Many campers look forward to summer as it means they can unpack the tent from storage and hit the campground. Summer also means, unfortunately, an increase in severe weather alerts.
Lightning strikes cause more than sixty-five percent of all injuries reported by campers and hikers. These deaths and injuries are often when campers and hikers are out in the open, or trying to take shelter under a tree. Would they have been safe if they’d stayed in their tent?
Where to Place a Tent in the Event of Lightning
Even though putting your tent under a large tree might look like a nice, inviting, more relaxed location, it is not a safe spot should a thunderstorm roll in while you are tenting.
You should stay away from isolated trees, hilltops, and metal fences. If you can hear the thunder, lightning is within striking distance, and you should head to a location such as a building or an all-metal vehicle.
Your tent is designed to protect you from rain, the sun, and even heat. A tent and lightning are a bad combination.
Tents and Lightning
Your tent is not safe if lightning occurs. If you are in what is called ‘front country’ on your camping trip, you should have access to a modern building with wiring and plumbing or vehicles with solid bodies.
You need to take shelter in one of these structures and stay out of your tent until the storm passes. If you hear thunder approaching, immediately head to a fully-enclosed place of shelter.
If you are tenting in what is known as the ‘backcountry,’ you are most likely more than an hour away from medical care. You are probably in an area that involves boating, hiking, or riding a horse to a shelter.
Tenting in the backcountry can present extremely challenging concerns as to how to find a safe location when lightning is threatened. If you have placed your tent on high ground or under a tree, you are at an even higher risk for suffering exposure to ground current or sideflash from lightning strikes.
You are also at risk for lightning strikes directly to your tent. All of these occurrences are life-threatening.
- Ground current happens with each lightning strike. Minimize your exposure to ground current by keeping your feet close together and avoid lying flat on the ground. Ground current is responsible for half of all lightning fatalities.
- Side flash is when the current jumps from a tall object, such as a tree when it is struck.
- Contact comes from touching a conductor of electricity such as a cable, railing, or fence.
Review these lightning safety options if you are planning to tent in the backcountry:
- Make sure you are familiar with the terrain before you set up your tent, and avoid trees that are standing apart from others, or wide-open exposed areas with ridges and peaks
- Look for a lower terrain or a ravine to set up a tent if possible
- Check with the local weather stations in the area you will be tenting and avoid going if there are thunderstorms predicted
- Always know there is no safe place outside during a lightning storm. Knowing what to do and having a plan of action should you be caught in bad weather will significantly reduce your risk of becoming a lightning victim
In one reported case of a tenter involved in a lightning strike, a man was struck and killed while in his tent when lightning occurred. The man, an enlisted soldier home between his tours in Iraq, went with three other friends to enjoy a weekend of camping in the backcountry.
Lightning struck while the four men were inside their tent. At the time of the strike, the man’s three friends were standing in the tent, but the soldier was lying down. He was killed instantly, and all cell phones were disabled by the strike.
When the incident was investigated, it was discovered there were multiple tears on the floor of the tent. The evidence showed that ground current had killed the young soldier.
During his autopsy, they found the presence of electrical wounds on both his buttocks and elbows, which proved the lightning had traveled through his entire torso.
Tenter Awareness Can Save a Life During Lightning Storms
Most times, a tenter is only steps away from a place of safety when lightning hits.
Most lightning deaths happen when tenters don’t act and seek shelter, or they leave their shelter too early when a storm approaches.
The best plan for tenters to keep in mind regarding their safety during a thunderstorm includes:
- Keep aware of changing weather conditions
- Plan for potentially hazardous weather systems
- Know where and when to seek proper shelter
A lot of times, tenters will hunker down in unsafe shelters such as their tents to get out of the elements during a storm.
Other dangerous places include porches, canopies, stadium dugouts, pavilions, and cabins. These locations are not lightning safe. They may prevent the wind or rain from hitting you, but they are no defense against a lightning strike.
If you absolutely cannot seek a safe structure to protect you during a lightning storm, keep these tips in mind:
- Stay away from open fields, ridges, and hilltops
- If you are in the woods, stay away from trees standing alone, go instead to a lower group of trees
- If you are part of a group, do not stand to close to each other to avoid a current traveling through each of you
- Stay away from water and wet items. You should also stay away from fences, poles, or any metal objects. Metal and water attract lightning, and both are excellent conductors of electricity.
An important fact for tenters to remember is that even if their tent is equipped with aluminum poles that look much like a lightning rod (blunt-head LPS air terminals), they do not provide any type of protection for lightning.
You might have heard that you can count the seconds between thunder and the lightning flash to determine the distance you are away from the storm. This technique works, but should not be used to determine if you are safe as it appears the storm is some distance away.
Lightning can travel up to ten miles horizontally before it hits the ground. You may know where the last strike was, but you don’t know where the next will be- stay safe and take shelter immediately.