You most certainly can use thunder to tell how far away a storm is.
Next time you see a thunderstorm, count the number of seconds between when you see the lightning and hear the thunder.
Take the number of seconds and divide by 5 and that will tell you how far away the storm is in miles.
For example: If you counted 20 seconds between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning is 4 miles away!
20 / 5 = 4 miles