Signs of a Storm Coming

Know when to cut your camping trip short…

We here at 12 Survivors are big believers in not letting a little rain or chilly temperatures ruin a good camping trip. (There are expert tips for camping in the rain here and here.) In fact, we have plenty of advice on how to still enjoy yourself when it’s not sunny and 75. We also encourage everyone to spend their time outdoors as safely as possible. The threat of severe storms needs to be taken seriously and if high winds, hail and lightning are in the forecast, it can be unsafe to stay outside.

Camping in the rain doesn't have to ruin your trip if you are prepared; however, if there is a thunderstorm and lightning, you need to take cover.

A little rain never hurt anyone but if there is lightning, you should seek proper shelter.

As with any trip, preplanning is key to smooth sailing—especially when hiking or camping. Packing the right gear is what stands between having a good time or a bad time. Forgetting even the simplest thing can have you scrambling to creatively make up for the loss. Have you ever tried flipping burgers without barbecue tools? Yeah, it’s no fun.

Anyway, that’s why packing lists and a little research pay off. Pay special attention to the weather forecast and pack accordingly, even if there isn’t a cloud in the sky when you leave home. Spring storms are unpredictable and can happen quickly. Here are some severe weather warning signs:

Keep Your Head in the Clouds

Clouds alone aren’t a guarantee rain is on the way, however, certain types of clouds and how they form are a good indicator rain or a thunderstorm is coming. There are three main severe-weather clouds to look out for: cumulus, shelf (arcus/roll) and wall clouds.

Cumulus/Cumulonimbus Clouds

Cumulus clouds look like giant cotton balls but if they start turning gray, thick and piling on top of each other, there is probably a storm coming.

Cumulus clouds are white and fluffy.

Cumulus clouds are the fluffy, cotton ball-looking ones. They usually have a flat base and rounded, billowy top—often referred to as having a cauliflower-type appearance. They are formed when warm air carrying water vapor from the ground rises. When the warm air rises, it meets cold air and forms water, making the cumulus cloud. These low-level clouds (about 100 meters above the ground) are usually white.

When cumulus clouds form quickly, turn gray and thick, grow taller or pile on top of each other it is a very good indicator a storm is brewing. These types of clouds form thunderstorms and the ability to produce hail and tornadoes.

Shelf (Arcus/Roll)

Shelf clouds, named due to their shelf like stacked appearance form in front of high winds or a thunderstorm

Shelf clouds form in front of a thunderstorm.

These clouds form at the front of strong wind or thunderstorm and have a tiered, ominous appearance. They indicate high, possibly damaging winds.


Wall clouds indicate a possible tornado.

This wall cloud formed in Minnesota.

Wall clouds are a strong indication that a tornado may form. According to Accuweather, wall clouds form “when rapidly rising air causes lower pressure below the storm’s main updraft.” If you spot wall clouds rotating, it is highly likely that a tornado is imminent, maybe even touching the ground within minutes. If you see this, seek solid shelter immediately.

Also, clouds that appear purple, yellow, green or change from white to dark gray, are strong indicators that a storm is looming.


If there is lightning while you are camping, it is safest to seek shelter inside the campground's concrete bathrooms or other structure. Your tent is not the safest place.

The best place to be if there is lightning is indoors, not your tent.

There are 400 reported injuries a year from lightning and around 60 fatalities. Though you have a slim chance of ever getting struck by lightning, you still must take the threat seriously. Even if it is a small one, it’s not worth the risk. All thunderstorms produce lightning. If you hear thunder, there will most likely be lightning. Lightning can also occur without thunder—it can strike as far as 10 miles away from an actual thunderstorm. If you see lightning, get indoors. If you are in the water, whether in a boat or swimming, you need to get out.

A tent isn’t a safe shelter, but your vehicle, camper or travel trailer is. The safest place to be during lightning, hail or a tornado is the campground’s concrete bathroom or designated storm shelter.

While camping and hiking, there is a good possibility you are too far from an inside shelter and will have to protect yourself the best you can in the open. If you are hiking at a higher elevation, go lower. Spread out at least 10-feet away from each other. Drop your metal-framed backpack, trekking poles or anything else you are carrying that has metal parts. Take a towel, sleeping pad, bandana or some other cloth and put it on the ground. This helps insulate you from a lightning strike. Crouch down on the balls of your feet, do not ever lie down, and cover your head and neck with your hands (the lightning safety position.) This position may be difficult for some to achieve or stay in very long. It is also okay to kneel on your knees or sit down cross-legged.

You never want to be the tallest thing when there is lightning, so stay away from open fields and meadows and the tallest trees. This advice might sound confusing, but experts recommend finding a group of smaller trees within a group of larger trees in a low area and then assume the lightning safety position.

A leading lightning expert, Dr. Mary Ann Cooper says, “No action will achieve safety from lightning in the wilderness away from a substantial building or metal-topped vehicle.”

Flash Floods

To escape a flash flood, the best thing you can do is evacuate the area.

The best thing you can do is evacuate if there is flooding.

Setting up camp near the water is really appealing—the view, the fishing, a quick dip in the heat of the day…yet, it can also be very dangerous. A flash flood occurs after heavy rainfall, a dam or levee breach, mudslides or ice/snow melt and are characterized by quickly rushing water within 3 to 6 hours of the event that caused the flood. Many people underestimate the power of a flood—all it takes is two feet of water to sweep away a regular-sized SUV.

To avoid a flood, set up camp at least 200 feet from a body of water or a dry creek or river bed. Never try to cross a body of water, especially one that is fast flowing either on foot or in a car. Seek higher ground during a flood, or better yet, evacuate if you can do so safely.

Other weather signs to look out for:

  • Gradual or fast changes in temperature from warm to cool.
  • A drop in atmospheric pressure. This will require a barometer for you to measure.
  • An abrupt change in the wind
Tent camping in the fall is ideal. The campfire warms you up and you stay cozy and comfortable in the 12 Survivors Shire tent.

Pack the right gear in anticipation of rain and colder temperatures.

State park rangers say they do their best with warning campers about incoming severe weather and will go around evacuating if there is a tornado warning or watch, but ultimately you are responsible for your own safety. It is up to you to be weather aware. Bad decisions and poor planning are dangerous. You should never ignore weather warnings and always be ready to activate your stay safe plan when necessary.

Be Prepared for Weather Changes When Camping/Camping During a Storm:

  • Develop a stay-safe plan
  • Locate the closest shelters
  • Practice the lightning stance
  • Teach children what to do during severe weather
  • Keep your cell phone charged
  • Take a first aid kit
  • Tune into a weather-alert radio
  • Make sure you have a flashlight with plenty of fresh batteries

When bad weather is approaching, you may want to assess how severe or how long the weather is predicted to stick around. Sometimes it is worth it to pack up, call it a day and head into town to a hotel room.

Have you ever been tent camping during a thunderstorm? Do you have any bad weather camping stories to tell us? We’d love to hear what happened and how you dealt with it. Talk to us in the comment section.
Follow 12 Survivors:
Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 0 comments