: The seconds between lightning and thunder divided by three give the distance in kilometers.
- The first flash of a thunderstorm is a sign of immediate danger.
- The all-clear is only given 30 minutes after the last thunder!