Camping and Lightning Safety

Photo: Courtesy of the National Weather Service.

This Trailblazer Tuesday, we are talking about camping and lightning safety with the National Weather Service’s lightning expert, John Jensenius.  In fact, he is sharing some lightning safety tips that may shock you.

As you know, on Trailblazer Tuesday we interview an outdoorsman or woman about their passion for the outdoors.

Today’s Trailblazer is John Jensenius, NOAA’s Specialist on Lightning Safety.

John serves as a national spokesperson for the organization on issues related to lightning and lightning safety.  John has made live appearances on network programs such as the Today Show and the CBS Early Show and has also appeared as a lightning expert on special programs related to lightning including several aired on The Weather Channel.

Hello, Mr. Jensenius.  It is such an honor to have you here with us today.  While preparing for this interview, I realized that there are so many misconceptions about lightning.  We are hoping you can dispel these common myths.  But before we learn about camping and lightning, we’d like to learn a little more about you.

At A Little Campy, we talk a lot about family camping and other outdoor activities.  What are some of your favorite outdoor activities?  The activity I’m involved in most often is running.  I typically run about 5 miles a day in both the winter and summer, but sometimes I’ll run longer distances if I’m training for a long race.  I’ve run several marathons including the Boston Marathon.  But most of all, I enjoy running trails through the woods where I can enjoy nature and frequently see deer, turkeys and other birds and animals.  I also attend many local high school track and cross country meets where I take photos and give them to local newspapers.  During the summer, I usually spend two weeks each year vacationing on a lake in the Adirondacks where I enjoy sailing, windsurfing, rowing, swimming, canoeing and hiking.  I particularly enjoy going out on the lake early in the morning (often before sunrise) and watching nature as the sun rises.

That sounds like a wonderful vacation- both active and relaxing at the same time.  So let’s talk about lightning safety. It seems that while people are enjoying their outdoor activities, they are reluctant to stop this activity and seek shelter.  During a thunderstorm, when should you seek shelter?  Yes, you’re absolutely correct–people are often reluctant to stop an activity when thunderstorms threaten.  Unfortunately, that reluctance leads to lightning deaths and injuries each year.  Anytime you hear thunder, you need to get to a safe place immediately.  It’s better to get to that safe place before you hear the thunder if you see signs of a developing storm.  Just remember, “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!”

Are tents at risk for being struck by lightning?  How about an RV?  Tents are NOT SAFE.  Tents can be struck directly if they are out in the open; they can be struck from a side flash if they are under a tree; or they can be struck by ground current.  A tent is a very dangerous place to be in a thunderstorm.  For an explanation of direct strikes, side flashes, and ground current, please see the following link.

The RV should be safe provided that you are completely inside with the windows closed.

Where should you go during a thunderstorm while camping?  There is no safe place outside, so it is important that you get inside a substantial building or a hard-topped metal vehicle.  If you have a trip planned, you’ll want to check the forecast to see if thunderstorms are in the forecast.  If they are, you may want to cancel or postpone the trip.  In addition, if you are going to be camping, make sure that you can get to a safe place in case an unexpected thunderstorm develops.  Note that small sheds and rain shelters do not protect you from lightning.

Is it possible to feel electricity in the air?  Lightning is electricity moving through the air, so yes, you certainly would feel a lightning strike.  Prior to a lightning strike though, you may feel or see signs of charge movement in the air or in you.  This may include a tingling sensation, or having your hair standing on end.  Some people have described a funny odor or a snapping sound as charges build up and start to move through the air.

Will wearing rubber soled shoes during a thunderstorm decrease your risk of getting struck by lightning in your home?  Rubber soled shoes do nothing to protect you from lightning.  If you are inside your home, you should be fairly safe as long as you don’t touch anything that is plugged into the wall, are not in contact with any plumbing (including sinks, tubs, and showers), stay away from windows and doors, and stay off corded phones.  Cordless phones and cell phones are safe to use provided that you’re in a safe place.

Is it true that you can judge how far away lightning is striking by counting the seconds from when you hear the thunder until you see the lightning?  Yes, but it’s the other way around– the lightning comes first.  Count the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of the thunder, then divide by five.  That will tell you how many miles away you were from the strike.  So, if there’s 10 seconds between the lightning and thunder, the lightning strike was two miles away.  Keep in mind though that you should be in a safe place when you are counting.  Also, remember that this only tells you where the last lightning strike was… it doesn’t tell you where the next one will be.

Thank you so much for joining us today around our virtual campfire, Mr. Jensenius.  I’ve found that I know a lot more (and a lot less) than I thought I did about lightning.  So glad you helped us seperate the truth from the myths.

More Shocking Facts about Lightning

  • Over 80% of lightning victims are male.
  • Over 60% of lightning fatalities happen when people are engaged in leisure activities.
  • About 34% of victims are outside far away from safe shelter engaging in summertime activities such as bicycling, hiking, camping, and fishing.
  • Most lightning victims are close to safe shelter but wait too long to get there.

For more information about lightning safety, visit the National Weather Service’s Lightning Page.

I’ll see ya around the campfire.



John Jensenius is NOAA’s specialist on lightning safety and serves as a national spokesperson for the organization on issues related to lightning and lightning safety.  He has developed a considerable amount of educational material on lightning, and tracks and documents lightning fatalities nationwide.  John has worked with numerous organizations such as Little League Baseball to promote lightning safety among their participants.  In 2001, John initiated the first “national Lightning Safety Awareness Week”, an effort that has continued to grow since its inception.  For his work in lightning safety education, John was honored with the National Weather Association’s 2005 Public Education Award.  In 2006, in recognition of his efforts to initiate NOAA’s lightning safety efforts and for his contributions to that effort, John was awarded a Department of Commerce Silver Medal, the Departments second highest honor.

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