While on a recent RV trip across the country we stayed a few nights at a state park out in the middle of the plains. The park is beautifully set overlooking a pretty lake and is lushly wooded with large Cottonwoods and other deciduous trees. As we pulled in to the site it was apparent something was a-miss. It looked as though the yard maintenance crew had decided to butcher all the trees and leave giant piles of wood everywhere! As we later learned the yard crew was named mother nature and two days earlier she had blasted the campground with 80+ mph winds and large hail.
Our new neighbors had been onsite during the severe storms and explained their experience. They like many were from other areas and not used to the speed in which these storms move across the plains. It is common for severe storms to track along the ground at 35-45 mph. As the evening approached they enjoyed a pretty sunset with lightning off in the distance. As dusk approached they were sitting under the awning when suddenly a massive wind gust hit them in the face. It was immediately followed by large hail, lightning and more wind.
The storm hit the campground about 8PM on an early summer Friday night with every site completely full. The sudden and rapid onslaught of the storm caught the majority of the campers off guard with all fleeing into their RVs for safety. This brings us to tip one for surviving a severe storm in a RV or tent:
Tip 1: Your RV or tent is the last place you want to be in a severe storm
Take a moment to perform a Google Image search using the following keyword “RV after storm”. The stark images of destruction will quickly hammer the point home that your RV or tent is the last place you want to be in a severe storm. First off they are relatively lightweight and easily pushed around, or over, by wind. Second they are not structurally sound enough to protect occupants from falling limbs or trees, Finally they are easily perforated by flying debris.
When camping in severe weather your safest alternatives are a storm shelter, secure building, low lying ditch, or in a vehicle away from trees (vehicle and low lying ditch being the worst options). Obviously the best place to be is not there but should you find yourself “there” get into the most structurally sound place you can find.
At this campground a novice RVer with new trailer and truck was lucky enough to only lose both the trailer and truck. Two large trees came down one crushing the truck and the other splitting the trailer in two. For these novice campers their luck was helped along by advanced preparation. They were locals to the region and knew never to travel without a weather radio; by having early warning they were not in the RV.
Tip 2: Always travel with a weather radio
Our connection to our cell phones can be dangerous during severe storm outbreaks. Cell phone and data lines can be brought down by damaging storms or overloaded by emergency calls. A weather radio is battery operated and connects to dedicated information maintained by the National Weather Service. The automated announcements provide precise information on weather related impacts. For travellers the only problem is the use of counties for storm warnings; keep a mental note of the county you are in to ensure you get accurate and timely information.
By monitoring the weather radio the above noted family had already moved to a safe structure and only lost property. While their camping trip ended early and badly they can replace both items and camp again in the future.
Tip 3: Plan around the weather (if you can)
During our travels we purposely left buffer days to allow for weather. We were aware of this storm system that hit the park a few days earlier and we stayed in the mountains an extra day to allow the front to pass. By waiting for a weather window we were able to avoid travelling in front of the approaching system instead crossing the plains after the storm.
Severe storms are the most likely hazards to encounter in a campground and being ready to deal with them can make the difference between life and death for your family. I was inspired to write this after speaking with the family next door. They were unprepared and fled inside a soft sided camper. They lucked out by being located in a site with no large trees that was partially protected by its placement on the lee-side of the campground. My hope is that these tips will help you survive a severe storm and continue camping on. Be safe out there and have fun.