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Is it safe to camp in a thunderstorm?

Is it safe to camp in a thunderstorm?

While we definitely wouldn’t encourage anyone to seek out a storm and camp in an open field – if you go camping, at some point you’re going to experience weather, and dealing with weather is all about understanding risks, knowing how to manage and mitigate them, and then really enjoying yourself.

When planning to go camping do think carefully about your tent, waterproofs and a good flask of hot chocolate!

We asked our resident risk-taker Harry to do some research...

Harry's Thunderstorm Advice

There’s no question thunderstorms are going to become more common in the UK, as global warming makes our climate more Mediterranean and our summers hotter. So knowing the ins and outs of thundery weather is valuable knowledge.

Yes, it’s more risky to camp in a storm than to camp on a clear night... but, and this is a very big but, if it’s feeling a bit muggy and close, with a whiff of a storm in the air, it doesn’t mean you should immediately cancel your camping trip. Sleeping in a tent in the rain is one of the great joys in life! You can even listen to rain on tents as a white noise on YouTube... a friend with a 5 month old swears by it!

A BBC blog published in the wake of the electric storms that hit the UK, gave some useful tips. But it also included a fair few hyperbolic warnings – for example,  by suggesting it might be a bad idea to take a bath during a thunderstorm (really?).

According to the British Medical Journal you’re far more likely to win the lottery than be struck by lightning in the UK. In 2010, the Office of National Statistics recorded a single victim of a lightning strike. In the same year, 29 people accidentally drowned while taking a bath. 

By voicing baseless fears, especially of extremely unlikely but scary possibilities, there’s a far greater danger – people amplify risk and become nervous about going outdoors, even when it is absolutely safe to do so. So just avoid that.

Making sure we’re taking sensible risks for worthwhile rewards is one of Outdoor People’s guiding principles. So if there’s a small chance of a thunderstorm... just take a bit more time to review your plans. Most weather apps will give you a good idea about where and when a storm will strike, and to what intensity – so you can plan your route and take shelter until the storm passes. We find Dark Skies particularly good, and it is uncannily accurate.

For the most part when you’re camping and you can hear the thunderstorm some way off, the biggest danger may be a sudden downpour when you've left your boots outside (don't do that). Also, if a heavy downpour is forecast, do check you aren't camped where it could flood... remember, if you're in a valley or a floodplain and it's raining heavily somewhere upstream, water travels downhill. Even if the weather is bearable where you're camped, rivers can rise quickly with floodwater that comes from heavier weather upstream.

Check your guy ropes, you may have to tighten them. If it's a big heavy tent you need extra heavy guys and to double peg  you are in far more danger from wind than from lightning.

I just camped in a 20 year old tent in 50 mile per hour winds. it was loud. Bring earplugs!

But how to tell if it's a serious 'right... we really need to think about this' kind of storm?

Light travels quicker than sound – so if there’s a few seconds between a lightning flash and the sound of thunder the storm isn’t directly overhead and you can just enjoy it. As a rough guide, the number of seconds you count before you hear the thunder tells you the number of miles between you and the storm (but this is only a very rough guide). Counting the seconds between lightning and thunderclap will, however, give you an idea if the storm is approaching or receding. If it’s approaching fast, and its a really loud and scary one, that's when you start thinking about seeking safe shelter until it passes.

If you’re camping in open ground and directly under a storm, then it is a good idea to get out of the tent – they provide no protection and a metal ridgepoles may act as a lightning rod. If you're hammocking in a tree, it's probably not the best place to be if lightning is genuinely likely to hit nearby.

If you re in a Bell tent definitely leave whilst the storm is on. It might sound a little bit counter to our 'take risks' philosophy, but sleeping around a large metal pole is no longer in the 'risks' column, its moved to 'hazards'. So get into full waterproofs, go outside and enjoy the storm. You'll have a great story to tell later.

Possibly counter-intuitively your car is a good spot, don’t touch the handles (as they may conduct electricity) and just play a game of cards whilst you wait it out. Campsite toilet blocks are good shelter too. If you are camping wild the advice is to seek out lower ground, a gully or a ravine, but not one likely to flood. Avoid standing under trees or other tall objects that may attract lightning strikes, and if you’re camping in a large group spread out. 

This is just whilst the lightning is overhead. As we said before, you are three times more likely to win the lottery than get hit by lightning here in the UK. But better safe than sorry...

Big tip - having a Ghillie Kettle (and dry kindling) will mean you can serve up hot chocolate all round easily and quickly. Gas stoves blow out in high wind, Ghillie Kettles love it!

These little tips are simple to remember and should make you feel a bit more prepared next time you hear the thunder in the distance as you’re snuggled down in your tent.

So in a nutshell:

  • mostly, just enjoy it
  • if lots of lightning directly overhead, get out of your tent, in low ground, in a car or in a nearby building and enjoy the show
  • make sure you have good waterproofs and base layers and hats
  • check the guy ropes for the inevitable wind before and after the eye of the storm
  • And bring some spare pegs!
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  • Damian

    And still, I’m afraid to camp in a thunderstorm

  • Christopher O'Connor

    Excellent post. I’ve wild camped during one of the worst summer storms that particular year in England several years ago.
    Below Crinkle crags in the Lake District. On the lower valley floor.
    In a geodesic 4 pole tent.
    The storm lasted several hours.
    Sadly, it has left me traumatized ever since. And I now have a phobia regarding thunderstorms.
    However, an extra tip I would suggest. Is to fix your walking pole into the ground well away from your tent. On higher open ground.
    So that it would attract the lightning. Rather than the tent.

  • Jonathan Chapman

    Oh Kitty…. Carbon Fibre does conduct, but you should be OK as it’s not as good as copper.

    Should is such an interesting word…

    So – If you buy 3 lottery tickets, and then you get struck by lightning – you should also find you’ve won the lottery.

    Let me know how you get on.


  • Kitty Sheppard

    Hmm – so lying in a bell tent, feet resting on the central pole poss not the most sensible place??

    what about carbon fibre poles or hammocks?

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