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Surviving a Tornado: Learn the Proven Strategies to Stay Safe

We have traveled in an RV full-time since 2015 and, because of our mobile lifestyle, have crossed paths with tornados more than once. While we know most people won’t be facing tornados in an RV we would like to share our preparation tips if you find yourself in a tornado situation.

Unlike hurricanes, tornadoes give minimal warning about where or when they’ll strike. Knowing how to survive a tornado is essential, especially in certain parts of the country. Today, we share a handful of proven strategies to help you stay safe and survive a tornado.

What Classifies a Tornado Vs Other Storms?

A tornado is a weather phenomenon that creates a massive rotating column of air extending from the clouds to the ground. While a tornado itself is not a storm, they can form from any storm strong enough to create rotating columns of air.

Tornadoes typically form during thunderstorms in areas with warm, humid air flowing in two different directions. These two different wind directions create swirling air in between called wind shear. In a strong storm, warm air rises quickly through this rotating air and can turn it from horizontal to vertical. This creates a column of air that scientists call a mesocyclone, which rotates quickly. Once the mesocyclone touches the ground, it becomes a tornado.

Sizes for tornadoes can vary considerably from one storm to the next. Most tornadoes are very small and are less than 100 yards wide. However, giant tornadoes can be more than a mile wide and decimate entire neighborhoods and communities. The largest tornado ever recorded occurred in El Reno, Oklahoma, in 2013. The massive storm was over 2.5 miles wide and claimed the lives of nine individuals.

What Causes a Tornado?
This video gives a good overview of one of the most easy-to-understand tornado formation sequences.

Where and When Do Tornadoes Typically Occur?

Suppose you want to move somewhere that doesn’t have tornadoes, good luck. Tornadoes have occurred on every continent and all 50 states in the United States of America. The United States averages 800 tornadoes annually, making it the country with the most tornadoes. On the other hand, New Zealand has the lowest number of tornadoes, with an average of 10 per year.

While tornadoes can occur anywhere in the United States, some places experience them more frequently than others. “Tornado Alley” is a region in the central portion of the United States that experiences the most tornadic activity. While there is no official list of states, it typically includes Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa. In our travels, we have had multiple close calls in the central US states but also in Michigan and Florida.

Tornadoes can occur at any time of year. However, they’re more common during the spring and early summer due to warm, moist air meeting with the colder air from the north. 

tornado probability map
This map produced by Noaa shows where tornados occur most frequently in the united states, however a tornado can occur anywhere.

The length of time tornadoes last can vary tremendously depending on the storm. They can last anywhere from a few seconds to more than an hour. However, most typically are on the ground for less than 10 minutes. The size and strength of the storm combined with the terrain can determine the tornado’s longevity. 

The longer a tornado spends on the ground, the more destructive and dangerous it can be. However, the loss of life can occur in a matter of seconds. You need to take warnings seriously and know what to do if you want the best chance of surviving a tornado.

Pro Tip: Track the weather while on the road by using these tips on How to Set Up an RV Weather Station.

Tornado in field
Swift action and well thought out preparation can help you survive a tornado.

Is It Possible To Survive a Tornado?

Tornadoes are incredibly powerful and dangerous storms that demand respect. The National Weather Service states that in an average year, there are approximately 80 deaths and 1500 injuries from tornadoes in the United States. If you don’t want to be one of them, you must take these storms seriously and know how to respond when they occur.

With the correct preparations and actions, it’s possible to survive a tornado. However, these storms can be incredibly unpredictable and strike quickly. You may have very little time to get to safety and need to make split-second decisions that could have dire consequences.

What Happens If a Tornado Picks You Up?

Tornadoes are incredibly powerful and are capable of lifting and hurling objects for miles. A 1928 tornado in Nebraska lifted a 240,000-pound steam locomotive and carried it for 80 feet before setting it down. A small EF2 tornado produces wind speeds between 111 and 135 miles per hour, all it takes to lift a car through the air.

Even a weak tornado will have little trouble lifting a human off the ground and hurling them through the air. This is why you must find a safe place, preferably underground, to seek shelter during these storms. If there is no shelter, find a low-lying area and protect your head and neck with your arms.

If the tornado picks you up, don’t fight it. Just continue to protect your head and neck with your arms. Brace yourself because it won’t be a smooth ride. Remain calm and go with the flow of the wind. While it may seem like an eternity, it typically doesn’t last long.

Tornado shelter sign
Seek shelter as fast as possible when you receive a tornado warning alert.

How to Survive a Tornado

Tornadoes are incredibly powerful, and your survival will require preparation and quick action. If you want to increase your chances of surviving a tornado, follow these steps. We will also cover what to do while driving, camping or RVing.

RVing in Dangerous Weather - Tips from Tom
Here I am many years ago talking about RVing in bad weather.

Pay Attention to Weather Alerts and Warnings

One of the biggest mistakes people make regarding extreme weather is not paying attention to weather alerts and warnings. You need to stay aware of the weather and adjust your behavior accordingly. If there’s a tornado watch or warning, it may not be the best time to go for a Sunday drive or make an unnecessary trip to the store.

It’s best to enable notifications on your phone for your favorite weather app. This can notify you within seconds if a watch or warning gets issued for your location. If this occurs, you should take action immediately. Do not wait for the weather conditions to worsen before you seek shelter. Storms can come quickly, and you may not have much time to respond.

Have a Plan

If you want to survive a tornado, you must have a plan. This includes identifying a safe shelter, like a basement, storm shelter, or interior room on the lowest building level, where you can ride out a storm. Trust us; you don’t want to be figuring out where to go during the chaos of a tornado.

Additionally, you’ll want a communication plan. This could be your cell phone, two-way radio, or other devices. However, it’s crucial to remember that cellular networks may not function after a major disaster. Communicate with loved ones to establish a designated meeting place if you cannot reach each other after the storm.

You’ll also want to have a plan for an evacuation route. Know the roads and be aware of potential alternative ways. Downed power lines and trees could block the fastest or most straightforward route. If that’s the case, you’ll be glad you took the time to have a plan.

Seek Shelter

When severe weather is approaching, it’s best to seek shelter before it gets nasty. If you wait until the storm arrives or intensifies, it may be too late. You should seek refuge in a tornado-safe structure. These typically include basements, storm cellars, or a safe room. Some communities offer safe rooms or shelters for those who may not have them at home.

Additionally, anyone without a basement will want to move to the lowest level in their building. Use sturdy furniture as a shield to protect from debris. If you can, get into the bathtub and place a mattress on top of you. This can help absorb the blow from any falling items.

Consider Dangers In A Vehicle

If you are in a vehicle, park in an open area or if possible or in a ditch. Avoid underpasses or other open parking areas, as these can actually funnel wind and debris. Stay in the vehicle and leave your seatbelt on and the vehicle running. Duck down and keep your head below the windows. If you are in a bus or motorhome and have no other vehicle to get into, get out and lie down in a ditch below road level. While buses and RVs are easy for storms to flip, cars and trucks are much more aerodynamic and tend to be safer. If you have nowhere else to go in an RV, get in your car instead. We have had to do this twice.

Those individuals in a mobile home or RV will want to know the nearest safe structure to seek shelter if available. Attempting to ride out a tornado in a mobile home or RV is unsafe. They can easily topple over, or the storm could pick them up, and you never know where you’ll land.

Pro Tip: Stay safe no matter the weather. Use this guide on How to Survive a Sandstorm.

Tornado in corn field
To survive a tornado, you must take safety seriously and act quickly.

Protect Your Head

No matter where you’re sheltering, you must protect your head during a tornado. Use your arms to cover your head and neck. Tuck your head down as low as you can to avoid getting hit by debris. 

As silly as it sounds, strap on a bike helmet or hard hat if you have one. These items are perfect for protecting your head during the chaos. If you don’t, grab a pillow or cushion to place on your head.

Stay Away from Windows

While standing near windows and watching the storm may be tempting, it’s a terrible idea. Tornadoes can produce incredible winds that could send debris flying through the air. You don’t want to stand near a window should this occur.

It would be best to move to an interior room of the building, as far away from any windows as possible. This could be an interior bathroom or closet, but any windowless room will do. If experts issue a tornado warning where you live, seek shelter immediately.

Have Emergency Supplies on Hand

One of the challenging things about tornadoes is that they can occur incredibly fast. If you’re unaware of the weather, they may be on top of you before you know it. The skies can go from sunny to ominous in the blink of an eye. By that time, it’s too late to run to the store to grab supplies. Having them on hand and stored safely is a practical idea if you want to survive a tornado.

You will want water, food, medications, a flashlight, a whistle, and a portable radio in your emergency supplies. Additionally, a collection of cash, extra clothing and blankets, and personal hygiene items are worth having. You never know how long you’ll need to fend for yourself or what the impact will be where you live. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Wait It Out

If a tornado hits your location, you must find a safe place to wait. Once in a safe place, stay there until the conditions improve. If you can use your phone, try contacting others outside the storm’s path. They may be able to look at weather maps and let you know when it’s safe to exit.

Once the storm passes, stay calm. Check for injuries and administer first aid as needed. In addition, be mindful that there could be live power lines on the ground. When in doubt, wait for professionals to arrive to secure the scene and offer assistance. 

Pro Tip: RVing in bad weather can be quite risky! Stay safe on the road with these tips on How to Weather the Weather in an RV.

Take Tornado Safety Seriously

If you want to survive a tornado, you must take safety seriously. These storms are dangerous, and you should take every precaution to protect yourself and your loved ones. Unfortunately, many people lose their lives each year, including those who have taken the proper precautions. It’s a reminder that mother nature is potent and unpredictable.

Do you have an emergency plan for a tornado? Tell us your plan in the comments!

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About Cait Morton

Co-Founder, Logistics Queen, Business & Content Manager, and Animal Lover

An Upper Peninsula of Michigan native (aka a Yooper), Caitlin is the organization, big-picture, and content strategy queen of our operation. She keeps everything orderly and on track.

With a background in Business Management, she supports and helps channel Tom’s technical prowess into the helpful content our readers and viewers expect. That’s not to say you won’t find her turning wrenches and talking shop – RV life is a team effort. She keeps the business and the blog moving forward with a variety of topics and resources for our audience.

Believe it or not, she is rather camera shy, though she co-hosts the Mortons’ personal videos and The RVers TV show.

Caitlin’s passion lies in outdoor recreation and with animals. Some of her favorite things to do are hiking, biking, and getting out on the water via kayak, SUP, or boat.

She also loves the RV life due to the fact that you can bring your pets along. Sharing information about safely recreating outdoors with your whole family – pets included! – is very important to her. Because of this, Caitlin spearheaded the launch of HypePets in 2023.

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Jeff Conlee

Sunday 30th of April 2023

Shirley you are correct. I also heard the same thing. I just searched and several entities say do not use underpasses for shelter for tornadoes but find a low lying area or stay in your car with seat belts on but duck down.

Shirley Hughey

Saturday 29th of April 2023

Hello,

It's my understanding that underpasses are NOT safe places but incredibly dangerous during tornados. Please set your readers safe on this.

Shirley Hughey

Saturday 29th of April 2023

It's my understanding that underpasses are incredibly dangerous places to be during a tornado. Please set your readers safe on this. Thank you.