Is your “shelter” from the storm a lightning safe place? Reminders about the dangers of tents and thunderstorms.

Tents and lightning can be a lethal combination for outdoor enthusiasts. Knowing when to seek safe or “safer” shelter is an important part of lightning risk reduction during thunderstorm season.

It’s July and it’s hot and humid. The dog days of summer have settled in, and so has lightning. And if you happen to be a camping enthusiast, or a guest at humid outdoor event, odds are that you could find yourself under a tent and in the midst of an approaching thunderstorm. While tents provide shelter from heat, sun and rain, it’s important to remind outdoor enthusiasts that tents and lightning can be a lethal combination. So what do we need to know about tents and lightning safety?

According to John Gookin, PhD and author of National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Lightning, the proper response to lightning can differ, depending on whether or not we find ourselves in a “frontcountry” or “backcountry” environment. Gookin describes frontcountry as “urban, suburban, rural or even distant areas in the countryside that offer shelter from lightning in the form of modern buildings with wiring and plumbing or vehicles with solid metal bodies.” Conversely, backcountry is defined as “any area more than an hour’s travel away from definitive medical care; noting that ‘travel’ in backcountry can often involve hiking, boating or horseback riding.”

Tents are often equipped with aluminum poles which resemble blunt-head LPS air terminals (lightning rods). It’s important to emphasize that these poles do not provide any type of lightning protection or lightning safety for occupants.

If a thunderstorm approaches as you happen to be under a tent in the frontcountry, the safest response is always “when thunder roars, go indoors” or to immediately head for a substantial building or fully-enclosed vehicle and stay there for 30 minutes until the storm. Once the storm has safely passed you can feel safe to resume your outdoor activities or return to the tent setting. As a side-note, it’s important to clarify that tents equipped with aluminum poles which resemble blunt-head LPS air terminals (lightning rods) DO NOT provide any type of lightning protection or lightning safety for occupants.

Unfortunately, tent safety during a thunderstorm in the backcountry can be extremely challenging. If the tent stands higher than nearby objects or is under a tree, you could be at an increased risk of being struck by lightning or suffering exposure to sideflash or ground current—all which can be deadly. When reviewing lightning safety options for tent occupants in the backcountry, NOLS emphasizes the following:

·   Schedule camping excursions in accordance with local weather patterns, avoiding times when thunderstorms are in the forecast.

·  Acquaint yourself with the terrain prior to setting up your tent site and avoid lone trees, wide-open ground and exposed peaks and ridges.

· Seek lower terrain and ravines for tent sites when possible.

· Remember that no place outdoors is safe from lightning when a thunderstorm is overhead! Anticipating the hazard, erring on the side of caution and having a pre-arranged plan of action can greatly reduce your risk of being a lightning victim.  

In his book, Gookin shares 12 case studies involving real life lightning events; including his account of a tragic incident at Colorado’s Lookout Point in September 2007, where a 21 year-old man (John Cowan, an enlisted army soldier in between tours in Iraq), was struck and killed during a weekend hike with three friends. Gookin writes:

Lightning struck Lookout Point near the tent a 6:52 p.m. Cowan’s three companions were standing in the tent at the time; they received only minor injuries and survived the strike. Cowan, however was lying down and killed instantly. The party’s cell phones were disabled by the electricity, so someone ran to the road to get a passerby to call 911. El Paso Country Search and Rescue responded.”

Gookin describes how a NOAA meteorologist visited the scene and found evidence of multiple tears on the floor of the tent, but no other damage. Evidence reviewed at the scene indicated that ground current killed the young victim and an autopsy revealed the presence of electrical wounds on his elbow and buttocks—which suggested that lightning traveled through his torso.

A summary Gookin’s “Lessons Learned” from the tragic event include these takeaways:

· The campers were 100 yards from parked vehicles which potentially could have provided safe shelter.

· The fact that the lone fatality was the person lying down, supports the theory that reducing one’s ground contact, reduces exposure to ground current.      

· When designing locations for campsites, park and recreational planners should consider the lightning hazard and post signage indicating the potential for dangerous thunderstorms, when appropriate.

It’s important to emphasize that most lightning victims are steps away from a safe place. The vast majority of lightning deaths and injuries occur when people don’t act to take shelter, don’t know to take shelter or leave shelter too early. Often, the best plan for lightning risk management involves three key factors: 1) anticipating potentially hazardous weather; 2) maintaining awareness of changing conditions; and 3) knowing when to move to seek safety; or in some circumstances, finding a “safer” place.

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.”

Please help LPI and the National Lightning Safety Council build lightning safe communities by sharing this timely reminder about tents and lightning safety. For more lightning safety and risk reduction resources, visit