High winds are generally not encountered when family tent camping, unless campers ignore weather forecasts.
However, to increase confidence in camping and in being in the outdoors, a bit of knowledge of high winds and of when and how to act is useful.
The wind scale categories below allow campers to easily assess the threat of high winds and to choose appropriate shelter.
Campers should bring a radio or an electronic device to the campsite to monitor winds and weather forecasts.
Campers may also enjoy reading the Tent Camping And Wind page in order to explore the more moderate winds that family tent campers normally encounter.
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Description, suitable equipment, useful tips, etc.
30 - 60 mph
Strong to severe.
Families who camp in the mountains, in arid regions or along the ocean coasts will be more exposed to strong winds.
However, tent camping in these winds is beyond the scope of most family recreating.
Family tent campers should plan carefully to avoid high winds.
Be mindful and be flexible to keep camping trips successful and enjoyable.
Experienced tent campers who choose to camp in areas where 30 mph winds are more common are usually expedition (exped) trekkers or wilderness backpackers. They have sturdy, aerodynamic equipment and are often prepared to camp in up to 60 mph winds or gusts.
These enthusiasts usually also choose to camp in exposed sites away from any falling or flying debris.
Tents for 30 to 60 mph winds tend to be either too small, too expensive, too bulky or too heavy to suit most family campers.
For campers in windy regions who, on occasion, need a tent that will withstand the lower range of these wind speeds can consider the following tents:
These tents either have a full rainfly or no rainfly, which the wind won't catch. They also have sturdy frames.
Families will find that neither a sheltered nor an exposed campsite will be suitable for tent camping in these winds.
At a forested site, trees will block much of the wind, but tents will be exposed to a significant threat from falling branches and from falling trees.
Trees will be in full motion and will provide an ominous backdrop to a forested campsite.
At an exposed campsite, family tents should be safe from falling branches, but will likely be exposed to too much wind to stand or to provide safe shelter.
Camping: Campers whose tent is exposed to these winds due to a passing storm can park their vehicle directly upwind of the tent to block the brunt of the wind.
The tent walls may flap heavily, making it stressful for families to experience for more than an hour. Sleeping will likely be quite difficult.
Wind gusts become very significant in this range. Hikers can be knocked down.
Emergency shelter: Vehicles can provide shelter from these winds. Vehicle glass should protect campers against these winds, but watch for debris in the air.
Park the vehicle away from trees.
Travel: Vehicles will need to get off of the roads as these winds increase, especially vehicles with large profiles.
Side gusts and large passing vehicles can push a vehicle out of the lane or off of the road.
These winds can especially destabilize trailers towed behind cars.
Boaters are also required to get out of the water in these winds.
Rain in these winds will be fairly horizontal with a lot of penetrating force on tent fabric and on clothing.
Other expressions for these rains include "heavy, wind-driven rain", "raining sideways", "&@*#%", etc.
30 to 60 mph winds are caused by a very strong low pressure system or strong storm cell. Because these large systems or cells take longer to pass over an area, these winds often last a long time, sometimes for days.
Tree failure or breakage will become significant as winds increase through this range. If a lot of rain has softened the ground, toppled trees will be a common sight. Rotting or large, heavy branches can snap off of trees.
Debris: Dust, sand, leaves, etc. Unsecured large flat objects can catch the wind and become dangerous projectiles.
Most family tents will be reduced to debris in these winds.
This threshold marks severe winds.
The NWS issues severe weather advisories as well as severe thunderstorm warnings for 60 mph winds.
60 mph is also an approximate threshold for a weak tornado or a hurricane.
Compared to the 7.5 mph baseline for light winds, at 60 mph the wind force is over 60 times as strong.
Severe to extreme.
The greatest dangers in these winds are small debris and trees.
These winds can launch small debris, which can cause serious injury outdoors. Toppled trees can crush tents, vehicles and buildings.
Frequency: It is very unlikely for family campers to encounter these winds in the outdoors.
They occur less than once a camping season for most campgrounds and are always accompanied by weather alerts.
Weather origin: 60 to 120 mph winds are caused by a very strong low pressure system, supercell, straight line winds, weak tornado, severe storm cells, severe thunderstorm or a weak hurricane making landfall.
Tree breakage or failure: Substantial. Toppled individual trees to large blowdowns of forest canopy. These winds are beyond the limits of many trees.
Structure damage: Parked trailers, mobile homes, out buildings and other structures without foundations are usually blown over or destroyed in these winds. Buildings with foundations suffer mainly roof damage.
Tornado: Roughly 80% of tornados fall within these wind speeds and are designated as weak tornados, which are usually on the ground for up to several minutes.
For tent campers this means that most tornados are survivable with adequate shelter.
Emergency shelter tips: Campgrounds are designed for camping and have a limited number of buildings on foundations that can protect against severe winds and light projectiles, but not necessarily from falling trees.
When entering a developed campground, tent campers should note the location of the emergency shelter, which is usually posted at the entrance to the campsites or at the park office. The emergency shelter should be the first choice of shelter.
If the toilet and shower block is built from concrete blocks and mortar, it should also provide shelter against these winds, but again not necessarily from falling trees.
Vehicles or trailers cannot provide safe shelter from these winds. They can be battered or overturned. Glass will not protect against these winds.
Family tent campers at wilderness campsites need to plan in order to avoid severe winds. Shelter may be limited or not available at all.
This threshold marks extreme winds.
The NWS issues strong or severe tornado and strong hurricane warnings for these winds.
This wind speed corresponds to an F2 (EF2) tornado or a Category 3 hurricane.
This speed is roughly in the range of a terminal velocity for a variety of large objects--for example, the human body.
At approximately this speed, wind begins to exert a force on many large objects that is equal to their weight. The wind will be able to move large unsecured objects.
Compared to 7.5 mph, at 120 mph the wind force is over 250 times as great.
Extreme to fatal.
Campers will not experience these winds unless they have ignored a tornado warning or have not kept apprised of the weather. A weather forecast of possible tornados later in the day should give ample warning to tent campers to pack up and leave the area.
Due to weather forecasting, experiencing these winds while tent camping is as likely as winning the lottery.
Frequency: On average, these winds strike any specific area less than once every 50 years.
Wind origin: Supercell, straight line winds, strong tornado, strong hurricane.
Tree damage will be fairly complete: In the path of the tornado, moderate to total destruction of vegetation, which can be snapped off or uprooted, as well as toppled.
Structural damage: Moderate to severe damage to structures (even tall buildings), bridges, and highways.
These winds can push a building off of its foundation, or even carry it away.
Debris: As winds increase within this range, they are able to launch ever larger and heavier projectiles. These missiles batter, seriously damage, and often cause buildings to collapse, creating more debris.
Due to the destructive airborne debris, these tornados have an effect similar to artillery.
These winds can launch a vehicle into a building and can even carry buildings and vehicles away.
Tornado: Approximately 20% of tornados fall within these wind speeds, the majority towards the lower end of the range.
A strong tornado may last 30 minutes or longer.
From the year 2007 to 2010, approximately 1 in 50 tornados caused a death in the US, and these killer tornados averaged about 3 deaths each. This shows that the vast majority of tornados are survivable.
Strong tornados are spawned by supercell storms or hurricanes, which are visible on weather radar and thus fairly easy to avoid.
Shelter tips: In these winds people should, if possible, seek shelter below ground. Structures above ground may not offer adequate shelter against extreme winds and large debris.
However, most campgrounds are unlikely to offer underground shelter.
In an emergency, campers should make haste to the designated campground emergency shelter, whatever and wherever it is. Knowledgeable people will have designated it to be the sturdiest structure and best shelter in the campground. It will be the best chance for survival.
Upper limit of wind scale.
This wind speed corresponds to an F4 (EF5) violent tornado.
This wind will cause massive damage to the outdoors.
A violent tornado can last up to one hour.
Safe shelter from a violent tornado is most likely an underground bunker with a supported ceiling, which is unlikely to be unavailable to tent campers.
Compared to 7.5 mph, at 240 mph, the wind force is over 1000 times as great.
Readers should now know how to divide high winds into categories: strong (30-60 mph), severe (60-120 mph), and extreme (120-240+ mph). Tent campers also now know the minimum shelter in each range for reasonable safety, (inside a vehicle, inside a structure with a foundation, below ground).
This scale also shows that, in the unlikely event of extreme winds at a campground, it may be impossible to find shelter which can assure safety. Tent campers will have to make do with what is available.
The most important ideas that the scale imparts for family tent camping is that it is wise to monitor the weather, to avoid high winds and to know in advance where the designated emergency shelter is located.
Be mindful. Be flexible. Enjoy tent camping.
This page concludes an odyssey through wind in the outdoors. These wind pages were written in order to give novice campers a basic understanding of wind and increase their confidence in camping in the outdoors.