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

Are You Prepared for the Next Great Weather Event?

Educate yourself ahead of time. Every type of extreme weather event presents a unique challenge.

We know that weather can either make or break a camping trip. Sunshine and blue skies are what make RV trips a fun experience but we can’t always be that fortunate. Every once in a while a storm or unexpected temperatures sneak up on us and we must be fully prepared for when nature is having an off day. Extreme weather is more dangerous when in an RV than in a house. Here are some severe weather tips for RVers for when the going gets tough.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most important thing to do is stay updated on the most current weather as much as possible to avoid surprises and prepare for any bad weather that may be on its way. Checking the weather before leaving on a road trip will provide some insight into what you may experience over the next several days.

As with any emergency, you want to be prepared ahead of time. Create an emergency plan for every situation and make sure your family knows the procedures. Write out the procedures and post them for future reference.

Seek shelter before the weather becomes extreme. No possession is worth more than you and your family. The worst thing to do is to wait around to determine the actions of others, wait for rescue, or wait until the last minute to know the severity of the weather event.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prepare an emergency supply kit and place it in a convenient location that is easy to access. Consider including the following items: whistles, extra blankets, rain ponchos, non-perishable packaged/canned food, can opener, flashlights, a flare gun, a first aid kit, necessary prescription drugs, a compass, pet supplies/food, and bottled water.

Know the county you are located in and the surrounding counties. When you hear a weather alert message on your smartphone, radio, or television you’ll be able to determine where the storm is located and how quickly it will approach your current location.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Weather Service (NWS) provide information on current conditions, incoming storms, and emergency radio station lists. Have an NOAA battery-operated alert radio with an automatic alert mode, smartphone charger, and several flashlights in your RV? Top-rated mobile weather apps include WeatherBug, AccuWeather, and The Weather Channel.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lightning and thunderstorms

According to NOAA, at any given moment in the day there are roughly 2,000 thunderstorms in progress across the globe. The United States experiences 100,000 thunderstorms every year with spring and summer afternoons seeing the highest frequency of events. Each storm can bring a suite of problems from hail to high winds but it’s lightning that is your number one concern.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • Lightening kills more people annually than tornadoes or hurricanes
  • Taking shelter inside any building or vehicle is safer than being outside
  • Rain does not signify the beginning of a dangerous storm; thunder does
  • Anytime you hear thunder you’re at risk of a lightning strike; close your awning, store anything that can blow away, and get indoors as quickly as possible
  • Lightning strikes can damage the electrical power in your unit so it’s a good idea to use an Electric Management System (Progressive Industries or Surge Guard)

More on lightning/thunderstorms:

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flash floods

The severity and speed of flash floods make them one of the most harrowing weather events adventurers might encounter. They occur when excessive water fills normally a dry canyon or wash and when creeks and rivers rise rapidly from rainfall within their watershed.

According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, a creek that’s only six inches deep in the mountains can swell to a ten-foot-deep raging river in less than an hour if a thunderstorm lingers over an area for an extended period.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • Do not attempt to cross any water higher than your ankles
  • As little as 6 inches of water flowing quickly can knock an adult down
  • Less than 2 feet of water can sweep a car away or stall it out with you stuck inside
  • You rarely have time to move your RV; get to higher ground and stay safe
  • TURN AROUND DON’T DROWN

More on flash floods: Flash Floods: Safety Tips for RVers

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dust storm

Dust storms (also called Haboobs) are unexpected, and unpredictable, and can sweep across the desert landscape at any time. Dust storms can reduce visibility to near zero in seconds resulting in deadly, multi-vehicle accidents on roadways. Dust storms can be miles long and thousands of feet high. 

Dust storms can occur anywhere in the United States but are most common in the Southwest. In Arizona, dust storms most frequently occur during monsoon season (June-September) but they can pop up at any time of the year. Drivers of high-profile recreation vehicles should be especially aware of changing weather conditions and travel at reduced speeds.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • DO NOT drive into or through a dust storm. PULL ASIDE. STAY ALIVE.
  • Do not stop in a travel lane or the emergency lane. Look for a safe place to pull completely off the paved portion of the roadway.
  • Turn off all vehicle lights including your emergency flashers. You do not want other vehicles approaching from behind to use your lights as a guide possibly crashing into your parked vehicle.
  • Set your emergency brake and take your foot off the brake.
  • Stay in the vehicle with your seatbelts buckled and wait for the storm to pass.
  • PULL OFF! LIGHTS OFF! FOOT OFF!

More on dust storms: Dust Storms and Haboobs: Safety Tips for RVers

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tornados

Tornado Alley which stretches from mid-Texas north to North Dakota is plagued by a high frequency of tornadoes. But the disastrous storms aren’t just relegated to the plains. Tornadoes can happen anywhere. While tornadoes can form quickly—on average, NOAA releases a tornado warning in the potential impact area 15 minutes before the tornado hits—most are born from thunderstorms.

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • When you register at an RV campground, ask about the tornado and storm warning systems for the area
  • Never try to outrun a tornado in any type of vehicle
  • RVs do not provide good protection during a tornado
  • Be ready to go when a tornado WATCH is issued

More on tornadoes: Severe Weather: Tornado Safety Tips for RVers

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Extreme Heat

Extreme heat poses a threat to young children, older adults, and anyone who doesn’t take the right safety precautions before and during a heat wave. Heat-related incidents can be prevented with a few measures to ensure that both you and your family can safely get through the heat wave.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke need to be taken seriously. If you feel like you’re becoming dizzy, weak, or nauseous after spending time in the sun, take care of yourself as soon as possible. These conditions can quickly get worse if you ignore them. 

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • Limit your exposure to the sun
  • Stay hydrated by drinking at least 16 ounces of water every hour in the heat to replenish your body and prevent dehydration
  • Wear light, loose-fitting, breathable clothing; a wide-brimmed hat, correct shoes, sunscreen, and wet bandanas to keep you cool while in the sun
  • Be aware of the heat and humidity index (a relative humidity of 60 percent or higher makes it hard for sweat to evaporate off your body)

More on extreme heat:

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hurricane

The devastating power of hurricanes can change your life, or even end it, in seconds. An RV is not a safe place to ride out a hurricane. Hurricanes pack enough punch to destroy everything in their wake and in those times it is best to be prepared for an immediate evacuation. Your RV can become your best friend and your ticket to safety if you take certain safety measures for yourself and your vehicle.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • As soon as you know a hurricane is likely to come your way, load up your RV and head out before the Interstate becomes a virtual parking lot
  • Get as far from the coast and bodies of water as you can

More on hurricanes:

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildfires

Wildfires are highly unpredictable and can be deadly. With the severe heat, drought conditions, and wildfires burning across much of the western US states and Canada, those who are out adventuring need to be aware of wildfire conditions and what can be done to keep you and your family safe.

Over time, wildfires have become more prevalent. The changing climate makes droughts more frequent, generates more wind (which whips and spreads the flames) and leaves areas more susceptible to wildfires or the more dangerous and larger-scale mega-fires.

The peak month of wildfire season is August when areas become increasingly dry, hot, and more susceptible to wildfire. The states with the highest number of wildfires are California, Colorado, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Oregon.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • Know the current wildfire conditions and fire restrictions for the area you are traveling
  • Choose a campsite that has more than one escape route
  • If you do see an unattended fire or out of control fire, contact the authorities by calling 911 or the Forest Service immediately
  • If you are asked to evacuate, do so immediately

More on wildfires: Camping Awareness: Wildfire Safety Tips That Could Save Your Life

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blizzards/Snowstorms

The best advice is to stay off the road, sit tight, and wait the weather out. Risking your life or the life of your family is not worth it for a road trip. Keep snow tires/chains, extra blankets, and extra food and water. Check to ensure you have a full tank of fuel (which also helps to add additional weight), and check for correct tire pressure (low tire pressure increases the chance of hydroplaning).

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • Secure everything outside that has even the slightest potential to blow away
  • Keep a pair of thick gloves and a toque with you
  • Wearing multiple layers of light clothing will keep you warmer than one heavy layer

More on blizzards/snowstorms: Handling Cold Weather in Your RV

Worth Pondering…

In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.

—Mark Twain (1835-1910)

6 Things You Need To Know about Camping in a Storm

Survival tips for RV camping in storms and bad weather

Spring and summer storms can make RV camping a scary experience rather than the fun and pleasant one it should be. 

What’s an avid camper to do? Fortunately, there are ways to ensure you and your family stay safe while also fully enjoying the camping season. Here are my top tips for camping during storm season.

Storm clouds over Capital City RV Park, Montgomery, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Create a storm-smart route

Your tiny home has wheels, after all. Why not use them? 

By avoiding areas such as Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas during tornado season and places where hurricanes tend to crop up during hurricane season you can reduce your risk by quite a lot. Instead, choose to travel to those areas during other times of the year and focus on different destinations during times when storms are likely to come around.

Cleanup following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Pay attention to weather reports

No matter when or where you decide to travel, you need to pay attention to the weather forecast. Knowing if and when a storm might crop up is important because it allows you to watch for it and get out of harm’s way if needed be. I recommend keeping a weather radio on hand for this purpose.

More on severe weather: Lightning and Thunderstorms: Safety Tips for RVers

It’s also a good idea to install an app such as Weather Bug on your smart phone. This app will send you an alert should severe weather be headed your way. 

Storm clouds over Skyline Ranch Resort, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Stock up on the right supplies

Besides your weather apps and a hand-crank weather radio, there are a few other things you’ll want to keep on hand just in case you end up camping in a storm. These include:

  • Flashlight and spare batteries: This will help you see should the power go out
  • First aid kit: You never know what kind of injury you might need to tend to
  • Water: Being thirsty in a storm shelter is no fun; avoid it by packing bottles of water and be sure to stay hydrated
  • Snacks: In case you get hungry while waiting out a storm, you’ll be glad to have a few non-perishable snacks on hand

I recommend putting all these things into a tote bag. This should be kept in an easily accessible location near the exterior door. It will ensure you’re well prepared. Then you can get to safety quickly.

Make sure your family is fully dressed with closed-toed shoes. Grab your smart phone and any important documents in the rig. Then head to shelter. If you can, grab helmets and/or pillows to cover your head. They also protect you from flying objects. 

Know where to go! Pictured above Whispering Oaks RV Park, Weimar, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Know where to go

Of course, if you’re going to head out when the weather gets bad, you don’t want to be confused about where to go. Always establish where you will go in case of a storm when you arrive at a new campground. 

More on severe weather: 5 Tips for Avoiding Extreme Weather While RVing

Numerous RV parks in tornado alley have storm shelters. As an alternative, head to a bathhouse or another sturdy structure with as few windows as possible. 

When you get to the place where you will wait out the storm, find a place that is far from windows and potential projectiles. Wear your helmets. Keep your important items under you. Use the weather radio to track the storm. Have your pillows close at hand in case you need them.

Overhead trees could be a problem during a severe storm on this site at Jekyll Island Campground, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Check your site

If you have enough notice of an impending storm, there are also several things you can do. If you plan to stay in your rig while camping in a storm, following these fairly simple steps can make a big difference. Take time to follow them. They include:

  • Take pets inside: Dogs and cats deserve a safe, dry place to weather the storm as much as you do—take them to the shelter with you
  • Remove projectiles: If you have chairs or other potential projectiles on your site, stow them; you don’t want one to go through a window
  • Close storage bay doors: Ensure your storage bay doors are closed and secured
  • Retract the awnings: RV awnings can’t stand up to much wind and rain. Keep yours intact by retracting before any kind of storm. As a word of caution, always retract the awning when leaving your rig or retiring for the night.
  • Close the windows: Obviously, you’ll also want to make sure all windows are closed and securely latched
  • Park away from trees: If possible, move your RV out from under trees that could break and fall on your roof causing extensive damage
  • Retract the slides: Slides can catch the wind causing an entire trailer or motorhome to flip
  • Fill the water tank: If it’s going to be very windy or if a tornado is headed your way consider filling your tanks to add more weight to your rig
Bring your pets indoors before a storm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Use common storm sense

Of course, you’ll also want to use your common sense when it comes to storms. Don’t hang out outdoors in a lightning storm. Avoid pools or other bodies of water. Especially if there is lightning in the area. If there is hail, get away from skylights and windshields.

More on severe weather: Hurricane Season: Staying Safe in your RV

Finally, you will want to watch for flooding and evacuate quickly. Head for higher ground if it looks like water is headed your way. 

Worth Pondering…

In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.

—Mark Twain (1835-1910)

5 Tips for Avoiding Extreme Weather While RVing

When severe weather strikes, there’s no time to think. That’s why you need to prepare for the worst NOW, before you’re faced with an emergency.

One of the best ways to spend a family vacation is by camping in an RV. After all, combining a vacation home and a vehicle makes for a rather convenient road trip mobile, complete with a full kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom. But what does one do in case of inclement weather experienced while traveling?

After all, there seem to be extreme weather possibilities in most of the US states including forest fires in the west, tornadoes across the Midwestern states, extreme snow in the northern states, extreme heat and flash floods in the southwest, hurricanes in the south, and severe thunderstorms almost everywhere during the warmer months. Traveling to an area where you are unfamiliar with the weather may seem risky. However, if you keep these simple considerations in mind, you can successfully plan a fun and safe getaway for the entire family to enjoy.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Be aware of forecasts prior to and during your trip

This seems fairly self-explanatory but simple considerations can be completely forgotten when excitedly planning for a road trip. Checking the weather before leaving for a trip can help you to have an idea of what you may experience over the next few days. If it all looks sunny and clear, then you are in luck. If you see any potential warnings or thunderstorms coming up, make a mental note to keep an eye on the weather throughout your trip.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hurricanes are typically predicted days in advance and should be easy to avoid. If you know a hurricane is headed to an area where you plan to vacation, alter your plans and return when the weather is less risky.

More on severe weather: Lightning and Thunderstorms: Safety Tips for RVers

In addition, be sure to check the weather on a daily basis in case the forecast changes. NOAA’s NWS, WeatherBug, Weather.com, and other online weather sites can give you a three- to ten-day forecast. In an area where you are not entirely familiar with the weather, it is better to over-prepare than to be surprised by a major weather event.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Avoid areas with inclement weather in peak season

To avoid dangerous weather altogether, it is best to avoid areas with extreme weather during their bad weather seasons. For instance, spring is tornado season across Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Avoiding traveling to these states in the spring seems like the safest option. Hurricanes are most extreme in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and south Texas, so avoiding these states during the late summer and fall may be your safest option. During forest fire season out west, keep an eye on the current fires and their paths/containment when planning trips.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Have a plan in case of severe weather

Avoiding certain areas altogether may not be entirely possible. If this is the case, have an emergency plan in place before heading out in your RV. Extreme weather is usually more of a possibility than a definite, so your chances of missing a storm are high. Having a plan will serve to set you up for success in case the worst should happen. 

This plan can be as simple as moving into a shelter if a storm strikes. You may also want to plan to evacuate the entire area if conditions are severe enough. Whatever your plan is, make sure all family members know of it. It is best to ensure that everyone is on board before inclement weather even occurs.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Evacuate or hunker down during a “watch”

During tornado season, knowing the difference between a warning and a watch is important. A watch is when a tornado is possible but none have been sighted yet. These are often issued during the correct conditions for a storm in counties or areas where storms are frequent. A warning means that a tornado has been sighted and could potentially pass through your area.

More on severe weather: Dust Storms and Haboobs: Safety Tips for RVers

When a tornado watch has been issued, you can then choose to either evacuate or stay and wait out the storm. Playing the situation by ear may be your best bet if you don’t want to cancel your trip early. However, the safest option may be to move outside of the danger zone if a tornado watch has been issued. Whatever you choose, keep a close eye on the weather in case it worsens.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Move to a safer area during a “warning”

If you decide to stay after a watch has occurred and a warning is issued, you must then choose to evacuate or move somewhere safer. Evacuation to an area outside of the tornado range may be the safest option. However, when a warning is issued there may not be enough time to evacuate.

If this is the case, move somewhere safe indoors. Perhaps there are shelters nearby where you and your family could wait. If you are watching the weather and have planned accordingly, this situation is less likely. Still, it is best to have a few different plans and options if you are planning to vacation somewhere where storms are frequent.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Being in an RV during dangerous or even deadly weather does not sound fun. Only you know what is best for you and your family and planning can reduce the chances of surprise storms arising. All things considered, having a home on wheels is somewhat convenient in these situations because when a storm is brewing, you can simply gather your things and drive away. Missing out on your vacation would be a bummer, but it may sometimes be the safest decision. Watching the weather and having an emergency plan are very important. Plan accordingly to keep your family vacations safe, fun, and disaster-free.

More on severe weather: Severe Weather: Tornado Safety Tips for RVers

Worth Pondering…

In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.

—Mark Twain (1835-1910)

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