Camping SOS-Severe Weather

Let’s be honest here. Camping in the rain sucks. Camping in a thunderstorm is dangerous. And camping in a cyclone? Well that’s just plain silly. But sometimes, no matter how well you plan, you just get caught out. So what do you do when severe weather hits? Here are my tips for braving a lightning storm or cyclone.

 thunder clouds over road in outback

Photo credit: Jimmy Deguara

Predicting weather without a forecast

For millennia, people have looked to the skies to predict what the weather might bring. In today’s world, we don’t need to do it for ourselves-we have information collected for us and distributed via the TV, radio, internet or newspaper.

When you’re camping remotely, you may not have the luxury of accessible regular weather updates (though it does pay to check the Bureau of Meteorology website before you leave). Fortunately, if you’re observant, there are signs all around us that can tell us when the weather might turn.

  • Watch the wildlife. Animals senses are a lot more in tune with natural weather indicators than ours are. Before rain, ants will build their hills with steeper sides (so watch for increased activity), turtles will seek higher ground (and can often be spotted on the road), and seagulls will avoid flying and take shelter on the coast. In the lead up to a storm, cows will often congregate, and will lie down if thunder is brewing. Birds often fly lower before a storm, and it is believed that doing so alleviates pressure in their ears, caused by a rapid fall in air pressure. Tree frogs call when they detect a fall in barometric pressure, and this usually means rain within 24 hours. If Kookaburras call in the middle of the day, it’s a sure sign of rain to come.
  • Look at the sky. Cirrus clouds indicate a weather change in the near future. If a ring is visible around the moon, it’s fair to assume it will rain in the next few days. Cumulonimbus clouds indicate severe weather.
  • Listen to your body. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to indicate that sensitive people, especially those with arthritis, have heightened joint pain or headaches when air pressure drops.
  • Breathe! Moisture in the air before rain doesn’t just cause a bad hair day; it will also strengthen the natural smells around you.

A Cumulonimbus cloud signals the arrival of a thunderstorm in Coffs Harbour. Image Credit: Drew Hopper Photography (c)

Lightning Storms

If you’re caught in a severe storm while camping, you need to know what to do to stay safe. Obviously, being hit by lightning is a rarity, but it does happen!

  • Using the following 30/30 rule is a good way of improving your level of personal safety during a thunderstorm. If the length between the lightning flash and the sound of thunder is 30 seconds in length or less (i.e. less than 10 kilometres away) you should seek shelter immediately.
  • A house, shop, or other stable and enclosed undercover area is your best bet. Tents often contain metal poles which are a dangerous conductor during a storm. If you need to stay in your tent, avoid touching or being close to the tent poles.
  • A fully enclosed car/van or truck is another safe option. If a car is struck, the lightning will travel around the outside of the metal framed vehicle, essentially protecting the passengers within from electric shock. Just keep your hands away from the door handles, and ensure equipment is turned off. Tyres are not good insulators when considering the enormous high voltage currents from a lightning strike.
  • If you’re away from your car or other shelter, seek lower ground, away from wide open spaces.
  • If you are exposed to the elements with nowhere to shelter, try to make yourself as small as possible, by crouching down with your feet together, hands on knees and head tucked in. This technique keeps as much of you off the ground as possible. Lightning will not necessarily target the highest object in an area, but the object providing a path with the least resistant to ground. Try to do this in an area that provides the best protection for you. Do NOT lie down and do NOT stand in shallow water. If you feel your hair stand on end, drop into the position described above immediately. Your body contains a lot of moisture and is relatively a good conductor, it is therefore important to keep your feet together to minimise any current flow caused by radial energy from the strike zone passing through your body.
  • If there is a group of you seeking shelter and you’re out in the open, spread out where possible.
  • Shallow caves are not safe options. Lightning can jump from the top of the gap to the bottom, passing through you.
  • Wait 30 minutes after hearing the last rumble of thunder to come out of wherever you took cover in.
  • If someone is hit by lightning, call emergency services immediately. Ensure your safety next by making sure the lightning strike has not placed you in any danger, or will put you in danger when you offer assistance. If the only source of electricity was from the lightning strike you will not receive an electric shock from touching them. A lightning strike is not usually instantly fatal; however a victim’s heart or breathing (or both) may have stopped. A quick assessment and possible application of CPR may be required to save their life. People who are struck by lightning often suffer from severe burns and shock, both must be treated for with extreme care.

 storm in Darwin at night

A lightning storm in Darwin


Complete Campsite camper trailers are tough. Really tough. But they are no match for a tropical cyclone, with winds that can reach over 290km/h in a category 5 storm. So the best advice we can give for camping in a cyclone is to not be there in the first place. Seriously. The Bureau of Meteorology website, news channels, and radio stations give plenty of warning about these storms. Their path can be very unpredictable though, so perhaps it’s best to rethink your plans to visit the top end during cyclone season.

Tropical Cyclones generally occur in the Northern parts of Australia from November to May. The coastal stretch from Exmouth to Broome in WA has the highest incidence of tropical cyclones in Australia.

They’re now less frequent then they were in the past, but they are beginning to get more intense. A cyclone watch is issued 48 hours before its predicted landfall, and is updated every six hours. A cyclone warning is issues 24 hours before its arrival and is updated every three hours.

If you have no choice but to stay in the area of an approaching cyclone, here are a few tips.

  • Don’t try to brave it out. Take what you can and evacuate. For information on where to go, contact Cyclone Action Advice in WA 132 500, NT 131 444, or QLD 132 500.
  • Take a list of emergency numbers with you and leave it in your wallet. Your phone may not be able to get charged for a few days.
  • Click here for some information on how to tie down a caravan or lightweight structure in preparation of high winds.
  • Ensure your fuel and water tanks are full, and that you have plenty of food to last a few days. Keep some cash on you, in case electricity is down and you can’t access an ATM.
  • When you have found suitable, safe shelter, beware the calm ‘eye’ of the storm. If the wind drops, the cyclone isn’t over. Violent winds will soon resume from the other direction. Wait for the official ‘all clear’ and stay safe inside.
  • If there is any damage to your trailer or other belongings, take photos as soon as you can for insurance purposes

 aerial view of cyclone

Cyclone Yasi

Additional resources


Bureau of Meteorology

Or call: QLD 1300 659 212, NT 1300 659 211, or WA 1300 659 210

Department of Fire and Emergency Services in WA

Northern Territory Emergency Services

Emergency Management QLD

State Emergency Services NSW

Words by Katie James

How useful was this post?

Average rating / 5. Vote count: