Header Notice

Winter is here! Check out the winter wonderlands at these 5 amazing winter destinations in Montana

What To Do If There Is A Thunderstorm While Backpacking


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Crista Deane



Backpacking is an exhilarating and adventurous way to explore the great outdoors. But as with any outdoor activity, you need to be prepared for unexpected weather conditions. One of the most powerful and unpredictable natural phenomena is a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms can occur suddenly, bringing strong winds, heavy rain, and lightning strikes. When you’re out backpacking and a thunderstorm rolls in, it’s important to know what to do to stay safe.


In this article, we’ll discuss the necessary precautions and actions to take if you find yourself in the middle of a thunderstorm while backpacking. We’ll cover how to understand thunderstorms, plan ahead, find shelter, pack essential gear, and ensure lightning safety. Additionally, we’ll provide guidance on what to do during and after the storm.


While thunderstorms can be intimidating, being well-informed and prepared will help you minimize the risks associated with them. So, let’s dive in and learn how to handle thunderstorms while backpacking!


Understanding Thunderstorms

Before we delve into the steps to take during a thunderstorm while backpacking, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what thunderstorms are and how they form. Thunderstorms are intense weather disturbances characterized by thunder, lightning, heavy rain, and sometimes hail and strong winds.


Thunderstorms typically develop in warm and humid environments where there is an abundance of moisture and instability in the atmosphere. The three key ingredients necessary for thunderstorm formation are moisture, instability, and an upward lifting mechanism.


Moisture provides the fuel for thunderstorms by supplying the necessary water vapor that can condense and form clouds. Instability refers to an atmosphere where the temperature rapidly decreases with height. This condition allows warm and humid air near the surface to rise rapidly, creating an updraft. The upward lifting mechanism, often caused by frontal boundaries, mountains, or convergence zones, triggers the initial upward motion of the air.


As the warm and humid air rises, it cools, and the water vapor condenses into water droplets or ice crystals, forming towering cumulonimbus clouds. Within these clouds, updrafts and downdrafts coexist, helping to sustain the thunderstorm’s energy and produce the characteristic heavy rain and thunder.


Additionally, lightning is a common occurrence during thunderstorms. Lightning is an electrical discharge that occurs between positively and negatively charged regions within a thunderstorm cloud or between the cloud and the ground. Thunder, on the other hand, is the sound produced by the rapid expansion and contraction of air surrounding a lightning bolt.


Now that we have a brief understanding of how thunderstorms form, let’s move on to the next section and discuss the importance of planning ahead before embarking on a backpacking trip.


Planning Ahead

When it comes to backpacking and outdoor adventures, planning ahead is crucial for your safety and enjoyment. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with the unpredictable nature of thunderstorms. Here are some important steps to take when planning your backpacking trip:

  1. Check the weather forecast: Before heading out on your backpacking trip, always check the weather forecast for the area you’ll be visiting. Pay close attention to any thunderstorm warnings or watches. If there’s a high chance of thunderstorms, consider rescheduling your trip or choosing an alternate destination with a more favorable forecast.
  2. Choose a safe time of year: Research the typical thunderstorm season for the region you plan to backpack in. Try to avoid planning your trip during the height of thunderstorm activity to minimize the risk of encountering severe weather.
  3. Inform others about your plans: Make sure to inform someone reliable about your backpacking plans, including your intended route, expected duration, and estimated time of return. This way, in case of an emergency, someone will know to raise the alarm and seek help if you don’t return as planned.
  4. Stay informed during your trip: While on your backpacking trip, try to stay updated with the latest weather conditions. Use a weather radio or a mobile app to receive real-time weather alerts. Additionally, pay attention to changes in the sky and any signs of approaching storms.
  5. Choose appropriate campsites: When selecting a campsite, opt for areas that provide natural shelter from thunderstorms. Look for protected spots nestled in valleys or areas with dense tree cover that can offer some protection from strong winds and falling branches.

By planning ahead and being well-informed, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of encountering a thunderstorm while backpacking. However, despite all precautions, nature can be unpredictable, and you may find yourself in the midst of a thunderstorm. In the next section, we’ll discuss how to find shelter and what essential gear to pack to stay safe during a thunderstorm while backpacking.


Finding Shelter

When a thunderstorm suddenly rolls in while you’re backpacking, finding suitable shelter becomes critical for your safety. Here are some key considerations when seeking shelter during a thunderstorm:

  1. Seek lower ground: If you’re out in the open when a thunderstorm hits, immediately descend to lower ground. Avoid staying on exposed ridges or hilltops that can attract lightning.
  2. Avoid tall trees: While it may seem logical to take cover under a tree, it’s important to avoid seeking shelter near tall trees during a thunderstorm. Lightning tends to strike the tallest objects in an area, such as trees, and being close to them can increase your risk of being struck.
  3. Look for natural shelters: If possible, try to find natural shelters that can provide protection from the elements. These can include caves, overhangs, rock formations, or large boulders. Make sure to inspect the area for any signs of instability or potential hazards before taking cover.
  4. Keep away from metal objects: Metal objects, such as fences, poles, or metallic camping gear, can conduct lightning and pose a risk during a thunderstorm. Stay away from these objects and avoid touching them.
  5. Stay away from bodies of water: Bodies of water, including rivers, lakes, and ponds, are not safe places to seek shelter during a thunderstorm. Lightning can easily travel through the water and pose a serious threat to anyone in or near it.

It’s important to always have a backup plan and be prepared to seek shelter at a moment’s notice. In the next section, we’ll discuss the essential gear you should carry with you when backpacking to handle thunderstorms and stay safe in adverse weather conditions.


Packing Essential Gear

When backpacking, it’s crucial to be prepared for changing weather conditions, particularly when it comes to thunderstorms. Here are some essential items to pack in order to stay safe during a thunderstorm:

  1. Waterproof backpack and rain cover: Make sure your backpack is waterproof or has a rain cover to protect your gear from getting soaked in heavy rain.
  2. Waterproof tent and groundsheet: A waterproof tent is essential to keep you dry during a thunderstorm. Consider investing in a sturdy tent with a rainfly and a groundsheet to prevent water from seeping in.
  3. Extra clothing layers and rain gear: Pack extra layers of clothing, including a waterproof jacket or poncho, to keep you warm and dry. It’s crucial to avoid getting wet to prevent hypothermia.
  4. Waterproof bags or dry sacks: To protect your valuables, electronics, and important documents, use waterproof bags or dry sacks inside your backpack. This will keep your belongings safe from water damage.
  5. Lightning protection: Consider carrying a portable lightning detector or a weather radio with a built-in lightning tracker. These tools can provide advanced warning of lightning activity in the area.
  6. First aid kit: Carry a well-stocked first aid kit that includes items for treating minor injuries, such as cuts, blisters, and sprains.
  7. Headlamp or flashlight: In case of a power outage or being caught in a storm after dark, a reliable headlamp or flashlight will help you navigate safely.
  8. Emergency shelter or tarp: Consider bringing a lightweight emergency shelter or a tarp that can be quickly set up to provide temporary cover during a thunderstorm.
  9. Emergency whistle and signaling devices: These can be essential in attracting attention and signaling for help, especially in case of an emergency during a thunderstorm.

Properly packing these essential items will not only help you stay safe during a thunderstorm while backpacking but also ensure that you’re prepared for any adverse weather conditions that may arise during your trip. In the next section, we’ll discuss important safety measures and guidelines to follow when lightning becomes a threat during a thunderstorm.


Lightning Safety

During a thunderstorm, one of the greatest dangers is the potential for lightning strikes. Lightning can be deadly and poses a serious risk to anyone caught outdoors. Here are some essential safety measures to follow to minimize the risk of being struck by lightning:

  1. Find a safe indoor shelter: If possible, seek shelter in a sturdy building or a fully enclosed vehicle with a metal roof. These structures provide the best protection from lightning.
  2. Avoid open spaces: Stay away from open fields, hilltops, and other elevated areas. These places make you more vulnerable to lightning strikes.
  3. Avoid tall objects: Refrain from standing near tall objects, such as trees, poles, or metal structures, as they attract lightning. Instead, find shelter in low-lying areas or seek cover under shorter objects.
  4. Get out of the water: If you’re swimming or boating, exit the water immediately and move to a safe location. Bodies of water are excellent conductors of electricity and can increase your chances of being struck by lightning.
  5. Avoid isolated objects: Stay away from isolated objects, such as lone trees, big rocks, or metal fences. These objects can act as lightning conductors and pose a significant risk.
  6. Stay away from electrical equipment: Avoid using electronic devices, including cell phones or portable radios, as these can conduct electricity if struck by lightning. Additionally, stay away from power lines and electrical outlets.
  7. Assume the lightning position: If you’re caught in an open area with no available shelter, crouch down on your toes with your head tucked in and your hands covering your ears. This position reduces your chances of being directly struck by lightning.
  8. Wait for the storm to pass: Do not resume outdoor activities until at least 30 minutes after the last observed lightning or thunder.

Remember, lightning is unpredictable, and taking lightning safety precautions is of utmost importance to protect yourself from this dangerous natural phenomenon. In the next section, we’ll discuss what to do during a thunderstorm to increase your chances of staying safe.


During the Storm

When you find yourself caught in a thunderstorm while backpacking, it’s crucial to take immediate action to maximize your safety. Here are essential steps to follow during a thunderstorm:

  1. Find shelter immediately: Seek shelter in a sturdy structure or a safe natural shelter, such as a cave or an overhang. If no shelter is available, find a low-lying area away from tall objects.
  2. Avoid water: Stay away from bodies of water, including rivers, lakes, or ponds. These areas increase the risk of lightning strikes.
  3. Stay away from metal objects: Steer clear of metal objects, such as fences, poles, or metallic camping gear. These objects can conduct electricity if struck by lightning.
  4. Stay inside your tent: If you’re unable to find proper shelter, stay inside your tent. Make sure your tent is properly set up and can withstand the storm. Avoid touching the tent walls and stay away from the tent’s metal elements.
  5. Wait out the storm: Remain in your sheltered area until the thunderstorm passes. Thunderstorms typically last for a relatively short period of time. Wait for at least 30 minutes after the last observed lightning or thunder before resuming your outdoor activities.
  6. Keep calm and stay low: If you’re caught in an open area during a thunderstorm, crouch down in a low position with your feet together and your head tucked in. Avoid lying flat on the ground.
  7. Monitor the weather: Stay informed about the changing weather conditions during the storm. Use a weather radio or a mobile app that provides real-time updates and alerts.
  8. Stay away from cliffs and steep slopes: Avoid being near cliffs or steep slopes during a thunderstorm. The combination of rain and lightning can increase the likelihood of landslides or rockfalls.
  9. Stay with your group: If you’re backpacking with others, stay together during the storm. Maintain close proximity to each other to minimize the risk of lightning strikes.

Remember, safety should always be your top priority during a thunderstorm. Taking these precautions will help ensure that you stay safe and minimize the risks associated with thunderstorms. In the next section, we’ll discuss what to do after a thunderstorm passes to ensure your continued safety.


After the Storm

Once the thunderstorm has passed, it’s important to proceed with caution and take certain steps to ensure your safety. Here’s what to do after a thunderstorm while backpacking:

  1. Assess your surroundings: Take a moment to assess the area around you. Look for any hazards that may have been created by the storm, such as fallen trees, flooded areas, or debris.
  2. Check for injuries: If you or anyone in your group has sustained an injury during the storm, administer first aid or seek medical attention as needed.
  3. Inspect your gear: Check your backpack, tent, and other equipment for damage caused by the storm. Repair or replace any damaged gear to ensure it functions properly for the remainder of your trip.
  4. Stay alert for flash floods: Be aware that thunderstorms can lead to flash floods, especially in hilly or mountainous areas. Monitor the water levels in nearby rivers and streams, and avoid crossing if they are running high and fast.
  5. Be cautious of slippery conditions: After a thunderstorm, the ground may be wet and slippery. Take extra care when walking on slippery surfaces to avoid falls or injuries.
  6. Resume your activities: If the weather has cleared and it is safe to do so, you can continue with your backpacking trip. Be mindful of any residual risks and stay vigilant for any changes in weather conditions.
  7. Stay updated with weather information: Keep yourself informed about the forecast and any potential weather changes. This will help you make informed decisions and adjust your plans accordingly.
  8. Learn from the experience: Take time to reflect on your experience and learn from it. Consider what precautions you could have taken or what gear you could have packed to be better prepared for future thunderstorms.
  9. Share your experience: If you come across fellow backpackers or hikers, share your knowledge and experience of dealing with thunderstorms. This can help others stay safe and make informed decisions in similar situations.

Remember, even after the storm has passed, it’s important to remain cautious and aware of any potential dangers or adverse conditions that may still exist. By following these post-storm guidelines, you can ensure your continued safety while backpacking.



Thunderstorms are natural phenomena that can pose significant risks, especially when you’re out backpacking. However, with proper understanding, preparation, and caution, you can navigate through thunderstorms safely and continue to enjoy your adventure. By planning ahead, finding suitable shelter, packing essential gear, and following lightning safety protocols, you can minimize the dangers associated with thunderstorms while backpacking.


Remember to always check the weather forecast before your trip, inform others about your plans, and stay updated with real-time weather information during your journey. When a thunderstorm strikes, seek appropriate shelter, avoid tall objects and bodies of water, and wait until the storm has passed before resuming your activities. Take precautions to protect yourself from lightning strikes and be prepared for any eventuality by carrying essential gear such as waterproof equipment, extra clothing layers, and signaling devices.


After the storm has passed, assess your surroundings for any hazards, check for injuries, and inspect your gear for any damages. Stay cautious and be aware of flash flood dangers and slippery conditions. Stay updated with the weather forecast and adjust your plans accordingly. By learning from each experience and sharing your knowledge with others, you can help create a safer environment for fellow backpackers.


Ultimately, the key to handling thunderstorms while backpacking is knowledge, preparation, and remaining calm. By being proactive and taking the necessary precautions, you can mitigate risks and continue to enjoy the beauty and excitement of the great outdoors while keeping yourself and your group safe.