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How Safe Is an RV in a Lightning Storm?

How Safe Is an RV in a Lightning Storm?

How safe is an RV in a lightning storm? That’s a loaded question and one we’re here to answer. There are many myths about RVs and lightning. What’s important is that we’re all armed and ready to do what’s legitimately called for in a lightning storm when we’re in an RV.

Preparedness is everything where safety is concerned, so let’s get right to it, starting with the most basic.

What Is Lightning?

According to the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory, lighting is defined as “a giant spark of electricity in the atmosphere between clouds, the air, or the ground”.

In short, lightning is an extremely powerful electrical discharge that occurs during a thunderstorm. When lightning strikes, the air becomes extremely hot – and when we say “extremely hot”, we mean around 50,000℉ ( 27,760℃) – far hotter than even the surface of the sun!

The thunder you hear is the heated air the lightning is passing through expanding quickly. Effectively, it’s like the boom generated by a supersonic plane!

Lightning can occur between clouds (cloud to cloud), from cloud to air, or from cloud to ground. Cloud to ground is the type of lightning we’re most concerned about as it’s the most dangerous to us while we’re in our RVs.

Lightning is powerful and dangerous. How safe is an rv in a lightning storm?

Cloud to ground lightning is the type of lightning that’s most dangerous to us when we’re in an RV.

Scientifically, when negative charges (in the bottom of the cloud) are attracted to positive charges in the ground, the resulting lightning can be incredibly dangerous and destructive.

If you want to learn more, you can read about the science of lightning on the NOAA website. Now let’s get into how safe an RV is in a lightning storm.

How Safe Is an RV In a Lightning Storm?

There’s no getting around it – lightning storms can be very dangerous. If you’re in an RV, the key to your safety depends on the materials your rig is made of, and the actions you take.

First, if your RV’s frame or roof – or the entire skin/outer structure – is made of metal/aluminum/steel, you should be safe from lightning when you’re inside. Your electronics may take a hit unless you’ve disconnected them, but the people inside the rig should be safe. And the good news is that many if not most modern RVs do have a metal frame.

If your rig has a roof made of aluminum or steel, you’ll likely be safe inside your RV in a lightning storm. And if your RV roof is made of fiberglass but the frame of the rig is made of steel, you’ll still be well protected.

If your RV is made entirely of other materials like wood or all-fiberglass, then you’ll be safer inside your tow vehicle (or someone else’s tow vehicle if necessary). Contrary to popular belief, metal doesn’t attract lightning, but it is very much capable of reducing its destructive impact by channeling it away and toward the ground.

And when metal forms a “cage” of sorts, it offers even more protection. More on that in just a moment. First, another note about metal:

Is It True That Lightning Only Strikes Metal?

Nope, that’s a myth. Lightning isn’t drawn to metal and it certainly doesn’t only strike metal. In fact, experts with the National Weather Service agree that metal has no bearing on the attraction of lightning.

In fact, the height of an object, the shape of an object (pointy), and isolation are the three primary factors that determine where lightning is most likely to strike. We’ve all heard of lightning striking trees, for example. That’s because they tend to be all three things: tall, pointy, and isolated from other tall objects!

Photo of lightning striking trees. How safe is an rv in a lightning storm?

It’s a myth that lightning only strikes metal. Trees, for example, are often struck by lightning. Lightning is most likely to strike objects that are tall, pointy, and isolated.

What Is a Faraday Cage?

So, the metal “cage” structure of cars provides particular protection against lightning due to a concept known as the “Faraday Cage”. This would also be true of any RV with a metal frame/”cage”, but not all RVs are built in this way. So, if your camper doesn’t have steel/aluminum framework, you should seek shelter elsewhere immediately – you’re not as safe from lightning in an RV like that.

Essentially, the Faraday Cage refers to the fact that a car is a large metal cage that conducts the lightning AROUND the outside metal instead of THROUGH the inside of the car. This isn’t new information. This goes all the way back to Benjamin Franklin in the mid-1700s. The principle was refined by a scientist named Michael Faraday in 1836, thus the name “Faraday Cage”.

The first takeaway here is clear: the protection offered by the Faraday Cage effect is the reason you’re safe inside a car during a lightning storm. Again, the same would apply to an RV with a metal frame or roof, but if you’re camping in an RV made of other materials such as only wood and fiberglass, seek shelter elsewhere in a lightning storm.

However, the second important thing to remember is that the presence of the Faraday Cage doesn’t mean that the vehicle can’t be struck by lightning or impacted by lightning. It means that you’re safe INSIDE the vehicle (so long as you’re not in contact and/or close proximity to any metal connected to that outer “cage”).

Photo of a car in a storm, the metal cage keeping the occupants safe

The Faraday Cage effect of a car means you’re safe inside a car during a lightning storm, as you would be in an RV with a metal frame. If you’re camping in an RV made of other materials such as only wood and fiberglass, seek shelter elsewhere (such as in a car) in a lightning storm.

If you’re outside of a vehicle that has been struck, DO NOT touch the vehicle. The people inside are safe. But if you touch the vehicle, you may not be. If the strike has just occurred and the metal is still electrified, you could be shocked if you walk up to the vehicle or touch it.

What Should I Do If I’m Inside My RV In a Lightning Storm?

How safe your RV is in a lightning storm will largely depend on what you do. There are a number of protective actions you can take if you’re inside your RV during a storm. 

One of the most important things you can do to protect yourself is something you can do right now, and that is to learn something about the construction of your RV so that you’ll know when the time comes whether you’re safe to remain inside your rig or whether you need to take shelter in your tow car (or someone else’s RV or tow car).

Here are several other actions you can take to increase your safety in a lightning storm:

Move Away From Trees

Always move away from trees. This is very important. Not only can trees or branches fall onto your RV in harshly windy storm conditions, but trees are tall and pointy and sometimes isolated. You may recall that these are the three most likely factors to attract a lightning strike.

Photo of a tree having fallen on a vehicle in the aftermath of a storm

Always move away from trees in any kind of storm, including lightning storms. You may be safe from lightning inside a car or metal-framed RV, but you’re not safe from falling trees!

You don’t want to be near trees in your RV during a lightning storm. Even if you’re taking shelter in a car, move that car away from trees. While you may be perfectly safe from the lightning itself inside a car or RV, you’re not safe from falling trees. And being crushed is likely no more fun than being electrocuted!

Move Away From Water

Water isn’t safe in a lightning storm. Lightning strikes water with some regularity. And water conducts electricity. This is why it’s particularly important to know the weather forecast before you head out on the water in a boat, kayak, canoe, paddleboard, or another vessel. It is terribly unsafe to be on the water in a lightning storm.

If your RV is parked on the beach, lakeside, or riverside, move your RV up to a parking area or other safe location. Just remember to look around for flag poles, light poles, trees, and other tall, pointy structures, and stay away from them as well.

Photo of rough seas ahead of a storm

If you’re on or near the water and the sky indicates the presence of a pending storm, get off or away from the water immediately.

Unplug Your RV From Electrical Outlet

In preparation for a lightning storm, one of the first things you’ll want to do is disconnect your RV from any electrical outlet. If you’re plugged into shore power at home, at a campground, or anywhere else, DISCONNECT the RV from the electrical outlet before the storm comes close.

The reason for this is to protect your RV’s electrical system, and the electrical/electronic components connected to it, from potentially damaging surges caused by lightning striking nearby. So, if possible, unplug appliances and disconnect or shut down electronics.

Again, if you’re inside an RV with a metal roof or metal frame, or if you take shelter in your tow vehicle or elsewhere, you’ll be safe. But in an effort to avoid damaging your RV’s electronics, you’ll want to be as disconnected as possible.

Bring in Awnings and Bring Down Antennas, Flag Poles, Etc.

Antennae, flag poles, awning poles, etc. are the tall, pointy, isolated lightning attractors we warned you about earlier. Bring them in ahead of the storm, and store them safely. Awnings should never be left out in inclement weather, anyway… since wind or heavy rain can easily damage them.

Photo of Peter gesturing toward the awning of our motorhome

When a storm is pending, always bring in all awnings, flag poles, antennae, raised/tilted solar panels, and anything else that is tall or extended.

Stay in the Center of the RV Away from Windows & Doors

During the storm, remain in the center of your RV, as far away from windows and doors as practical. Doors and windows are the least safe zones of your RV, and staying away from them means you’re safer.

This is due to two things: (1) window & door frames are almost always metal, and as such are a point for you to come into contact with electricity from a lightning strike and (2) high winds from the storm could hurl objects into/through the windows, potentially injuring you.

Keep your family, pets included, in the center of the rig until the storm passes.

Stay Abreast of Weather Information Using Smartphone or Emergency Weather Radio

The ability to stay informed of the storm’s arrival and passage is critical. Your smartphone may be capable of delivering that information to you via apps like Storm Shield or NOAA Weather Radar Live (look for the “Clime: NAA Weather Radar Live” app in your device’s app store) can keep you abreast of important information. However, if a cell tower is rendered incapable of offering you a connection, or if you’re simply not in an area where you have good cell service, your smartphone won’t be useful.

For this reason, it’s always a good idea to travel with (or even to have at home) an emergency weather radio. Some are able to operate on batteries and/or by crank and will give you access to AM radio stations and emergency broadcasts.

Here are three examples of this type of emergency weather radio at reasonable price points.

FosPower 4000mAh NOAA Emergency Weather Radio (Model A3)

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Emergency Radio Raynic 5000

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RunningSnail Emergency Crank Radio,4000mAh

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Drive to a Stronger Shelter

And finally, if you’re not safe where you are, you need to drive to a stronger shelter. If you can get to a department store or any type of public building to take shelter, you’ll be increasing your safety and that of your family members.

Surely this goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway – never, ever leave pets in your RV if you take shelter in another building. Even if pets aren’t typically allowed in a grocery store where you’re taking temporary shelter, for example, bring your pets with you, but be sure to keep them leashed or caged (depending on the pet), and keep complete control of your pets at all times inside the building.

Have You Ever Been Caught In a Bad Storm While Camping?

Share your experiences with us in the comments section below if you’ve ever been caught in a bad storm while camping or while traveling in your RV. We’d love to hear from you, and we’re glad you’re here to tell us about it!

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John Schretlen

Sunday 17th of April 2022

Very good article.

Although I have never been camping or travelling in the RV when a serious lightning storm was in the vicinity, I have been sitting in a high-speed metal tube when it was struck by lightning. At least a dozen times.

I like all the suggestions mentioned and if I ever get caught in a serious storm I'd do the following:

If driving: Stop. Pull in slides and make sure they are locked in tight. Lower air ride system. Lower jacks just enough to offer support. Unlock front door and make sure emergency window is operable.

I have seen big rigs getting blown over while driving in high winds and it's not fun. But if stopped and with jacks down enough to offer some stabilization support it would take an even stronger wind to blow you over.

Also, my reason for pulling in the slides is to (a) make the coach less drag-inducing and (b) make it easier and less expensive to get pulled upright (and fixed) should you get blown over.

Unlocking the door is to avoid one less item should you need to do an emergency evacuation. Same for prepping the emergency window exit - which should be on the opposite side of the door.

I know some (all) newer coaches have an emergency door in the rear bathroom area but that'll be useless if the coach is on the side of the emergency door.

All in all, this is good information to share. It's never a bad idea to review emergency procedures even if you and all your friends will never need to use them. Make that Especially if you never need to use them.

Marina Bredda

Saturday 16th of April 2022

We were recently caught in a storm with tornadoes all around us in Mississippi. We disconnected everything, electric, sewer and water. Brought the slides in, retracted the jacks, (thought the coach would be heavier on the ground) filled the fresh water tank also to improve the ground weight. We unfortunately couldn't find anywhere too move to that didn't have one or more trees nearby. We just prayed we'd make it through the night sheltering in the concrete restrooms that were nearby. Two of us with our dog and cat. Much to my surprise no one else in the state park camp ground did anything to prepare themselves. In fact we were the only ones on the shelter for most of the night and people's reaction to how we prepared ourselves was quite shocking. Their comments were, we're insured so no need to do anything! We on the other hand are used to living through hurricanes and know how important it is to remove all and everything that can become a projectile. We had downloaded movies, took snacks for us and our pets, chairs to sit on, drinks, pet beds, we were camping! You can imagine the expression on the faces of the 4 campers who eventually decided the restrooms were better than staying in their campers😉

TheRVgeeks

Saturday 16th of April 2022

Bravo, Marina! You and your family DEFINITELY win the safety award 🏆!!! Way to be prepared AND safe!

Chris

Saturday 16th of April 2022

Many modern motor coaches come with a lightning rod (of sorts) in the bay... do you recommend utilizing those as well?

TheRVgeeks

Saturday 16th of April 2022

Hi Chris. We're not at all familiar with ANY RVs that come with any kind of "lightning rod" in any bay. Do you have an example of a make/model that does? Or are you thinking of the "Hott Rod" aftermarket add-on for a water heater to convert a gas-only unit to having an electric heating element (like this one for a 6-gallon gas water heater: https://amzn.to/3uQc2BW)?

Rick Dowling

Saturday 16th of April 2022

Good article as usual guys. I read that about lightening in an article by Mike Sokol, AFTER I bought my class A which though relatively high end is not metal framed nor wrapped. Regardless. We generally go with counting on luck being on our side. So far, knock on wood, not metal, it’s worked for us. We haven’t won the lottery either so I guess it’s working out about right.

TheRVgeeks

Saturday 16th of April 2022

LOL! "Karmic balance" at its best, right?! But we have a mantra in our household: It's not the likelihood, it's the CONSEQUENCES! So we tend to err on the side of caution & safety. Though we DO have an advantage that we don't tend to RV in the areas that are most prone to serious/regular thunderstorms. So we guess THAT's lucky. 😉

Craig

Saturday 16th of April 2022

Good suggestions. Don’t know if this is true or not, but I was once told that you want nothing but your rubber tires touching the ground, so you should also retract your leveling jacks.

TheRVgeeks

Saturday 16th of April 2022

We've heard (and for a long time) thought the same thing, Craig. But, when you think about it... even with the "rubber" of the tires of a car being the only thing connecting it to the ground, lightning still strikes automobiles/trucks (and the Faraday Cage effect of the frame & sheet metal directs the current around the outside). AIR is also a very good electrical insulator... and yet lightning passes through 100s and 1,000s of feet of it to get to the ground. So we'd say that the 1/2" or less of rubber in your tires (which, by the way, are criss-crossed with steel cables to reinforce them) aren't much of a deterrent. Basically... if your vehicle (car, truck, RV, whatever) gets directly struck by lightning... it's going to find its way to ground.

So, it can be a bit of a balancing act. If you MUST stay in the RV during a near-strike lightning storm... it'll likely also be quite windy, so having the jacks down to stabilize the RV will make it more comfortable... and COULD make it less likely to blow over.

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