Gear Guy

Are tent poles dangerous if lightning strikes?

I recently bought a Talus tent from The North Face for camping in the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Mountains this summer. Afterwards, though, it occurred to me that thunderstorms can be vicious in the region at that time of year. Will I be safe and dry in the Talus if a T-storm suddenly hits, or did I make a poor choice? Also, are aluminum tent poles dangerous if lightning strikes? Marshall McLean, Virginia

A: Thunderstorm, shmunderstorm. Think about early Native American inhabitants of the region. They didn't need any stinkin' tent. They just hunkered under a deerskin or a few tree limbs.

Talus 23

By comparison, you're treading a veritable garden path. And the Talus (retail was about $200; they're now widely available on closeout) should ensure you're warm and dry regardless of the weather. It's a three-season design, but has a sturdy pole configuration and full fly for decent wind resistance and excellent rain protection.

A few caveats, though. If severe weather threatens, it's always prudent to pitch your tent in a sheltered spot—amid some trees, tucked into a ravine, somewhere out of the prevailing winds. Also, be sure to guy the tent out carefully. Even though the Talus is freestanding, it still needs to be staked out both to protect from hard wind gusts and to ensure it doesn't fly away. Realistically, no tent is bulletproof, so do what you can to help it withstand the conditions.

Lightning is an interesting issue. I'm not aware of any reports of tent poles attracting lightning, but the possibility certainly exists. However, a tent pole is probably not the first thing a bolt would strike in its passage to the ground. Where you pitch your tent is really more of a concern than the components of your actual tent.

In general, you want to ensure your tent is not the highest point on the terrain—that is, do not pitch it right on a ridgetop, at least when thunderstorms threaten. Avoid large, open meadows, too. Don't pitch it under a tall tree, either, as the taller the tree, the better conductor it becomes. So, if possible, set camp off ridges amidst clusters of medium-sized trees. But, if a big T-storm parks right overhead, I don't have any great advice. Stay low, avoid tall trees, stay out of caves or depressions under rocks where ground lightning might find you. Your tent will keep out the rain but won't offer any protection from lightning, so you might consider leaving it until the storm passes. Take your (frameless) pack, and go find a low rock to sit on with your pack set beneath you.

Otherwise, have fun!

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Lead Photo: courtesy, The North Face
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