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Are Tents Safe in Lightning?

Tents do not attract lightning but that doesn't mean you can be reckless
Tents do not attract lightning but that doesn’t mean you can be reckless

Even though the chances of being hit are extremely small, sleeping in a tent during a thunderstorm is not safe. Your tent simply won’t protect you against a lightning strike. If you can, avoid going camping in those circumstances.

Facts You Should Know When Camping in a Thunderstorm

  • The chances of being struck by lightning are low (and you can further minimize the risk with the right behavior)

  • The location is important: avoid exposed areas such as the edge of the forest or individual trees. Pay special attention to rockfall and flood zones

  • Your car or a secured building provides a (much) safer refuge: your tent won’t protect you from lightning storms. Seek proper shelter ASAP

  • The first flash is a sign of imminent danger: a thunderstorm is already “there” if there is a gap of ten seconds between lightning and thunder

If by any chance you’re stuck outside proper shelter: make yourself small, keep your legs together and distance yourself from other people.

But How Dangerous Is Camping During a Lightning Storm?

A lightning storm can be beautiful, but don't get caught stuck in a tent during one
A lightning storm can be beautiful, but don’t get caught stuck in a tent during one

Kicking off with the good news: according to the Association of German Electrical Engineers (VDE eV), the probability of dying from lightning strikes in Germany is 1 in 20 million a year. This means the risk is 75 times lower than the probability of winning a lottery ticket once a year. Not bad uh?

Even though the study was done for Germany, the chances don’t vary much between different countries, assuming no reckless behavior.

It makes sense then that it’s crucial to keep a cool head in order to keep the risk of rollovers, contact, and step tension as low as possible by adopting the right behavior. Don’t try to be funny – you’ll pay it dearly.

According to the VDE, a normal camping tent does not offer any protection against lightning strikes. So don’t take any chances: either skip the camping trip or seek shelter immediately.

Always remember that it’s not just lightning that’s dangerous during a thunderstorm. Wind, hail, and sharply falling temperatures should not be underestimated. You can also experience heavy rain and the sudden appearance of water masses.

These side effects become even more relevant when wild camping and in the mountains, so never underestimate location.

Don’t Take Chances: Take Cover ASAP

If the weather outside looks like this, skip your camping trip
If the weather outside looks like this, skip your camping trip

If the weather forecast shows that there’s a storm on your way, go find a strong building (such as a mountain hut) or get inside your vehicle (if nearby). Always avoid staying in a tent: not only won’t a lightning proof tent protect you, but most of the tents attract lightning.

Tents are very different from cars when it comes to lightning.

While cars conduct electricity and can keep you safe because they act like a shield and let the lightning’s electricity flow safely into the ground, a tent can’t do that.

If lightning strikes occur and hit your tent, the electricity won’t go smoothly into the ground. Instead, it will jump around and can even build up in the ground under the tent, which is really dangerous. We repeat: avoid tents during a lightning storm.

Still not convinced? Keep reading.

If you’re close to the tent’s frame during a lightning storm and your body is better connected to the ground than the tent poles, there’s a risk of sparks. And sparks mean that electricity can pass through your body, potentially killing you. Serious stuff right? Don’t joke around, this is dangerous stuff.

After this chapter, we hope you now understand that tents don’t protect you from lightning during a thunderstorm.

Where Should You Place Your Tent?

Choose the spot carefully or your tent will end up like this or worse
Choose the spot carefully or your tent will end up like this or worse

If you’re stuck inside your tent during a lightning storm, it’s important to remember the following: always avoid, if possible:

  • Exposed, elevated places on hills or ridges, peaks, dams and embankments

  • The edge of the forest, individual trees or trees standing in small groups

    • Just stay away from trees in general (these attract lightning). Wooden poles should also be avoided

  • Possible flood zones such as dry river courses, hollows, and rocky gullies due to possible heavy rain

  • Your tent should not be at the highest point on an empty & flat plain

  • In the mountains: special attention to places with risk of falling rocks

Forest & Trees

The risk of a direct lightning strike is lower inside a forest of trees of the same height, but there’s more.

The distance to the nearest tall tree and its branches should be of at least ten meters, as lightning storms can also uproot (tall) trees.

Especially in the presence of diseased or shallow-rooted trees, the distance in the event of a storm should be at least the height of the tree, in case it falls over.

Finally, don’t forget to always check the surrounding isolated trees for dead branches that could be blown down by a storm.

Masts & Overhead Lines

Don't place your tent near these
Don’t place your tent near these

The risk is also lower next to metal overhead lines and masts, but you should ensure a distance of at least one to three meters.

As a rule of thumb, the maximum distance should be no further than the height of the object minus 2.5 meters.

However, you should still avoid camping next to overhead lines. There is no problem if they are well engineered and properly maintained, but if the ground grid below the tower is not sufficient, there is a step potential.

How to Further Prepare Your Tent

Besides spending time carefully picking the best location, and keeping an eye on nearby shelters, you should also:

  • Know where the water will converge if there’s heavy rain

  • Bring waterproof gear (we wrote an article on other stuff to bring camping here)

  • Ensure your tent is fully roped to withstand strong wind

You’re Stuck In Your Tent – What Do You Do?

A tent does not act like a faraday cage!
A tent does not act like a faraday cage!

You’re stuck in your tent, and have to endure the thunderstorm. What should you do?

  • A cliche but always true: remain calm and secure the tent as best as possible / tie it down properly

  • Squat on an insulating, dry surface with your feet together and with shoes on

    • Sleeping mats don’t offer any protection so don’t try to lie down

  • Do not touch your tent mates

  • Keep as much distance as possible from the tent’s inner walls and tent poles (especially metal ones)

  • Remove any cables connected to the power supply

  • Remove metal wires and cords strung between tents and trees (clotheslines), or do not tension them at all

  • Remove plastic plates or rubber caps on the pole feet for better grounding

  • Do not touch or use any devices, including cell phones connected to the cable network

Stuck Outside?

Ideally you would find a shelter to get cover while the storm passes but in the event you can’t, read on.

You’ll be somewhat protected against direct lightning strikes near metal pylons over three meters high, under overhead lines (but not near wooden pylons), overhanging canopies, or under covered metal structures.

However, always remember to keep a distance of at least three meters from masts, walls, supports, and components of the lightning protection system, but no more than the height of the object minus 2.5 meters (otherwise no protection is afforded).

In the case of a metal bus stop, the largest possible distance recommended is in the middle of the open side.

In any case, keep your legs closed due to the tension and keep some distance from your friends or family.

If you’re taking cover in stone huts, sit in the middle & as far away as possible from the walls.

It is also relatively safe in caves, under rock ledges, or at the foot of rock faces, but the rock should not be touched, and a distance of at least one, preferably three meters, should be maintained.

Wooden huts such as barns or barns do not offer any protection. You might as well stay outdoors.

Finally, hollows, ravines, or lower ground in the terrain (but away from danger sources and flood zones) where you can stay in a squatting position with your feet together are also good choices (with a minimum distance of one to three meters between people).

Distance: When is a Thunderstorm Dangerous?

"When thunder roars, go indoors" - CDC
“When thunder roars, go indoors” – CDC

The first thunder should be heard as a warning that it is time to immediately leave particularly vulnerable areas such as peaks and mountain ridges, open fields, the edge of the forest, or individual trees.

If you can hear the thunder, it means that the lightning storm is likely within a radius of less than ten kilometers from your position.

A very old rule from ancient times says that the elapsed seconds between seeing the lightning and hearing a thunder divided by three gives the distance in kilometers.

Two final rules of thumb to bear in mind:

  • The first flash of a thunderstorm is a sign of imminent danger

  • The all-clear is given 30 minutes after the last thunder

FAQs

Can I stay safe in a tent during a thunderstorm?

No, tents do not provide protection from lightning strikes during a thunderstorm. Lightning is still a danger to occupants inside tents, and sparks can occur if people touch the tent’s frame. If possible, seek safer shelter.

What is the 30-30 rule for lightning?

From the moment you see a thunder, start counting until you hear it. If less than 30 seconds elapse, the thunderstorm is close to you.

Do tents attract lightning?

Tents do not attract lightning but they also can’t protect you.