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How to Survive a Tornado [Tornado Survival Kit]

Learn how to survive a tornado in any given scenario or circumstance it catches you in. By the end of this article you should have a better understanding of how to protect yourself and your family from a tornado.

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Tornadoes are a potentially devastating natural disaster which rip through the USA, inland Europe and other parts of the world every year.

If you live in an area which experiences frequent tornadoes then chances are that you are already prepared; but there may still be things for you to learn.

If you live where they are less common, it is still imperative to be prepared and aware of even the simplest things you can do to keep your family safe during a tornado.

There is often little advance warning before a tornado forms: you may see it form right in front of your eyes before there is any sort of alert from your local warning system, news channel or radio.

This is why it is essential to be prepared, so that you can get to your shelter or the safest part of your house within minutes.

In this article, we will cover:

  • What are tornadoes and why are they dangerous?
  • What is the safest place to be during a tornado?
  • What do I do if I don’t have a basement or designated shelter?
  • What do I do if I live in an apartment block?
  • Is a camper-van a safe place to be?
  • If I am outdoors, what should I do to be safe?
  • What gear should I store in my shelter/basement?
  • Being prepared for a tornado at night
  • What to do after a tornado

What are tornadoes and why are they dangerous?

Tornadoes are rapidly circulating columns of air which connect the earth and the base of a storm cloud. The central and south parts of the USA produce the most ferocious tornadoes, often with over 1000 every year.

The peak season is from March through June, but they can occur at any time of the year.

Although modern detection systems are highly effective and can give advance warnings to nearby populations; they can sometimes arise so quickly that people are caught off-guard.

This, along with their terrifying top wind-speeds of up to 300mph, makes them particularly destructive and a force to be taken very seriously.

They can rip walls off buildings, even bring whole buildings down, and send cars, trailers and other loose items whirling into the air and crashing down.

Aside from the powerful force of the tornado itself; the debris and dust they kick up pose an equal threat to survival, which is why it is essential to get to a shelter which can weather the storm – literally.

What is the safest place to be during a tornado?

Head to your basement or storm shelter.

The safest place to be during a tornado is a dedicated storm shelter or basement.

These are typically underground with a reinforced door or hatch as opposed to free-standing structures, as the solid earth around you is a much better shelter against strong winds than any man-made building exposed to the elements.

As soon as you hear the warning, or sense that a tornado is forming: head to your shelter.

It is a great idea to do drills with your family – especially if you have young children – so that everybody knows what to do during a tornado warning.

Sometimes, you will only have mere minutes to make it to your shelter – being prepared is essential!

If you would like to learn more about home safety, check out our guide on how to build survival shelters for your home.

What if I don’t have a shelter or basement?

If your family home does not have a shelter, then you should locate your nearest one as soon as possible.

This may be with a friend, a neighbor or your local community shelter if you live in an area which is prone to tornadoes.

If you hear a tornado warning or see one forming: start heading to your designated shelter immediately.

Call your friend or neighbor en-route and tell them you are already on your way – do not waste time waiting for them to pick up the phone!

Before disaster strikes, talk to your neighbor, friend or community shelter organizer and find out what amenities are provided, and what you should bring with you in case of emergency.

Prepare a bug-out bag with the rest of your essentials for you and your family so that if a tornado does hit, all you need to do is grab one bag each and immediately leave the property.

Some people even prepare several identical bags and keep copies at home, at work and in their cars so that they are always prepared.

What if I don’t have time to reach a shelter?

If you don’t have your own shelter and there is literally no time for you to reach one, then you must find the safest place in your house as soon as you can.

Pick a place on the ground floor which has no external walls and has as many walls between you and the outside as possible.

How to survive a tornado in an underground shelter.
The best possible tornado protection would be an underground shelter.

Smaller spaces work best, such as a closet, dressing room and even bathroom. Adopt the “brace” position with your head tucked to your knees and your arms over your head, as you may well experience falling debris.

If the tornado does pass your house, external walls will be ripped away first and – unless you are extremely unlucky at the tornado passes directly over your house – you will be a lot safer in the center of your building.

Make sure everybody in your household is aware of your safe place and, again, bring your bug-out bags with you in case part of your house does collapse and you are trapped there for a little while.

Some people build a reinforced “safe room” within the walls of their house. We also talk about building a home survival shelter in our dedicated guide.

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I live in an apartment block. What should I do?

In an apartment block, you should get to the lowest floor feasible and brace yourself in a hallway or a space with no external walls, as above.

In most cases you should NOT attempt to leave the premises and seek alternative shelter. As you can imagine, hundreds of people suddenly flooding the elevators and stairways is more of a hazard than a help.

Most warnings will only give you mere minutes, and you may become trapped in an external-facing zone or elevator; neither of which are safe places to be during a tornado.

Check out this video from the Weather Channel showing the impact different types of tornadoes can have.

What to do if you are outdoors during a tornado

Facing a Tornado in a vehicle

If you find yourself out and about when you hear the warning sirens, or see a tornado forming up-ahead, then drive to a shelter immediately.

Unless your nearest shelter is at your house, do NOT try to return home to protect your children or help your partner – however tempting it may be.

If your family are well-prepared for a tornado, then you have to trust that they know how to keep themselves safe and now you must do the same.

If you are extremely unfortunate and find yourself in the immediate vicinity of a tornado whilst in your vehicle:

  • Pull over and stop your vehicle.
  • Keep your seat belt fastened and engine running (this will allow the airbags to deploy).
  • Make sure all doors and windows are closed and sink yourself below the window-line, to avoid any debris.
  • Adopt the brace position with your head by your knees and hands behind your neck.
  • Place a blanket or thick jacket over yourself to protect your head in case debris falls on your car, or your car gets picked up by the winds.

Facing a Tornado without a vehicle

If you are out on a walk or camping trip and have no immediate access to a vehicle, then you must find alternative shelter immediately.

Ideally, before your trip, you should research the area you will be camping in and determine whether or not a tornado is likely. If it is, it is strongly recommended to reschedule your trip so that you do not run the risk of encountering a storm.

When you are truly exposed to the elements, the safest place to be during a tornado is protected by natural structures which cannot be uprooted, such as a ditch, crevice, cave or otherwise.

Lie on the ground and adopt the brace position and wait for the storm to pass. Do not shelter behind a car, tree or anything else that is above the ground-line; no matter how sturdy it seems. These can all be displaced by heavy winds and are not safe places to be.

Is a motorhome a good storm shelter?

Short answer: NO!

If you live or travel in a motorhome, camper-van or trailer, do not rely on these to keep you safe during a tornado.

Despite the feeling of four “walls” around you, they are simply not built to withstand such strong winds.

Motorhome parked against the sunset
As great as motorhomes can be for a family vacation, they offer no protection in case of a tornado!

Tornadoes have been known to tear motorhomes to shreds and even lift them completely off the ground – before smashing them down to earth – causing complete devastation to everything and everyone within.

If you are in an RV park or campground in a common tornado zone, then they may have a designated shelter for you to head to.

If not, you can either drive to a nearby shelter (if you have time) or leave your motorhome and seek shelter in a ditch, cave or anything else which is firmly protected from the elements.

Tornado Survival Kit

Now is the time to consider the most essential items to have in your storm shelter or basement.

This list is also a good indication of what to keep in your bug-out bag if you don’t have your own shelter (or even if you do have a shelter but would still prefer to have a bug-out bag for unforeseen circumstances).

Here are the basics that every tornado emergency kit should have:

  • Water and purification tablets. You should have enough water for 72hrs and means of purifying extra water. (For bug-out bags store 2-3L of water otherwise the bag becomes too heavy.)
  • High calorie food bars/instant meals. Store enough no-cook food for the first 72 hours. High-calorie food bars are an excellent choice for both shelters and bug-out bags as they are compact and lightweight. DO NOT use a gas camping stove in an underground shelter, as they can become dangerous without proper ventilation.
  • Battery-powered flashlight. Make sure that your flashlight is in good working order and you have at least one full set of spare batteries
  • Battery-powered radio. You will need to know when it is safe to go outside, so a radio is an essential item in case you lack cell signal or the lines go down. Again, make sure you have spare batteries as electricity cannot be relied upon.
  • Medical Kit and Sanitation. A first-aid kit for treating minor injuries as soon as possible, and some form of hand sanitizer or cleansing wet-wipes.
  • Staying warm is essential, especially if the tornado strikes at night or during the winter months.
  • If you become trapped in your shelter, basement or house, a whistle can help others easily locate you and provide you with medical aid much more quickly, should you need it.
  • Breathing protection. N-95 face masks / respirators to protect your lungs from heavy dust kicked up by the tornado.
  • Hatchet and work gloves. Having a small hatchet and sturdy gloves can help you to clear away any debris that is knocked on top of you. Only remove smaller pieces; do not attempt to dislodge potentially load-bearing structures (unless there is an urgent medical need to do so) as this could cause more debris to fall on top of you. Wait until the emergency services arrive as they will have a clearer picture of your situation.
  • Cellphone/ Satellite phone and charger. Keep a spare cell phone and charger in your survival kit, and store the numbers key members of your family, friends and any local tornado/emergency hot-lines. You may not be able to use or charge it right away but you may be separated from your phone when the warning sounds, but you’ll want to make contact as soon as possible.
  • Photo ID and important documents. In case you are unconscious or deceased when emergency services find you, having photo identification will help them locate your next of kin. Also consider storing house deeds, life insurance and any other important documents in a locked safe in your shelter in case your house is destroyed by the tornado.

Obviously, every family’s situation is different and no survival kit will look the same. If you have your own storm shelter then here are some extra items to consider:

  • Spare shoes
  • Soft toys for children
  • Spare medication, glasses and other medical essentials.
  • More warm layers
  • Portable toilet, toilet paper and bio-hazard bags.
  • Light sticks
  • Thermal blankets
Various useful items in case of a tornado
Make sure to always have an emergency survival kit prepared.

What to do after a tornado

Knowing what to do in the wake of a tornado is just as important as being safe during one.

You must know how to treat minor injuries, contact the emergency services and when it is safe to return to your home.

  • Check for injuries. If you or any of your family have been injured by falling debris, dust inhalation or anything else – you should treat these as soon as possible.
  • Tune-in to radio updates. You should know the frequency of your local radio station in advance (you could even write it on a piece of tape and stick it to the console). Listen out for updates on the tornado and whether it is safe to venture back outside, or whether there are more tornado warnings in effect.
  • Check in with other family members and friends. Once you have been given the all-clear, call your nearest and dearest to let them know you are safe. Check in with any vulnerable friends or neighbors who may require assistance. Only call 911 if you need emergency assistance. Please only use this line for emergency medical or fire assistance, otherwise keep the lines free for those truly in need.
  • Only return inside when you are told it is safe to do so. If your home has been directly affected by the tornado, then it may not be safe to enter. If you are in doubt, wait for the fire services to survey your house and give you the all-clear. If you do enter, wear long clothing and use gloves when picking through any debris.
  • Be alert for more warnings! It is easy to think that the worst has passed once one tornado has passed, but the reality is that you may be in for a series of tornadoes and you should always be on alert – especially during storm season. Replenish your emergency kit as soon as possible and stay tuned to your local warning systems.

Final advice for surviving a tornado

Preparation, preparation, preparation!

There will be no time to gather everything you need when a tornado warning is issued; and some come without any warning at all. Make sure that you and your family have everything you need and are routinely familiar with your emergency procedures.

Even if you have a storm shelter, do consider additional bug-out bags that are kept by your front door, in your vehicle or place of work, in case you are not at home when the warning sounds.

Tornadoes can strike at any time of year, day or night, and nothing should be left to chance. Don’t put your families lives at risk by being underprepared!

Oh, and don’t go chasing the storm – leave that to the professionals…

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Hi, I'm Russ!

I've been prepping for a long time, but 2020 convinced me that I need to take it to the next level.

This website started as a way to keep me going forward on the path to being better prepared.

Now, I’m turning it into a complete blueprint for anyone else looking to do the same!
Russell M. Morgan
Telson Survival

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