My family and I are big on getting outdoors. Camping is a big part of it. When you have kids, staying safe is a priority and that includes during thunderstorms and lightning.
I still remember hearing about a poor couple that died camping on a mountain when a tree they were camping next to was struck by lightning. I don't want that to ever happen to me or my kids.
When heading out on camping trips, we aim for the best conditions, but weather can change on a dime. During a recent trip, we were hit with a good dousing of rain, thunder, and lightning.
The kids were particularly excited, but the adventure prompted me to find out if tents offered any protection at all from lightning and whether or not they are grounded so if lightning struck them would I be ok?
Tents do NOT offer specific grounding features nor any functional protection from lightning or electrical discharge. If struck by lightning the energy will unevenly discharge into the ground and this ground current can travel into your body severely injuring you.
You should avoid lightning strikes by pitching your tent in a safe space – below the tree line, not out in the open and not directly next to trees that may be struck.
Take refuge in an RV, car or fully enclosed building with plumbing or electrical wiring or go outside your tent and get in the squatted lightning position. If taking refuge in a tent stay away from the walls or any metal parts that may conduct electricity.
Lighting Strikes When Camping Do Happen
Lightning strikes in tents are uncommon, however strikes and fatalities during camping do happen and knowing what to do in a thunderstorm is extremely important if you want to keep yourself and your family safe.
According to the National Weather Service analysis between 2006-2019 there were 418 fatalities from lightning strikes in the US. Of these 20 deaths (4.8%) occurred during camping.
The chances of getting struck by lightning while camping are rare, but the effects can be devastating or deadly.
According to the National Weather Service, there are about 25 million lightning strikes in the United States each year, with around 300 people struck by lightning, most of whom were outdoors or using an electrical device during the storm.
Following basic lightning safety when camping will help you avoid most strikes and will help you survive the rare chance that strikes do happen.
Why Aren't Tents Grounded?
Unfortunately a tent is not a safe place during a thunderstorm and when struck they will disperse the energy into the ground which can lead to ground current traveling through your body.
Technically a tent is connected to the ground and will disperse the energy into the ground. However, it will not do this safely in such a way that the people inside the tent are not affected by the lightning.
The electrical current will travel through the ground and is so strong that it'll also likely travel through the bodies of the people inside the tent.
For a tent to be grounded it would need wiring that ran from the top of the tent to a ground point a safe distance from the tent. Most home grounding systems have multiple ground rods to disperse the voltage across multiple different areas.
Alternatively the tent would need to act as a faraday cage, which disperses electricity into the ground while keeping the inhabitants inside the cage safe from any electrical charge. This would need to be made of strong metal and would add an unfeasible amount of weight to the tent.
I don't personally see either of these options as being feasible for a tent.
There was one lightning proof tent that was made as a prototype and showed to be relatively safe from lightning strikes – but this was never brought into production or made widely available.
If lightning strikes are extremely close to your campsite (ie. the time between when lightning is seen as heard is extremely short) it will be much safer to be inside a vehicle instead of a tent until the lightning moves away.
Even if this means you do get a bit wet or sacrifice some sleep. A better option could be postponing your camping or activity until there is getter weather.
Furthermore, it is worth understanding what causes lightning to strike an object and what grounding actually is.
What Does Grounding Actually Mean?
Lightning is made up of electricity, and electricity will always try to find the easiest way to the ground. That means lightning will always try to find the easiest way to the ground.
If your tent is pitched on the top of a mountain peak it'll be closer to the lightning than anything else in the surrounding area.
Electrical grounding, or earthing, is the process of directing electricity to the ground with a wire or other material that conducts electricity. The purpose of grounding is to discharge electricity, lightning included, safely to the ground away from areas where it can do harm to inhabitants.
If you have ever seen a lightning rod on top of a building, you can be sure that it is connected to a cable or electrical system that directs the surge of electricity from a lightning strike directly to the ground where it can be safely dispersed without causing anyone harm.
There was a prototype of a lightning proof tent years ago (you can see the tests done on it below). But from what I can see it never actually made it into full production:
What Kind of Object is Lightning Likely to Strike?
Because lightning is looking for the fastest way to the ground, it will most likely strike objects that are the highest or tallest in a localized area.
This makes isolated tall trees particularly susceptible because a lone tall tree stands much higher than the surrounding earth.
The theme here is evidently clear. Whatever stands out for lightning to strike has the highest chance of being struck.
We’ve all heard of the lone golfer who has been struck twice while out golfing during a thunderstorm, right?
Below in this high-speed footage you can see that lightning will first travel through the air taking multiple different paths. Then once the easiest path is discovered the big strike happens:
Staying Safe When Tent-Camping During a Thunderstorm
Let’s face it, most folks don’t intentionally go camping during thunderstorms, but storms do roll in.
It’s always a good idea to choose a safer camping site in the first place that keeps these tips in mind:
- Avoid setting up your tent in wide open spaces or on hilltops above the treeline
- Avoid setting up your tent under isolated tall trees or near a single tall object
- Avoid pitching your tent too close to large bodies of water, such as a lake or a riverbank where your tent will stand out as a high point
- Avoid setting up your campsite on the edge of forests
- Set up your tent in lower-lying areas
- Set up your tent near smaller groups of trees
If a thunderstorm is on the way, the safest option is to seek cover in a building on a camping site.
Just make sure you stay away from the structure and any materials that conduct electricity while you are inside.
If you’re out in the wilderness, that’s not going to be an option.
The next best option is to take cover in a vehicle with a hard metal roof (most cars and RVs) while keeping the windows closed.
When you don’t have any other choice but to shelter inside your tent, keep these safety precautions in mind:
- Stay away from any parts of the tent that are made of metal or conduct electricity
- Stay clear of the tent’s walls
- Sit in the center of the tent in a crouched position (the lightning position)
- Stop using and turn off any electrical appliances and gadgets, such as electric coolers, lights, and any hand-held devices
- Stay off the ground with an air mattress or a rubber mat (two-ply is the best)
- Use a tarp cover or the tent's rainfly to provide an additional layer of protection and insulation
- Wait for 30 minutes after the last thunderclap