A very lucky group of nine Girl Scouts narrowly escaped being struck by lightning last week in the remote Minnesota wilderness — and serves as a reminder of the dangers RVers and campers face when rough weather rolls in.
If you think what the Girl Scouts faced was an isolated incident, think again.
Over the last 20 years, the U.S. averaged 51 fatalities from lightning strikes. In terms of deadly weather, that’s second behind floods.
Further, the Lightning Safety Council reports that camping is the third most common activity people are doing when struck by lightning.
And though Florida has the dubious distinction of being home to the most lightning-related deaths, they can happen just about anywhere throughout the U.S. — especially where people are doing outdoor-related activities like RVing and camping.
That’s why not too long ago, I talked with John Jensenius, a lightning specialist meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to get the scoop on how RVers and campers should deal with the very real possibility of lightning.
The first thing I asked?
What’s up with campers being prone to lightning strikes?
“Well, the fact that people are outdoors, and a lot of the times, they’re in tents, which leaves them completely unprotected from the dangers of lightning, so when we talk about lightning, in order to be safe, you need to get to a safe place,” Jensenius said. “And in terms of camping, and especially if you’re some distance from safety, it can take a while to get there, and if it’s at night, people just can’t get to safety in time.
“So it’s always good to plan ahead so you can get to a safe place,” he added.
Jensenius said the biggest mistake people make is waiting too long to get to a safe place. He explained that lightning can strike outward from a thunderstorm as much as 10 miles, or about the distance we can hear thunder.
“So if you’re hearing thunder, even a distant rumble, you are in danger of being struck and need to get to that safe place immediately,” he said. “I think part of the problem is that people just simply don’t want to be inconvenienced by a thunderstorm, particularly if they perceive it as being somewhat distant.”
Of course, we obviously know we can’t do normal storm safety stuff like heading to a basement, etc. So I asked him what campers or RVers should do.
“Well, the most important thing to know about lightning is that it comes down somewhat blindly from the sky,” Jensenius said. “It does tend to strike the tallest objects in the immediate area, so you don’t want to be near the tallest object, or you don’t want to be the tallest object.
“But really, when it comes down to it, where you want to be is inside, either a substantial building that has wiring and plumbing, or else inside a hard-topped metal vehicle,” he said. “And that metal vehicle will provide you with safety.”
Contrary to popular belief, Jensenius said it isn’t the rubber tires of a vehicle that help keep people safe. Rather, it’s the metal.
That means RVers who take cover in their vehicles should be safe.
“The more metal around you, the safer you’re going to be,” he said. “So if (an RV) has a metal frame around the RV itself, it’s probably fairly safe, particularly if it has a metal shell. Makes it even safer. But for the most part, you’re going to be safe inside an RV.”
Jensenius also offered some advice on how to pick campsites that might be less prone to lightning danger.
Specifically, he said, avoid setting up camp near trees that are very tall.
“Lightning tends to strike the tallest object, so you would want to stay away from any of the taller trees,” he said. “But the other part of it is, of course, the wind. Wind often snaps trees or uproots trees, so again, if you can get away from those taller trees, particularly the pines, you’ll be safer that way.”
Of course, when we out trying to enjoy Mother Nature, we don’t just sit at camp all day and night — some of us like to get out and do stuff like hiking.
Hiking can be an amazing part of the RV and camping experience, but according to Jensenius, also be a very dangerous part when lightning is involved.
“Well, that becomes a very dangerous situation, and the truth of the matter is that once you’re in that situation, there’s not an awful lot you can do to be safe,” he said. “So rather than trying to figure out what to do when you’re out there and a thunder storm arrives, it’s important to try and plan ahead, so that you don’t get in that situation.”
That means listening to weather forecasts and being aware of what the weather is doing in your area, such as if clouds are developing vertically into cumulonimbus clouds, aka thunderstorm clouds. Also, pay attention to the time of day. As many of us know, thunderstorms often will form and move into an area in the later part of the afternoon.
If you do find yourself in a sketchy situation, Jensenius advises to run as fast as possible to a safe area.
“The one thing we do recommend in that situation is that you run as quickly as you can toward a safe place,” he said. “You may not be able to get there within five minutes, 10 minutes, but a typical thunder storm may last 30 minutes or more. So that may allow you time to be safe from at least a part of a thunderstorm.
“The other thing it does, is it keeps one foot off the ground, if you’re running,” he said. “And that, in fact, actually reduces the chances of the ground current affecting you.”
If you’re looking for more information on lightning and lightning safety, there’s a ton of info out there. Here are a few links:
- Back Country safety – https://www.weather.gov/media/safety/backcountry_lightning.pdf
- Real Time Lightning Map https://www.lightningmaps.org
- Lightning warning app – https://www.weatherbug.com/alerts/spark