Can You Survive a Lightning Strike in Your Tent?
The National Weather Service provides us with a fairly unequivocal, no-nonsense answer to the above when it states:
“Don’t kid yourself…a tent offers NO protection from lighting.”
Lightning.org put it a little more mildly but no less convincingly with the following:
Tents and lightning can be a lethal combination for outdoor enthusiasts…Too often, we see individuals hunkering down in unsafe, outdoor “shelters” like tents, cabins, pavilions, porches, canopies and stadium dugouts during thunderstorms—behavior the LSA Team is working to combat by continually emphasizing the importance of finding a lightning-safe ‘place’ rather than a ‘shelter’.Lightning.org
In short, your pop-up tent is no place to be during a thunderstorm and, rather than provide protection from a strike, is only likely to lessen your chances of survival. Lighting will always seek the shortest route to the earth’s surface and because your tent presents a larger, taller target, you are more likely to be struck when taking cover inside it than if your distance yourself from the tent and assume the emergency position (more on this below).
Oft-voiced myths about the ability of tent poles to act as conductors to electric charges and thereby spare you a roasting are just this—myths. Most of the poles used in modern tents are made with carbon fibers, specialized plastics, or aluminum, none of which are capable of conducting the full force of a strike away from a sleeper who, in all likelihood, will be within two feet of where the pole would be conducting the electric charge to.
The take-home? You can survive a thunderstorm in your tent, but only if lightning doesn’t strike it. If it does, then you are highly likely to be, as the expression goes, toast.
What to Do If Caught in a Thunderstorm When Camping
Where lightning is concerned, as with most aspects of outdoors safety, making sure you don’t get yourself into a sticky situation on the first place is far easier than getting out of it once you’re in it. As such, before leaving home, it’s wise to check at least three weather forecasts to get a reliable consensus on conditions and assess risk. If the risk of a thunderstorm is above 10%, our advice is simple: take a rain check.
Obviously, though, forecasts can be wrong, and unexpected thunderstorms can appear despite the blue-skied, cloud-free promises of the meteorologists. If that happens, the precautions we should take to maximize our chances of staying safe are as follows:
If camping in the frontcountry—that is, near civilization or substantial buildings that can act as shelters (houses, mountain huts, etc.)—then the way to ensure your safety is straightforward: take cover indoors or inside a vehicle (with the doors and windows closed) and wait for the storm to pass.
Naturally, if you happen to be camping in the backcountry when a thunderstorm rolls in, things are a little different. If your tent happens to be higher than surrounding features in the terrain, then you are at increased risk of being struck by a direct ground strike. And if you have pitched your tent in a forest or any other location where it is not the highest point in the immediate vicinity, there is still a high risk of being struck by a sideflash, indirect strike, or ground current, all of which can be fatal.
So, what to do?
When on any trip in the backcountry, if you think there’s even the slightest risk of a thunderstorm, pitch your tent in a spot that is not on exposed peaks or ridges, wide-open terrain, or near any solitary trees. The ideal location is in low-lying terrain or in a ravine or gully.
If you are in your tent when you hear a thunderstorm approaching and cannot reach a suitable shelter safely, leave everything in your tent, distance yourself at least 100 feet from the tent or any other tall object in the terrain (rocks, trees, hillocks, or ridges) and assume the emergency position. Here’s how that’s done:
Crouch down with your feet and knees together, your chest on your knees, head tucked down, and with your hands covering your ears and eyes closed.
This position both minimizes your exposure and encourages any strike that does hit you to pass down your back, hopefully without damaging your vital organs. Covering your ears and closing your eyes will also protect them from the noise and flashes of light from nearby strikes.
Finally, whether taking shelter in a building or vehicle or in the emergency position, be sure to leave at least thirty minutes after the last rumble of thunder has passed before returning to your tent.