My wife and I were passing time in our Roadtrek campervan at a state park campground, waiting for a violent storm to pass. Heavy sheets of rain pounded the roof and gusting winds caused the vehicle to shake. We could hear a siren piercing through the rain. Switching on the radio, we heard a mechanical voice issuing dire warnings of a tornado.
Luckily the storm passed as quickly as it arrived, and no tornado rolled through the campground that day. But the experience got me thinking—what would we have done if we’d seen a funnel cloud barreling down on us? Drive toward clear skies and attempt to outrun the storm? Seek shelter under an overpass? Or just hunker down and hope for the best? What should RVers do in other scenarios when inclement weather hits?
Tips for Handling Emergency Weather Situations in Your RV
The most important thing to do is to plan ahead, says Doug Hilderbrand, preparedness and resilience program lead at the National Weather Service. Whenever you plan a trip, do your homework and know when bad weather traditionally arrives at your destination. Oklahoma in May? That’s peak tornado season. A week before leaving, start eyeing the extended forecast for not only your final destination, but also the areas you will be driving through. Talk to your travel partners about what to do if the weather turns bad.
Whenever you leave for a trip, be sure to have enough supplies in your rig to last about a week. This includes food and water, batteries, propane, gasoline—especially if you run a generator—and more. A portable NOAA-certified weather radio, preferably one with a hand crank that will work if you’re completely out of power, is a must.
“You want multiple sources of information,” Hilderbrand says. “Don’t rely on just your cell phone, as towers can go out or your battery can die.”
Even if you spend your days chasing sunny days and warm weather, the cold isn’t always unavoidable. Keep at least a bare minimum of cold weather gear if you’re traveling in the winter. Ron Gurth, a full-time RVer, was driving through Texas with his wife Sally when high winds forced them to pull off the interstate. The couple spent a couple of days in a random parking lot as the weather raged outside.
“It was 75 degrees earlier that day,” says Gurth. “The next day, it was 15.”
Pack an emergency go-bag with food, water, necessary medications, and more, just in case you need to evacuate without your RV. Have a few fully charged power banks and cords at the ready so you can recharge your phone when needed.
If a freak weather event happens out of nowhere, batten down the hatches, stow any chairs or gear that you have outside, and retract any awnings or slides.
Expert advice: Ditch your rig and take shelter in the most secure location you can find.
If you’re on the road when you see a tornado or funnel cloud, don’t try to outrun it. Try to find shelter immediately, but don’t park under an overpass—it’s one of the most dangerous places you can be during a tornado. Get off at the nearest exit and take shelter at a gas station or store.
If you’re at a campground, seek shelter in the camp office or bathrooms, which are typically made of cinder block and offer more protection than your RV. If you’re boondocking somewhere without any permanent structures and you don’t have time to flee, retreat to a ditch or other low-lying area, and lie flat with your hands over your head.
Severe Thunderstorms and High Winds
Expert advice: Find shelter and move the RV away from falling branches.
You’re relatively safe inside your motorhome during a mild-to-moderate thunderstorm, Hilderbrand says. It gets a little trickier when you add strong winds to the mix. Nearly everyone who drives an RV knows how they handle the wind on a typical day; as the wind speed increases, so does the likelihood that the RV will flip.
Outdoor writer Mark Taylor met up with two friends in Alaska, spending 10 days driving around in a 24-foot RV and fishing. After taking a ferry to Cordova on a one-way ticket, the friends had a few days of great weather and fishing. Then the storms hit.
“Storm after storm rolled in,” says Taylor. “All ferries were canceled for several days. When they finally could sail, passengers who already had tickets got precedence. Then another storm rolled in. And another. We would drive around Cordova looking for areas, usually behind buildings that were somewhat sheltered from the wind.”
For days, the trio sat around in the motorhome. One of Taylor’s friends had planned to fly out of Cordova and left. A few days later, his other friend decided to do the same, leaving Taylor alone.
“Finally, it looked like there would be a weather window and I got on the standby list for the ferry,” he says. “I drove down near the dock and parked for the night … That was the worst wind night. It was blowing 40 or 50 miles per hour; if we’d had an inclinometer on that rig, I bet I was hitting 10 degrees.”
The safer thing to do, Hilderbrand says, would have been to find shelter in a sturdier structure. Parking next to a building “should be an action of last resort.” If in a campground or forest during a high-wind situation, RVers should move their rigs away from any trees or large branches that might come down. You should also watch out for potential flooding, especially if you’re at a campground on the water.
Expert advice: Go high, but beware of flooded roads.
If you’re caught camping near a rapidly rising creek, river, or other body of water, or perhaps an area prone to flash flooding, head to higher ground.
Be wary of a flooded road. Depending on the depth of the water, your vehicle can easily become buoyant and get washed away, Hilderbrand says. Depending on how long the road has been flooding and the condition of the ground underneath, your RV could also sink. If you’re not in immediate danger, it may be best to wait for the water to subside.
Sometimes the danger is less obvious.
“Despite the weather being perfect at your campsite, a storm miles away could cause a flash flood,” Hilderbrand says. “You always need to be aware of warning signals and take precautions.”
Even if you’re in an area that looks dry, don’t camp in a spot that looks like it might have once been a riverbed. If you see a storm from a distance, be alert. Depending on how far away the storm is, you might be able to see or hear the water minutes before it reaches your campsite.
Expert advice: Stay warm and keep a shovel on hand.
If visibility gets bad while you’re on the road, get off at the nearest exit and find a place to park and wait for conditions to improve. Try to avoid pulling off onto the side of the highway, as the lower visibility increases the likelihood of someone rear-ending you. If you’re already camping, stay put.
Keep a collapsible shovel on hand in case you need to dig yourself out. I own an all-purpose shovel that can be used throughout the year, but a snow-specific model might be handier if you routinely travel in an area prone to snow. A set of traction boards can also help in an emergency, but you can typically find an alternative that you already own, like leveling blocks.
Stay home if the conditions look bad. But if you absolutely must get first tracks on the mountain, camp somewhere where you can easily retreat for warmth and shelter if something goes wrong.
If you get snowed in, at the very least, make sure your exhaust pipes, both for your RV and your generator, are dug out, as you don’t want those fumes backing up into your vehicle.
Be wary that reacting to one disaster doesn’t lead you to another, Hilderbrand warns. In 2013, an Oklahoma family sought refuge from a tornado inside a nearby drainage tunnel, only to be caught in a flash flood. “Situational awareness is crucial,” says Hilderbrand.
With a bit of caution and a lot of preparedness, you should be able to survive most bad-weather scenarios that you encounter in your RV.
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