Tornado Safety for RVers: What to Do During a Tornado

You can’t always drive away from bad weather. That’s why you need to know tornado safety for RVers. Here’s what to do if you’re in your RV when a tornado hits.

I want to give the biggest tip right off the bat because if you don’t read anything else, you’ll at least have read this. Take every single tornado warning seriously. 

People easily become desensitized when repeated warnings don’t lead to traumatic results. But you have to remember, it only takes one tornado to wipe you out. So, you have to take every single warning seriously.

Not taking it seriously throws away the amazing gift we have of advanced warning. Up until very recently, any warning that preceded obvious visual evidence was rare.

A pending storm in Montgomery, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Life-saving tips

Now that you’ve hopefully committed to properly reacting to tornado warnings, here is what you need to know. The following are life-saving tips that can keep you and your family safe in the event of not only a tornado but also severe windstorms.

Tip #1: Take tornado warnings seriously

Okay, okay, I know I covered this ad nauseam in the intro. But I just had to note it again real quick for the scrollers. If you scrolled past the intro, go back and read it!

Tip #2: Stay calm

Following my excessive warnings to take warnings seriously, it’s important to then advise you to stay calm. To paraphrase Hunger Games, the “odds are ever in your favor” to not get hit by a tornado. In fact, on average, more people are killed by lightning than by tornadoes every year.

Your odds of not being killed by a tornado, however, improve even more if you remain calm. And, the best way to stay calm is to be prepared. So, the following tips prepare you for you to stay calm more easily…

A storm in Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tip #3: Know where to go before you need to go

If you are camping in tornado country (and especially in tornado season), talk to your campground director when you arrive. Ask them if there are any nearby shelters or what they recommend in case of a tornado.

If you’re not staying at a campground, check local resources to locate storm shelters. A simple Google search should do the trick but you can also stop in at tourist, fire, and police departments. At the very least, you can ask some locals at a diner during lunch.

The locals will likely reassure you that you don’t have to worry about tornadoes, but, remember, it only takes one tornado to take you out! 

Growing up in the area, the locals are most at risk of being desensitized to the real danger. So, let their reassurances calm you but not lead you to take storm warnings for granted.

There are also warning signs of a tornado coming you should be aware of.

Tip #4: Have old school technology on hand

Yes, your phone sends notifications of weather warnings. Yes, your GPS can show you all of the routes out of town. But neither are reliable in remote locations let alone in a severe storm. That’s why old-school tech is part of tornado safety for RVers.

You should have a weather radio with NOAA scan technology. The National Weather Service continuously broadcasts updated weather warnings and forecasts.

A physical map can also help you navigate away from a storm. But, you should only try to drive away from a building storm, not an actual tornado! 

Once you receive a tornado warning, it’s time for the next tip…

A storm in Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tip #5: Abandon your RV

Your RV offers very little protection from tornadoes. As gas usage has taught us, they’re just big windsails. Not to mention the relatively thin walls and basic glass windows. 

If a tornado is headed your way, abandon your RV to seek shelter. What kind of shelter is best? That brings us to Tip #6…

Tip #6: Seek these types of shelters

Whether or not you’re from Tornado Alley, you likely know that underground shelters are best. If there is one nearby, go for it. But in many cases, an underground shelter will not be available or close enough, especially in campgrounds.

Your next best bet is to hunker down inside or behind a concrete structure. Campground bathrooms are often made of concrete so that can be a good option. Dumpsters are often surrounded by concrete walls so pushing the dumpster out and hunkering inside is another option. 

Most deaths and injuries from tornadoes are caused by flying debris. So, your goal is to put a thick barrier between you and debris whether it’s the ground, concrete walls, or a large boulder.

An interior room without windows like in the clubhouse is a viable option as well.

If there are no shelters nearby (which is often the case if you’re driving) then the next best thing falls under Tip #7.

A storm in Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tip #7: Seek the lowest point in the ground

If you are driving along and suddenly realize a tornado is bearing down on you, pull over, get out of your RV, and seek the lowest point in the ground. The same is true if you’re camping or parked somewhere where no strong shelters are available.

As I previously mentioned, flying debris presents the biggest danger. So, lying down in a ditch or even crawling into a large storm pipe can give you added protection. The idea is for any debris to fly over you, not into you. 

If it’s possible to quickly and easily grab some couch cushions or a mattress from your RV to cover yourself with, all the better. But only do that if it doesn’t cost you much time. Your priority is to get in the ditch!

Tip #8: Beware of downed power lines

Aside from flying debris, another big danger most people don’t consider is downed power lines. If you were in or near a tornado’s path, be alert for power lines that went down in the storm. This is key in practicing tornado safety for RVers!

Give downed power lines a very wide berth! They can skip around. More so, they can still transmit electricity through wet ground. Since rain often accompanies tornadoes, getting anywhere close to a downed power line can get you electrocuted.

After the storm? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More tips for tornado safety for RVers

Though I’ve covered the “biggies” in this article, I always say the more tips the better! If you have any additional tips for tornado safety for RVers, please share them on social media. 

Since I’m talking safety, here are a few related articles:

And now to take our minds off the scary threats of nature, let’s take a trip through all of the beauty America has to offer…

I have a travel library filled with RV adventure guides. They’re tried-and-true itineraries based on our real travels. Here is a sampling:

Worth Pondering…

Outside the rain began to pour in sheets, and the wind howled. Giant pieces of hail began to pelt the building—banging off the skylights so hard that Simpson worried the glass might shatter. Then, as it had earlier in the day, the wind briefly let up. It was then Simpson heard a sound she had dreaded—a sound she couldn’t believe she was actually hearing. It was 2:40 p.m. and the tornado sirens in Moore started to wail.

―Holly Bailey, The Mercy of the Sky: The Story of a Tornado

How to Know a Tornado is Coming?

April, May, and June are the three most active months for tornadoes in the U.S. comprising more than half of the annual average of 1,333 twisters

Is a tornado coming? An RV is not a safe place to be during a tornado. Here are warning signs and how to stay safe in the face of a tornado.

Tornado season is here! How do you know if a tornado is coming? 

Here is my guide to all things tornado! I cover the tornado warning signs and how to stay safe during and after one occurs. 

What is a tornado? 

I know most of you know this but you’d be surprised how often this question is searched for in Google! I did say this guide is for all things tornado so here’s a quick definition.

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that reaches from a thunderstorm to the ground beneath it. Most tornadoes are thin but some can be greater than two miles wide. A tornado hits when warm air collides with cold air.

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tornado season

Tornadoes can occur in the U.S. at any time throughout the year but there’s a distinct seasonal peak in tornadic activity and it starts in April. Long-term severe weather records show April, May, and June are the three most active months for tornadoes in the U.S.

Between 1991 and 2020, an average of 1,333 tornadoes were documented across the country each year of which more than half―54 percent―occurred between April and June.

Looking back on history, May is typically the most active month for tornadoes averaging 294 each year. That’s followed by April and June, each with an average of 212 tornadoes.

But remember―these are just averages based on a 30-year period and the weather doesn’t always follow what’s considered to be average.

Different weather patterns that set up each spring can cause the number of twisters between April and June to be significantly greater or much fewer than the 718 tornadoes that are typical during those three months.

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where do most tornadoes occur? 

Tornado outbreaks during spring are most common when a southward dip in the jet stream punches into the Plains or Midwest and warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico surges northward out ahead of it at the surface.

A stronger jet stream can be fuel for extreme weather adding spin and energy needed in the atmosphere that will allow for thunderstorms to grow and intensify, potentially developing into supercell thunderstorms that could produce tornadoes if wind shear―the change in wind speed and/or direction with height―near the surface is particularly strong.

By the spring, the jet stream is migrating northward out of the South and setting up more frequently over the Plains and Midwest as it retreats toward the Canadian border for the summer.

That’s why the potential for tornadoes increases in Tornado Alley during the spring while the risk of tornadoes decreases for the southern U.S.

The term Tornado Alley has been given to the broad area where most tornadoes occur in the United States. The boundaries of Tornado Alley change depending on the criteria you use to define it. 

Generally, the region includes central Texas stretching horizontally through Oklahoma to northern Iowa. Then from central Kansas and Nebraska eastward to the west edge of Ohio. 

The U.S. tornado threat shifts from place to place during the year. The Southeast states are threatened during the cooler months. The southern and central Plains are most at risk in May and June. The early summer is a risky time for the northern Plains and Midwest areas. 

While tornadoes generally stay in these regions they have occurred in all fifty states!

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tornado watch and tornado warning

Tornado watch

A Tornado Watch is issued by the meteorologists at the NOAA Storm Prediction Center. They watch the weather all day, every day across the U.S. for signs of severe weather. A watch can cover parts of or entire states. 

If you know there is a chance of severe weather, you can tune into NOAA Weather Radio to hear when an advance warning is issued. Many survival radios have the seven NOAA Weather Stations pre-programmed for your convenience. 

Tornado warning

A Tornado Warning is more urgent. It is issued by the NOAA National Weather Service Forecast Office meteorologists watching a designated area nonstop. It means that radar or spotters have picked up on an actual tornado that is threatening people or property. 

A Tornado Warning means that you are at risk of danger and need to seek an immediate storm shelter. A warning can include parts of counties or several counties. When in an area issued with a Tornado Warning be sure to watch for the tornado warning signs. 

The National Weather Service cannot always predict a tornado nor give much warning. That is why it is a good idea to be able to spot the warning signs of tornadoes yourself. Advance planning can also mean the difference between life and death. 

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are a few things to learn how to spot if you think a tornado is coming your way.

1. Wall cloud

You may see a wall cloud or the lowering of the base of the thunderstorm. Be especially cautious if the wall is rotating. 

2. Debris cloud

Even if a tornado is not visible look for a whirling dust or debris cloud near the ground which can indicate a tornado without a funnel. 

3. Large hail

Large hailwith the absence of rain can be an indicator of an impending tornado.

4. Heavy rain

When hail or heavy rain is followed by a quick, intense wind shift or a dead calm be watchful. This can indicate a thunderstorm as many times they are wrapped in precipitation and cannot be seen. 

5. Still weather

Many times before a tornado strikes, the wind speeds will die down producing a quiet, still air. Many report this as eerie silence. Others call it the “calm before the storm.”

6. Roaring noise

A tornado can produce a loud rumbling sound that is similar to the loud roar of a freight train. This can occur during the day or night. 

7. Funnel cloud

A rotating extension of the cloud base can signal the formation of a tornado.

8. Dark sky with greenish tint

The sky may appear dark and have a greenish hue.

9. Small and bright, blue-green flashes

At night, pay attention to small, bright, blue-green flashes near ground level. That could indicate power lines are being snapped by strong winds or a tornado. 

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do if you are caught in a tornado

Tip #1: When referring to tornado safety, your stationed RV is similar to a mobile home. It’s even less safe. If you are camping somewhere and find yourself at risk of a tornado get out if possible. 

Tip #2: While you do not want to be exposed outdoors you do want to try and find the safest place possible. The best places are underground shelters or sturdy, permanent buildings. 

Tip #3: If you are driving your RV or other vehicle and get caught near a tornado, it can also be dangerous. Your best-case scenario is to try and drive out of the tornado’s path. To do this, drive at a right angle to the tornado if at all possible. 

Tip #4: If you get caught in high winds or hit with flying debris, park the vehicle as quickly and safely as possible. Lower your head below the windows. Cover your head and hands with a blanket or coat. 

Tip #5: If you spot an area lower than the roadway, leave your vehicle and lie down in that area. Cover your head with your hands. 

Tip #6: If you are in the outdoors, try and locate some sort of storm shelter in a sturdy building. If that is not possible, lie down at the lowest level you can find.

Tip #7: Try to avoid trees and vehicles and cover your head with your arms. 

Tip #8: Invest in a Survival Radio before you leave on your next road trip whether heading toward Tornado Alley or not.

Tip #9: For more helpful information, refer to the NOAA’s Tornado Safety Guide.

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do after

Once the tornado passes, assess the damage. Look and smell for a gas leak and move away if needed. 

If you can stay put and wait for medical personnel or law enforcement. Help any injured people that you can. 

If you haven’t already, turn on your radio and tune in to NOAA weather radio or local radio station. 

If you must drive out of the area, be careful to watch for any downed power lines. 

Worth Pondering…

Outside the rain began to pour in sheets, and the wind howled. Giant pieces of hail began to pelt the building—banging off the skylights so hard that Simpson worried the glass might shatter. Then, as it had earlier in the day, the wind briefly let up. It was then Simpson heard a sound she had dreaded—a sound she couldn’t believe she was actually hearing. It was 2:40 p.m. and the tornado sirens in Moore started to wail.

―Holly Bailey, The Mercy of the Sky: The Story of a Tornado

Severe Weather: Tornado Safety Tips for RVers

Tips for staying safe when camping in a tornado region

If you are planning on RVing or camping in a tornado region there are basic tips and information you should know before you go. 

The United States averages 1,200 tornados a year, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Doppler radar has improved the ability to forecast tornados but still only gives a warning of three to 30 minutes. With such little forewarning, NOAA stresses that tornado preparedness is critical.

An approaching storm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is a tornado?

A tornado is a narrow, violently rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground. Because wind is invisible, it is hard to see a tornado unless it forms a condensation funnel made up of water droplets, dust, and debris. Tornadoes can be among the most violent phenomena of all atmospheric storms we experience.

Where do tornadoes occur?

Tornadoes occur in many parts of the world including Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. Even New Zealand reports about 20 tornadoes each year. Two of the highest concentrations of tornadoes outside the U.S. are Argentina and Bangladesh.

An approaching storm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many tornadoes occur in the U.S. each year?

About 1,200 tornadoes hit the U.S. yearly. Since official tornado records only date back to 1950, we do not know the actual average number of tornadoes that occur each year. Plus, tornado spotting and reporting methods have changed a lot over the last several decades which mean that we are observing more tornadoes that actually happen.

Related: Stay Safe this Summer by Using These Outdoor Heat Hacks

Where is Tornado Alley?

Tornado Alley is a nickname invented by the media to refer to a broad area of relatively high tornado occurrence in the central United States. Various “Tornado Alley” maps look different because tornado occurrence can be measured in many ways: by all tornadoes, tornado county segments, intense and violent tornadoes only, and databases with different periods.

However, the idea of a “tornado alley” can be misleading. The U.S. tornado threat shifts from the Southeast in the cooler months of the year toward the southern and central Plains in May and June and the northern Plains and Midwest during early summer. Tornadoes can occur and have been reported in all fifty states!

Please remember, violent tornadoes do happen outside “Tornado Alley” every year.

An approaching storm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When are tornadoes most likely?

Tornado season usually refers to the time of year the U.S. sees the most tornadoes. The peak “tornado season” for the southern Plains (e.g., Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas) is from May into early June. On the Gulf coast, it is earlier in the spring. In the northern Plains and upper Midwest (North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota), tornado season is in June and July. But, remember, tornadoes can happen at any time of year. Tornadoes can also happen at any time of day or night, but most tornadoes occur between 4–9 p.m.

What is the difference between a Tornado WATCH and a Tornado WARNING?

A Tornado WATCH is issued by the NOAA Storm Prediction Center meteorologists who watch the weather 24/7 across the entire U.S. for weather conditions that are favorable for tornadoes and severe weather. A watch can cover parts of a state or several states. Watch and prepare for severe weather and stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio to know when warnings are issued.

Related: Hurricane Season: Staying Safe in your RV

A Tornado WARNING is issued by the local NOAA National Weather Service Forecast Office meteorologists who watch the weather 24/7 over a designated area. This means a tornado has been reported by spotters or indicated by radar and there is a serious threat to life and property to those in the path of the tornado. A tornado warning indicates that you should ACT NOW to find safe shelter! A warning can cover parts of counties or several counties in the path of danger.

An approaching storm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How is tornado strength rated?

To determine the strength of a tornado, experts examine the damage it caused. From this information, we can estimate the wind speeds.

Originally developed by Dr. Theodore Fujita in 1971, NOAA placed the Enhanced F-Scale in use in 2007 as an update to the original F-Scale.

The EF-Scale takes into account more variables than the original Fujita Scale (F-Scale) when assigning a wind speed rating to a tornado, incorporating 28 damage indicators such as building type, structures, and trees. For each damage indicator, there are 8 degrees of damage ranging from the beginning of visible damage to destruction of the damage indicator.

The original F-scale did not take these details into account. The original F-Scale historical database will not change. An F5 tornado rated years ago is still an F5 but the wind speed associated with the tornado may have been somewhat less than previously estimated. A correlation between the original F-Scale and the EF-Scale has been developed. This makes it possible to express ratings in terms of one scale to the other, preserving the historical database.

Fujita Scale (F-Scale)

Based on this scale tornados are rated as follows:

EF Rating = 3 Second Gust in MPH

  • 0 = 65-85 mph
  • 1 = 86-110 mph
  • 2 = 111-135 mph
  • 3 = 136-165 mph
  • 4 = 166-200 mph
  • 5 = Over 200 mph
An approaching storm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tornado Warning Systems

If you are RVing near a small town, chances are there is a siren system that can be heard for several miles. Take a moment when you first arrive at your RV Park to find out about the tornado and storm warning systems for your area, even if you are staying only a short time. 

Tornado Shelters

Find out if your park has an onsite storm shelter or where the nearest shelter is located. Basements and underground shelters are the safest, but small, sturdy inside rooms and hallways provide adequate protection during a tornado, as well.

Related: Camping Awareness: Wildfire Safety Tips That Could Save Your Life

If there is no shelter on site, alternatives might be the park’s shower or bathroom stalls. If there is a sturdy building with closets or an inside hallway try to take shelter there. If none of these exist, drive to the nearest shelter as quickly as is safe. Keep your seatbelt on. 

Be careful! Tornadoes can form and be in contact with the ground without a fully condensed funnel!

Do RVs attract tornadoes? Of course not! It may seem that way, considering many tornado deaths occur in them and that some of the most graphic reports of tornado damage come from campgrounds, RV parks, and mobile home communities. The reason for this is that RVs and mobile homes are, in general, much easier for a tornado to damage and destroy than well-built houses and office buildings. A brief, relatively weak tornado that may have gone undetected in the wilderness or misclassified as severe straight-line thunderstorm winds while doing minor damage to sturdy houses, can blow an RV apart. Historically, mobile home parks have been reliable indicators, not attractors, of tornadoes.

An approaching storm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tornado preparedness plan

NOAA’s and the American Red Cross’ recommended actions include:

  • Monitoring an NOAA Weather Radio
  • Know where to go for shelter, preferably within walking distance
  • Stow chairs and barbecues and other objects that could become projectiles
  • Go immediately when a tornado warning is issued
  • Wherever you find shelter stay away from windows
  • DO NOT plan on staying inside your RV
  • Bring your pets, if allowed, in a carrier
  • Grab only essentials (purse, ID, cash) and only if easily accessible
  • Don’t waste time searching for anything
  • Practice your tornado drill periodically

Signs of potential tornado 

  • Electrical charge in the air
  • Large hail
  • Lightning
  • Roaring noise
  • Grayish/greenish clouds
  • Visibly rotating clouds
  • Wall cloud that appears as thunderclouds dropping close to the ground
  • Cloud progressively extending down to the ground, increasingly funnel-shaped
  • Rotating dust or debris rising from the ground, often “reaching” towards a descending funnel-shaped cloud
An approaching storm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Inland and plains tornados

Tornados that develop on the plains and most parts of the country often are accompanied by hail or lightning. These warning signs are your signals to seek shelter until the storm passes. We tend to think of tornados as “approaching” from some distance. Bear in mind that every tornado begins somewhere. If that “somewhere” is close to you, you won’t have much time to get to a shelter.

Tornados can develop during the day or night. Naturally, nighttime tornados are the most frightening since you may not be able to see them coming, or might be asleep when they hit. 

An approaching storm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tornados spawned by hurricanes

Unlike inland tornados spawned from storms, those that develop in hurricanes often do so in the absence of hail and lightning. They can also develop days after a hurricane makes landfall but tend to develop during the daytime after the first few hours over land. 

Related: Six Heat Hacks to Stay Safe This Summer

Although tornados can develop in the hurricane’s rain bands, far from the eye or center of the storm, they are most likely to develop in the right front quadrant of the hurricane. If you know where you are about the hurricane’s eye and sections, you have a better chance of avoiding tornados. 

Obviously, evacuating before the hurricane makes landfall is the best choice you can make. Know when to get out of Dodge! Many situations can prevent you from getting as far away as you’d like, if at all. Running out of gas or diesel might be one of them.

Worth Pondering…

Outside the rain began to pour in sheets, and the wind howled. Giant pieces of hail began to pelt the building—banging off the skylights so hard that Simpson worried the glass might shatter. Then, as it had earlier in the day, the wind briefly let up. It was then Simpson heard a sound she had dreaded—a sound she couldn’t believe she was actually hearing. It was 2:40 p.m. and the tornado sirens in Moore started to wail.

―Holly Bailey, The Mercy of the Sky: The Story of a Tornado