To me, being outside during a thunderstorm sounds like a nightmare. As a kid, I grew up on a lake and if we were out on the water and thunder began rumbling in the distance we knew to not mess around and head in. We were trained to be afraid of thunder and, more obviously, lightning.
I say obviously because thunder is just hot and cold air hitting each other which creates the boom we all know but lightning is a source of electrical power.
Our vacation home had a big screened in porch with sliding glass doors overlooking woods and mountains and whenever there was a thunderstorm we would sit on the screened in porch with all the sliders open.
You would sip your coffee and take a big inhale and the smell of rain would fill your lungs as you’d watch one of the world’s most amazing, powerful natural wonders. So if you think about it I was just receiving mixed messages.
Not everyone has the privilege of being scarred for life by their parents about being struck by lightning or being sucked into a rip tide and get sucked out to sea like I have but they’re not awful things to be hyper-aware of.
If you’re out in the wilderness with nothing but a tent for protection you would need to be a little more cautious and prepared.
You should always research the weather conditions of the area you’re going to camp in beforehand. This is just so you can stay prepared and make sure nothing drastic happens while you are out there - but as we all know, meteorologists can be wrong. It happens! It’s not an exact science and that’s okay. Stay vigilant and be prepared regardless.
Here are some safety precautions you can take during a thunderstorm to keep you as safe as possible.
The National Weather Service, and I would hope some intuition (if you’re good at listening to it) will be the first to say that there is no safe way to be outside during a thunderstorm.
A lightning strike is when lightning makes contact with the ground. Whether it’s through a tree or building lightning is an extreme source of power and it needs to be respected as such.
Will your umbrella cause lightning to strike down? No. Only if the lightning struck within three feet of the umbrella in the first place. I mean, I wouldn’t stand in the middle of a field with no trees and walk out there with an umbrella because then you’re just asking for trouble.
Once you hear thunder or see a flash of lightning then you are already in a danger zone for being struck. It could even just rain and a flash of lightning could strike before you even heard thunder.
As humans, we cannot control the weather. The best we can do is respect the earth and prepare for the worst. Do not get caught off guard.
You can calculate how far a storm is by performing simple math to measure the speed of sound. You can do this by waiting for a flash of lightning. Once you see it you begin counting the seconds until you hear the thunder.
Start counting (or turn on your stopwatch) the moment the lightning is gone until the second you hear the rumbles of thunder.
You can use these seconds to measure the distance in miles or kilometers easily. Sound can travel one mile in five seconds or one kilometer in three seconds–therefore, you just divide the number of seconds by five (for miles) or three (for kilometers).
Now, just like meteorology, this is not an exact science. It all depends on the humidity and temperature. All of these factors can affect the speed of sound. Dry air tends to allow sound to move much more quickly while high temperatures and humidity slow it down.
Even if you calculate that the storm is seven miles away you could still be struck by lightning. You can hear thunder up to ten miles away, but lightning can strike just as far out from a storm cloud.
Awareness and warning are great, but you are already in danger if you’re outside during a storm so prepare accordingly and don’t get stuck in a rain cloud.
The first step to preparedness, besides general awareness and research is to bring some type of weather radio with you. Weather can change in a New York minute, and staying updated will always help you stay prepared.
If you can get a few hours warning as opposed to responding with, “Oh, we’re in trouble!” then you could find yourself more out of harm’s way by heading to a more proper shelter (if you’re at a campground) or by shoving yourself in a rubber tube!
No, I’m just kidding. But rubber is the key! While metal is a strong conductor of electricity, rubber is the opposite. It works best when it’s dry but it could help save your life.
The first step is to look for proper shelter.. Your best option is to climb down, but if that’s not an option try to find a cave or some type of shelter.
If you’re at a campground or you have access to any type of building, car or cover than that is where you should go. Just be aware that there will also be heavy rainfall and you don’t want your sanctuary to fill up with water so head to high ground if possible.
Another thing to bring with you is a rubber sleeping mat. Kneel or squat on the pad and make sure everyone in your party has one. Stay fifteen feet away from each other–at the least!
Make sure you keep on your kicks! Sneakers and boots, especially really good ones with actual rubber in the soles, are another layer separating you from the ground and are a nice added precaution.
Safety gear aside, if there is no nearby shelter to escape to think smartly. Lightning is attracted to metal and water. If you’re camping out by a river or lake and thunder and lightning are eminent then move away from the body of water.
Pack up all your metal and place it far away from your shelter.
You should also avoid open areas like fields, summits and ridges, especially if you’re near tall or isolated trees. The lightning will strike the closest thing it can find to the ground.
If lightning strikes a tree it can melt the sap inside the tree and cause it to explode or the heat from the lightning strike will light the tree on fire.
Either way, you are in danger if you place yourself near an isolated or extremely tall tree since that will be the first thing the lightning will go for–lightning loves trees.
That being said, do not set up your safe shelter near the tallest tree or the only tree. You need to walk and find somewhere better and more secure! Look for a cluster of short trees or a cave.
If you feel like your hair is standing on end or if you feel like the rocks around you are buzzing then you are not in a safe place. Watch for a metal taste in your mouth, the smell of chlorine, sweaty palms, or metal objects around you that might be buzzing or letting off a vibration.
These are all signs of immediate strike. You may only notice it for a few seconds before it hits but those few seconds could change your life if you’re able to catch them. Although, those few moments don’t usually give you enough time to react.
Does your tent have metal poles? If so, don’t use it as your shelter from the storm. That’s another reason to come prepared. Bring a tarp and set up a temporary shelter with it under a cluster of short trees.
Tents with anodized aluminum or fiberglass poles than your tent is okay. It’s typically the old ones that have stainless steel or non-anodized aluminum poles.
Don’t come out from your shelter until at least a half hour has passed since the thunder has stopped rumbling.
If someone does get struck by lightning, several things happen.
The most common injuries from a lightning strike are severe burns on the skin from the heat of the lightning and electrical shock. Sometimes the strike can leave wounds as well.
Send for help IMMEDIATELY. Take this seriously and do not fluff it off. You never know if there’s damage to the person that you cannot see.
Make sure they have a pulse and are breathing. You need to treat them for shock until help arrives. Treat the burns second, as painful as they are they’re not going to be the thing that kills you first.
The strike could cause the heart to go into cardiac arrest, which is the leading cause of death in lightning strike victims.
The less common reactions to being struck by lightning is secondary heat production. Clothes could catch on fire due to the extreme heat of the lightning. Any metal on the body like jewelry or an underwire bra can become extremely hot and burn the skin.
The last immediate symptom of a lightning strike is explosive force.
I don’t…really think I need to go into that one, do I?
No matter what, LIGHTNING IS DANGEROUS and caution should always come first. If you weren’t scarred for life by your parents as a child then I truly hope I’ve scarred you now (explosive force. Seriously?!).
So go camping, have fun, and enjoy the outdoors. Just be aware and take the necessary precautions when they’re needed. Respect for nature is of utmost importance, always.
Photo by Meagan Bourne on Reshot