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How to Survive Natural Disasters When Camping

Mandrake is a freelance author with an interest in the outdoors and wilderness survival.

Surviving natural disaster while camping

Surviving natural disaster while camping

Natural disasters can occur anytime and anywhere. Few people bother to consider the possibility that a natural disaster could strike during a camping trip even though hundreds of campers and other outdoor enthusiasts are killed each year by severe weather and other natural hazards.

A little bit of knowledge and preparation can help prevent some of the more common causes of camping fatalities due to natural hazards. Should severe weather or a natural disaster occur during your next camping trip you can increase your chances of survival by being prepared and following a few of the tips provided below.

Following the O.K. Rule is the first step toward ensuring you are prepared for outdoor hazards.

Following the O.K. Rule is the first step toward ensuring you are prepared for outdoor hazards.

Being Prepared

Preparation is key. Most camping fatalities that are the result of severe weather or natural disasters are due to improper planning and poor decisions. Many of the fatalities which occur each year could be avoided just by being oriented and knowledgeable concerning one's environment.

What Is the OK Rule?

The OK Rule should be one of the very first considerations when preparing for any camping trip. Following the OK Rule and obeying normal camp safety procedures can go a long way toward ensuring a safe and enjoyable camping experience and will greatly aid you in being prepared for a disaster. The OK rule consists of two parts:

  1. Orientation
  2. Knowledge

1. Orientation

Knowing your environment and your relationship to it can go a long way in helping you to make good decisions to avoid hazards and act appropriately when seconds count. Before your trip and after your arrival you should study the area, note landmarks, terrain, and bodies of water, and know the location of ranger stations as well as the distances and the approximate direction of travel to any nearby roadways.

Upon arrival at your campsite, you should also note land formations, high points, low points, dry stream beds, and steep areas that might be prone to landslides. Spending a little time studying the area in which you plan to camp just might save your life!

2. Knowledge

Studying the potential hazards and knowing what to do should a natural disaster occur can mean the difference between life and death. Don't be afraid to ask questions! Check with the ranger station before your trip for any potential hazards such as current forest fire risks and landslide or avalanche warnings, and ask them for suggestions on what sort of communications equipment would be most appropriate for obtaining weather reports and emergency services in the area in which you plan to camp.

Monitor the Weather

If you want to be prepared you have to be aware! Weather can be your best friend or your worst enemy, and the ability to obtain weather information before and during your camping trip can be an indispensable tool.

You should know the difference between weather watches and warnings, and consider having at least two means by which to obtain weather information such as a weather radio and a cell phone able to receive weather alerts.

  • Watch means conditions are favorable for the outbreak of a particular weather phenomenon. (ex: Thunderstorm Watch, Tornado Watch)
  • Warning means severe weather is imminent in the warned area. (ex: Severe Thunderstorm Warning, Tornado Warning)

Note: Be sure to know the name of the county and township you will be camping in, and note nearby towns before setting out on your camping trip.

A powerful lightning strike.

A powerful lightning strike.

What to Do When Caught in a Thunderstorm

Lightning is the number one cause of camping fatalities due to weather phenomena and other natural disasters. Approximately one hundred people are killed by lightning strikes each year and thousands more are injured. A common misconception is that you have to be directly struck by lightning in order to be killed by it, but that is simply not the case. The current from a nearby lightning strike can travel through the ground or jump from a nearby object and pass through you if you are close enough to the affected area.

If you find yourself caught in a violent thunderstorm while camping the following course of action is recommended:

  1. If a vehicle or camper is available quickly get inside and stay inside until the storm passes. A tent will not provide you any protection from a lightning strike.
  2. If an appropriate shelter is not available seek shelter in a low-lying area, off of mountain tops, away from bodies of water, and as far away from the tallest object that is within the immediate vicinity as is possible. Do not seek shelter under an isolated tree!
  3. Do not be the tallest object around! Get as low as you can, but squat rather than sitting or lying down. Should lightning strike nearby you could be harmed by the ground current. The more of your body that touches the ground, the longer you will be exposed to any ground currents that may pass through your body.
  4. Stay away from fences and power lines. Lightning can strike power lines, travel along them, and jump to you!
  5. If you are in a heavily wooded area do not run into a clearing; instead, seek shelter in dense forest beneath a group of small trees in a low-lying area or depression.
  6. Always remember that if you can hear thunder you are close enough to be struck by lightning!
  7. Be wary of high winds, hail, and the potential for hypothermia from becoming soaked. Falling and/or flying debris from wind gusts is a very real hazard in forested areas. Stay away from trees that seem to be weak or which have short root systems (like pine trees), and keep an eye out for falling or broken branches!
Flash flooding in Mongolia

Flash flooding in Mongolia

Dealing With Flash Floods

Each year flash flooding claims the lives of campers about as often as lightning strikes. Many of these fatalities were the result of poor planning and a general lack of knowledge concerning the local terrain. If the following four rules would have been followed many of these victims could have been spared their lives:

  1. If walking or driving do not attempt to cross water unless you are certain you know how deep it is and that you can safely cross. Never attempt to drive through water that is deeper than 18 inches, and keep in mind that just six inches of rapidly moving water is enough to sweep a two hundred pound man off his feet.
  2. Do not camp in a dry stream or lake beds, canyons, or near mountain streams. Most flash flooding occurs at night while campers are asleep in their tents or campers where they have washed away without warning.
  3. Always set up camp 200 feet or further from streams and in a flat area above the flood plain.
  4. If caught in a flash flood immediately abandon your gear and climb uphill as fast as possible. Make sure to keep your footing and always try to keep a hold of something sturdy as you attempt to flee uphill and away from danger.
A powder snow avalanche.

A powder snow avalanche.

Surviving Landslides and Avalanches

Landslides and avalanches are extremely dangerous. They can accelerate to speeds of up to 80 mph in just seconds and send tons of mud, dirt, snow, and other debris crashing downhill and plowing over anyone or anything in their path. Your best bet is to avoid loose and steep ground altogether, but if you should find yourself facing a landslide or avalanche there are a few actions you can take in order to increase your chances of survival.

  1. Do not travel up the middle of a steep incline. Landslides and avalanches tend to move towards the center of an incline as they move downhill. The farther you are from the center of the incline the less dirt, snow, and debris you will be left to deal with. Depending on the formation of the incline this is not always the case, but it is generally a good rule to follow.
  2. Avoid camping at or near the base of a steep incline, and do not camp near the edge at the top of an incline.
  3. If you should find yourself caught in a landslide or avalanche the first thing you should do is grab a sturdy tree. The more dirt and snow that is able to move past you without carrying you away or burying you the better.
  4. Swim uphill and paddle hard! You will sink if you do not swim.
  5. Try to remain above the surface. If it is not possible to keep your head above the surface you should try to stick anything that you can above the surface to aid others in locating you for rescue.
  6. If buried, remain calm and inhale deeply, this will create room for you to breathe through the expansion of your chest. You should cup a hand around your mouth to provide for an air pocket. Then breathe slowly to conserve oxygen and reduce the expulsion of carbon dioxide while you await rescue.
Deer seeking water during a wildfire

Deer seeking water during a wildfire

In the Event of a Forest Fire

A wildfire is perhaps the most dangerous and potentially deadly natural disaster which a camper could face. In order to avoid finding yourself in a situation where you are trapped in a burning forest, it is always a good idea to know the current fire danger level and to make certain that someone knows where you intend to be.

Remain alert to potential fires. If you see or smell smoke during the day or see a red or orange glow on the horizon at night, a forest fire is nearby!

If you find yourself trapped in a forest fire you should know that you will be unable to outrun it on foot and although you might be able to out-drive the fire, it may have already downed trees or otherwise cut off any means of escape via vehicle. Should you find yourself in a situation where fleeing from the fire in a vehicle is impossible you should consider the following:

  1. Flee from the fire immediately. Hike downhill and upwind, and avoid dense areas of forest. Try to flank the fire (move around the sides of it).
  2. If you hear crackling or you are able to see sparks flying through the air it is likely that you are already too close to the fire (about ½ mile) to avoid it overtaking you. Should this occur it is best that you try to seek out an area in which you can attempt to weather the inevitable. Lakes, ponds, streams, or large open fields are probably your best bet under such circumstances.
  3. Avoid areas of swampy vegetation as some species of vegetation will burn very intensely.
  4. Clear away dry brush and other potential fuels.
  5. If there is no body of water available, seek out the lowest spot in the area you have chosen or dig a ditch if possible.
  6. Remove all synthetic clothing that could melt to your flesh, cover your head and face with clothing made from natural fibers, wet a cloth and wrap it around your face for fire and smoke protection, and lay down in the ditch. If possible partially cover yourself with dirt.
  7. As the fire approaches try to remain calm. You should know that the fire could take several minutes to pass and the heat will likely be unbearable, but if you attempt to flee at this time death is almost a certainty.
  8. Once the fire passes the danger is not over. The ground and debris will still likely be very hot and extreme caution should be used when fleeing from the area.
  9. Try to avoid exposing any burns you may have sustained to dirt and open air. The potential for infection will be very high and extra precautions should be taken.
  10. Seek help as soon as possible!
Blizzard snowfall amounts could easily bury a campsite.

Blizzard snowfall amounts could easily bury a campsite.

Caught in a Blizzard

A blizzard is a winter storm that is capable of producing high winds, extremely cold temperatures, and heavy precipitation that often causes very low visibility referred to as a white-out. If you are caught camping in the wilderness during a blizzard your chances of survival will be dependent upon your ability to provide shelter and warmth for yourself. These six tips can mean the difference between life and death:

  1. If a vehicle is available seek shelter in it immediately, and place a flag on the antenna or hang it from the window to alert rescuers to your whereabouts.
  2. If no vehicle is available and there are no cabins or homes nearby, you should plan to utilize your camping shelter as your primary source of shelter from the storm. If that is not possible you will have to attempt to construct a small shelter as quickly as possible using pine branches and any other available materials (even snow). If you are forced to use a tent it would probably be best if you could relocate it beneath a group of evergreen trees to provide some protection from the wind and snow. Although there is a chance that branches could break under the weight of snow and ice or the tree could be uprooted by high winds there is probably at least as great a chance that you will have inadequate protection without the additional shielding of the forest cover. Blizzards can dump several feet of snow and create snowdrifts as high as twenty feet. Most tents have an average height of just three to five feet.
  3. Keep warm. Shield yourself from wind, add extra layers of clothing when appropriate, and shelter in a small area with adequate ventilation in order to trap body heat.
  4. Do not attempt to travel during the storm. Poor visibility may make it impossible to see farther than a few feet from your current location. In a blizzard, it is easy to become lost or disoriented due to poor visibility. Many individuals have died just a few feet from the safety of shelter due to the disorientation that is caused by white-out conditions.
  5. Do not eat snow! If you plan to use snow in order to obtain water it should be melted before consuming it in order to maintain a proper body temperature.
  6. Eat often! The production of heat takes energy and your body receives its energy through food. The more calories you consume, the more heat your body will be able to produce.
A tornado tears through the countryside.

A tornado tears through the countryside.

Toughing Out a Tornado

Tornadoes can occur just about anywhere. In the unlikely event that you are forced to seek shelter from a tornado during your camping trip, there are a few things you ought to know.

Know the warning signs:

  • Still or calm air (no wind)
  • Greenish or greenish-black sky
  • Loud sound similar to a freight train
  • Rotation clearly visible in the clouds
  • Funnel shape descending from the clouds
  • Debris flying through the air

If you spot a tornado or have been warned that one is imminent do not attempt to outrun it on foot! It may be possible to out-drive the tornado in your vehicle, but don't count on it! Consider the following:

  1. Get out of your tent or camper immediately. Do not seek shelter in a cabin or vehicle. None of these shelters are able to provide adequate protection!
  2. If you live in a tornado-prone area your campsite may provide a tornado shelter. If such a shelter is available get to it as quickly as possible!
  3. If a cave is nearby seek shelter there. If no shelter is available seek out a ditch or ground depression where you can lay face down and cover your head.
  4. If possible, take your sleeping bag, camp pillow, or a small backpack with you; you can use these items as padding to cover and protect your head from flying or falling debris.
  5. Move away from areas of downed or broken trees. Try to distance yourself from any potential debris including camp equipment.
  6. Remember that if you can not see the tornado moving to the left or to the right it may be moving directly towards you!

Safety During an Earthquake

Earthquakes are not as likely to occur as severe weather, but it is always a good idea to be prepared. Should an earthquake occur during your next camping trip follow these four tips:

  1. Get out of your tent! Your tent could become entangled around you and suffocate you.
  2. Move away from trees, boulders, and other objects which could fall and injure or kill you.
  3. If one is burning, move away from the campfire, and as soon as the earthquake passes put the fire out!
  4. Seek cover underneath a table or vehicle.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.