How to Survive a Storm in the Middle of the Woods

Surviving Tornadoes and Flash Floods

A storm brews over the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.
A storm brews over the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.
Robert Glusic/Getty Images

Making it through a thunderstorm can be pretty tricky in the great outdoors, but more extreme weather phenomena can complicate things further. Tornadoes occur during thunderstorms, and with wind gusts exceeding 200 miles per hour (322 kph), they can destroy everything in their paths. Keep an eye out for these tornado warning signs:

  • Still air with little wind
  • Clouds of debris in the sky
  • Greenish sky with funnel descending from clouds
  • Loud sound, similar to a freight train

Campsites in tornado-prone areas usually have a tornado shelter. These underground bunkers are free of windows and designed to protect the population of the campsite. However, if you're camping by yourself in the middle of the woods where there are no tornado shelters, you can still take some precautions be safe. First of all, remove dead branches from trees (if you can reach them) and secure loose items around your camp or bring them into your tent. Seek the closest ditch or depression in the ground, lie facedown and cover your face with your hands.

Flash flooding can also be a dangerous part of the aftermath of a storm. In fact, flash floods and flooding claim more lives than any other weather-related disaster [source: Lobe]. Flash floods that sweep away campers frequently make international headlines. For example, in France, flash flooding near an alpine campsite in an isolated village near Geneva killed 19 people [source: Netter].

Before you set out on your camping excursion, make sure to investigate whether the area you're camping in is prone to flash flooding. If it is, make sure that the campsite you've chosen has sandbags and shovels.

Flooding usually occurs in three different situations: prolonged rainfall over a few days, heavy rainfall over a short period of time or when debris or ice gets in the way of stream or river flow. If you're camping in the woods, you should note that flash floods usually occur within 6 hours of a heavy rain event. Fields and woods that have been developed are more prone to flash flood than areas with natural terrain -- which is good news for the hiker [source: NOAA]. But the American Southwest, because of its claylike dry terrain, which is ill-suited to absorb water, is particularly prone to flash flooding.

Most flash flooding develops as a result of slow-moving thunderstorms or repeated thunderstorms in the same area. If you find yourself in flash flood conditions after a storm, you should immediately get to higher ground. Be aware of the topography of the area in which you're camping and know which direction to go in case of flooding. Don't try to walk through water more than ankle-deep. One foot of water can move up to 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms), and you don't want to be carried away. Lastly, look out for snakes or other animals that might have been relocated during the storm.

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More Great Links


  • Doswell, Chuck. "Thunderstorms and Camping Safety."
  • "Flood and Flash Flood." Disaster Center."
  • "Flash Floods and Floods: An Awesome Power. Preparedness Guide." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. July, 1992.
  • "Lightning Safety." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  • Lobe, Bill. "Weather safety: making weather emergency preparations." Camping Magazine.
  • Netter, Thomas W. "Flooding in France Kills At Least 19." The New York Times. July 16, 1987.
  • "Safe Camping." Open Road: NRMA.
  • "Thunderstorms." Red Cross.
  • "What to Do before a Thunderstorm." Federal Emergency Management Agency.
  • "When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.