This afternoon there was a tornado warning - TAKE SHELTER IN A PERMANENT BUILDING IMMEDIATELY - for the west half of Algonquin Park issued through the usual channels including Twitter. I believe by "permanent building" they meant "not a tent, not a camping trailer, not an RV". What we would normally call a building, but I guess they wanted to emphasize that whatever you're camping in does not count.

Algonquin Park is not what you'd call rich in actual buildings and it's trivially easy to get yourself hours of travel away from one. Just head off away from an access point and however far you've travelled, that's how far you are from the nearest building. Cell phone service is spotty inside, but let's say you have coverage and you're at a campsite, and you get this warning. Or perhaps you have no electronic help but you see a large dark rotating cloud like in this tweet. Everyone says "go inside" but if the nearest inside is two days travel away, then what?

What do you do? There is no building to get into. Are you safer out on the water? Are you best off just going in the tent to keep dry (figuring that only a tiny stripe will actually get tornadoed, while the whole park will be rained on and have stuff blown around, and while the tent can't protect you from the latter, it can from the former) or is being outside able to see and run of any value? Should you at least pick up your emergency kit (I have a small belt pack I wear both ways on portages with a whistle, a little first aid, a flashlight, some matches etc and usually some food) so that you'll have it with you if everything else blows away? Should you move your canoe? Tidy the campsite? Try to put all your heavy stuff together and maybe tie packs to each other? Take the tent poles out to make the tent less likely to be picked up by wind?

What if you're in transit, on a lake or at a portage? Same set of questions I suppose but with less options.

Typical Algonquin geography: lots of large coniferous trees, rocky or sandy shores, lakes of various sizes, paths and trails generally leading back at least 50-100 feet from a shore, small clearings and open beaches for campsites, some small islands.

Things to keep in mind: if you're in your house and the house next door is destroyed by a tornado, you were very lucky. You have a roof, you possibly have power and water, and you have all the possessions that were inside at the time of the storm. Maybe you have a broken window. But if everything you owned was on the lawn at the time, and has blown away, you have no food, no shelter, no dry clothes etc. And if my canoe has blown away too, I have no way to leave my current location and have to wait for rescue. The severe thunderstorm itself could be as big a problem as an actual tornado. Since more of the park will get the severe storm, high winds, lashing rain, I would feel saving my "stuff" was a matter of life and death. Yet I don't actually know how to save my stuff. And I don't know if saving my stuff works against possibly saving myself. I'm beginning to think saving myself is impossible if an actual car-throwing, roof-ripping, house smashing tornado comes through my campsite, in which case battening down the hatches against merely high winds and stuff-ruination becomes a better use of my time. For example, I can't get more than 20 feet away from a tree unless I go out on the water, which is the worst place to go in a lightning storm. Cliffs, caves, overhangs etc are close to nonexistent in Algonquin.

The general guideline for tornado safety is to get as low to the ground as possible and assume the tornado safety crouch:

tornado safety crouch

Wind speeds will be slower close to the ground, you are less likely to be hit by a flying object, and are less of a target for lightning strikes. In the same vein, it is best to avoid stands of trees if possible because the risk of flying debris and lightning strikes are both higher there. If you cannot reach a permanent building, your best bet is to look for a cave, ditch, rock overhang, etc. Any of these will provide more protection than a tent or a backcountry lean-to.

You will definitely want to put your rain gear on to protect against hypothermia, the same as you would during a severe thunderstorm. And bringing your first-aid/safety kit is a very good idea.

A thorough outline of safety precautions to take while camping in extreme weather can be found here.

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    I think you missed two alternative strategies: (1) move to California, (2) imitate the Flying Nun. (Number 2 is only recommended for people born before 1970.) – Ben Crowell Jul 1 '14 at 0:56
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    ok, but what about my stuff? Normally your stuff is in your house - if the tornado hits that, you're out of luck and need rescuers to come help you. But my stuff is outside, spread around a campsite. Will stuffing into packs help? Tying the packs together or to trees? I need this stuff to stay alive afterwards and rescuers don't know where I am the way they know where houses are. Or am I wasting time tidying up stuff and trying to keep it from blowing away, and I should be getting into a clearing and crouching? – Kate Gregory Jul 1 '14 at 0:58
  • @Kate Gregory It most likely depends on the circumstances: how much advance warning you have, how fast the tornado is traveling, and how close you are to its direct path. Probably better to err on the side of caution and take only what you need (first aid, clothes to keep you warm/dry, some water and food). Losing a tent or canoe is no fun, but it's better than being severely injured or killed. – ppl Jul 1 '14 at 1:35
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    @ppl it goes both ways... definitely better to avoid the immediate risk, but you also need deal with any resulting injuries if you get hit by the tornado, and keep yourself alive with food, water, and shelter until you can get out. – nhinkle Jul 1 '14 at 1:39
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    @KateGregory That may be a good reason to keep a tidy camp; if you can break camp in a few minutes you have a better chance of saving gear. The link ppl included has a good section on tornadoes; I'd highlight the observation that most injuries come from flying debris, so I'd suggest keeping an eye out for large boulders or depressions in the ground. (If you're in a forest with only small clearings I'd stay in a part of the forest with shorter trees.) – requiem Jul 1 '14 at 6:25

First thing you should do is confirm the validity of the news. Assuming that the news is genuine:

  • Report your location to some one sitting out safe who can coordinate a rescue once it is all sorted out.
  • If you are car-camping, take a measure if you can drive away before it hits. If you don't think you can, get away from Cars as soon as you can.
  • If you have things not packed together, grab every possible thing that can help you survive for at least 3 days, like Cellphone, Food, Medical Kit, Flashlight, a Knife, Body warmers or Rain-proof jacket, a bottle or a mug for water, sleeping bag. You can afford to lose your tent and other equipment.
  • Look up for the possible direction from where the tornado looks to be approaching. Head away from that direction and start looking for a safe shelter.
  • Look out for caves, overhanging rock formations. Avoid places with loose rocks. Avoid heading into forest with tall trees. Beware of the possibilities of flooding hence Avoid narrow gorges.
  • Avoid getting higher, if you already are up a hill, descend as much as you can before it gets to you.
  • Look out for dwarf thickets, bushes if you can't find yourself a cave. I have always experienced that Bushes and thickets are pretty good to hide in case of gusty winds. Crouch for protection or lie flat (if possible: in a ditch or other low-lying are). Cover your head and neck with your arms or a jacket.
  • If you have seen Gas Lines caution boards around, don't light candles or set up a campfire to keep yourself warm, even after the storm has passed. Ruptured gas lines can create a fire hazard. Also try to stay away from Electricity Lines, those lines are suspended from one tower to another at a very high tension. If one of them cut loose, which probably will happen, it can wipe out anything that comes in its way.
  • I don´t get the part about electricity lines: Why should lighting a fire some meters apart from a (broken) line be more dangerous? – Paul Paulsen Jul 1 '14 at 12:39
  • I swapped "bonfire" for "campfire" as I assume you aren't referring to a truly massive blaze; please revert otherwise. "Bonfire" generally implies significant size (e.g. 6 feet or more across) compared to a "campfire" which is usually small to moderate in size. – requiem Jul 1 '14 at 17:32
  • When you say "look out for dwarf thickets" do you mean to stay away from them, or to look for them and go and hide in them? How can bushes protect me? – Kate Gregory Jul 1 '14 at 18:30

I've been with the Boy Scouts for many years and one thing that we always did when backpacking in remote areas was to not get too cozy. By that I mean don't unpack everything. We always kept as much of our gear as possible in our backpacks so if we needed to leave in a hurry, like if a tornado is coming, all we had to do was break down our tents and sleeping bags, grab our packs, and we were good to go.

Living in Northern Texas for 6 years has also taught me a few things about tornadoes. The general rule of thumb is to stay away from things that can be blown away (hey, that rhymes). This includes cars, tents, and canoes. The reason behind this is that the tornado can pick these items up and throw them all which way and can easily kill you. Sure, a car has a roll cage and an air bags, but what if you land in water? Good luck getting out in time.

Anyway, back to the original question. Your best bet is to get down. The further down you go, the better. If you have time, I would try to "baton down the hatches" as best as possible to keep your stuff from flying away. I like the idea that someone suggested to get into some low brush. Once there, get into the tornado position and wait for it to pass. Keeping your pack on may help protect you from the hail/rain/debris.

If you are in transit, same rules apply but bonus! You already have your stuff together!

Another option would be to turn your canoe over and use that as protection from the elements when waiting for the storm to pass. That means your shelter can "break away" without taking you with it.

So in conclusion (TL;DR):

  • Only unpack what is necessary/keep your stuff together.
  • Keep an eye on the weather. If there is a tornado warning/watch be ready to leave at a moments notice.
  • Put your 10 essentials (survival gear) on your person.
  • If it can be blown away, stay away.
  • Find a location that is low down and can protect you from other hazards.
  • Make sure your camping equipment is covered by your insurance and keep a list of all items and there prices. (Just in case)
  • Remember to create a FLOAT plan and TELL PEOPLE WHERE YOU ARE GOING AND FOR HOW LONG. Tell these people to not hesitate to call the authorities if you don't show up.
  • After the fact, try to tell your FLOAT Plan holder that you are okay (or that you need help).
  • Follow the advice of these other really good answers.

Tie your canoe off to a tree or big rock and sink it in a shallow area (chest deep) it will be safe till you need to retrieve it same with equipment that dosent matter if it gets soaked through (pots and pans water proof items) modern tent are normaly synthetic material polyester you could even pack it up sink it too to dry out later and use. a wet tent is better than no tent. My best opinion for keeping your gear

  • This doesn't really answer the question, which is what is the person supposed to do. – Eric Dec 24 '15 at 7:14
  • This also has the added benefit that the stuff will not be blowing around and damaging you or your other belongings. – Aaron Dec 13 '17 at 21:24

Back in the day, they told us to run to a nearby ditch and duck and cover (on the news during tornado warnings and watches). I was in a trailer, with no cellar/basement nearby. Instead of blindly offering that as advice, I thought I'd do a quick google check. My search turned up this nifty article on pros and cons of ditch vs car. Excerpt:

Hazards of getting out of the car and into a ditch:

  • Flying and tumbling debris may land on you, possibly even your vehicle
  • Heavy rain may fill the ditch and threaten drowning, particularly if you are pinned down by debris
  • You may be pummeled by hail
  • You are at risk from lightning

Hazards of staying in the vehicle:

  • The vehicle may be rolled or tossed by the tornado and you may be injured or crushed
  • Flying debris may penetrate the vehicle and hit you

Benefits of getting into a ditch:

  • Getting into a ditch puts you below the strong winds and flying debris near and above the prevailing ground level

Benefits of staying in the vehicle:

  • Metal frame and safety glass offer some shielding from strong winds and flying debris, while seat belts and air bags cushion the jolts if the vehicle is overturned or tossed

Note that the article contains a dead link from red cross (which I guess is why StackExchange encourages following up links with explanations). Searching their site came up with this, which recommends getting "noticeably below road level" if possible.

The NOAA Brochure linked in that article says:

Take shelter in a sturdy reinforced building if at all possible. Overpasses, ditches, and culverts may provide limited protection from a tornado, but your risk will be greatly reduced by moving inside a strong building.

limited protection still seems better than none.

From personal experience, running to a ditch in high winds hurts. Rain itself can become painful, without adding flying debris. Once in the ditch, if you are sheltered from the wind, the cold is much more bothersome than the rain. Never personally been hit by hail during a tornado warning/watch, but I can imagine it would do a bit of damage. Imagine a major league pitcher throwing ice at you.

To your other points, you are not safer out on the water. There is nothing to shield you from the wind there, and tornados can certainly pass over water. Fiberglass tent poles can break under significantly less wind than 100mph (not sure about aluminum), so staking the tent down isn't a guarantee of keeping your tent. Without the poles, the tent still seems a bit like a kite, but I've never seen or tried it. Most (all but one) of my trips to the ditch never actually saw me close to a tornado. It is incorrect to think that just the "strip" that gets hit directly by the tornado is the only danger zone. The winds can be extremely strong miles away from the tornado. I've seen lawn chairs ending up a hundred yards or so from where they were, with no tornado for miles. Getting out of the rain is good thinking, though. Avoiding flash floods is also wise.

  • The current advice for overpasses is to avoid them: they create a "funnel" effect that strengthens the wind, and they don't provide protection from enough directions to compensate for that. – Mark Oct 16 '15 at 0:02

The tent and the canoe are both objects that can catch wind. Tornadoes can generate winds in excess of 200 MPH and can throw cars. You would want to avoid being in either. Securing as much gear as possible is good common sense, but think about your safety and the safety of your party first.

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