If you spend time outdoors you should be prepared to deal with bad weather. Thunderstorms are no joke. Learn how to miminize risk of being struck by lightning.
All thunderstorms may produce lightning. Lightning strikes the ground, the air, or inside clouds. Cloud to Ground (CG) lightning only account for a small percentage of the total flashes produced in a thunderstorm, but it’s the most dangerous. A majority of lightning stays within the clouds.
Although it may seem unlikely that you’ll ever be struck by lightning, more people are killed by lightning strike each year than by any other weather phenomenon. In the United States, the average annual death toll from lightning is 51 deaths per year. Many more are severely injured. In comparison, there are approximately 30,000 fatal motor vehicle crashes in the United States each year.
The chance of an average person living in the US being struck by lightning in a given year is estimated at 1 in 500,000. The chance of being struck by lightning in a lifetime is 1 in 6250. However, if you spend a lot of time outdoors, you are obviously at higher risk.
Your first line of defense against hazardous weather is always to plan ahead.
Be aware of, and familiar with, weather patterns in the area. During summer months, on humid days, many areas are nearly guaranteed to see afternoon thunderstorms. Keep this in mind when planning an outdoor activity. Save the ridgeline backpacking trip for later in the season. Car-camping in the valley may be a better option for a muggy July weekend.
Mountain thunderstorms frequently form in the early to mid-afternoon. Therefore it is generally advised that you hike to the high peaks starting in the early morning, so that you can be on the way down from the peaks when the threat from thunderstorms is greater during the afternoon.
If you are in an area where thunderstorms are likely, know where safe shelters are. Discuss emergency plans and thunderstorm safety with all members of your household, including your kids, so that everyone knows what to do in case of an emergency.
Check the Weather Forecast
Having access to, and being able to interpret, the weather forecast is crucial. Check weather forecast continuously while outdoors. If you don’t anticipate having cell-phone coverage, consider bringing a small radio for purpose of staying informed about changing weather patterns.
Know how to interpret weather forecasts:
- Severe Thunderstorm Watch: Severe thunderstorms are possible in and near the watch area. Stay informed and be ready to act if a severe thunderstorm warning is issued. Do not dismiss a Watch as “no big deal, it probably won’t happen.” Instead, continue monitoring weather patterns and check forecast continuously. Now is the time to make a Plan B. Locate nearby shelters. If you are on a boat or canoe, head back to shore. Do not continue hiking up-hill. Start moving to lower ground. Confirm emergency plans with your group.
- Severe Thunderstorm Warning: Severe weather has been reported by spotters or indicated by radar. Warnings indicate imminent danger to life and property. At this point you should consider executing your Plan B. Immediately move to lower grounds, if you haven’t already. Immediately get off water. Quickly move away from open areas. Seek shelter.
You should always be watching the skies for signs of approaching bad weather when outdoors. Signs may include dark skies, rain, and towering cumulonimbus clouds. Don’t rely solely on weather forecast. Be aware that lightning can strike in the absence of any common, obvious indicators, such as thunder or rain.
Anytime you are outdoors, you’ve increased your risk of being struck by lightning. You are never safe outside in a thunderstorm – regardless of location or surrounding terrain. Your first choice of shelter should always be indoors, inside a building. Outhouses and sheds are not safe.
Although lightning strikes appear to be random, there are several precautions you can take to minimize risk of getting struck by lightning. The National Weather Service suggest the following precautions:
- You are not safe from lightning anywhere outside. Always seek shelter inside building or vehicle if available.
- While your tent or a picnic shelter may shield you from rain, they do NOT provide protection against lightning. Do NOT stay in your tent. Seek shelter in your vehicle, if nearby, instead. Wait 30 minutes until after the last rumble of thunder before going back to the campsite.
- Avoid open fields, the top of a hill or a ridge top.
- Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees.
- If you are in a group, spread out to avoid the current traveling between group members. People should be dispersed 50’ apart to reduce chance of multiple injuries.
- If you are camping in an open area, set up camp in a valley, ravine or other low area. Remember, a tent offers NO protection from lighting.
- Stay away from water, wet items, such as ropes, and metal objects, such as fences and poles. Water and metal do not attract lightning but they are excellent conductors of electricity. The current from a lightning flash will easily travel for long distances.
Backcountry Lightning Safety
If you are traveling in the backcountry, you may not have access to either a building or vehicle. The National Outdoor Leadership School outlines a set of guidelines (NOLS Backcountry Lighting Safety Guidelines), specifically for backcountry use, that can reduce your risk of being struck by lightning:
- Time visits to high-risk areas with weather patterns: be familiar with weather patterns in the area, and begin turnaround as soon as you hear thunder. In calm air you can hear thunder for approximately 10 miles.
- Find safer terrain if you hear thunder: avoid high-points, ridges, and peaks. Descend a mountain on the side that has no clouds. Move to safer, low terrain as soon as you hear thunder.
- Avoid trees: trees are taller than surroundings. Lone trees in open areas are especially dangerous. Stay away from tree trunks if moving through wooded areas during a thunderstorm.
- Avoid Long Conductors: avoid metal fences, power lines, phone lines, railway tracks, hand rails, measuring tapes, bridges, and any other metal object that may carry lightning current in case of a nearby strike.
- Assume the lightning position: squat or sit down, feet together. “Ball up” by wrapping your w arms around your knees and legs. If you have an insulated object handy, like a foam pad, sit on it. Close your eyes. The lightning position reduces the chances of lightning injuring you as badly as if you were standing. However it does not guarantee that you won’t be struck by lightning – it is not a substitute for shelter inside a building.
If someone is struck by Lightning
The Red Cross suggest following these steps if someone has been struck by lightning:
- Call for help: immediately call 911 or local emergency number. Anyone who has sustained a lightning strike requires professional medical care.
- Check the person for burns and other injuries: If the person has stopped breathing, call 9-1-1 and begin CPR. If the person is breathing normally, look for other possible injuries and care for them as necessary. People who have been struck by lightning do not retain an electrical charge and can be handled safely.
Tips & Tricks
- The 30-30 Rule: take shelter if the time from seeing a flash to the time you hear thunder is 30 seconds or less (aka 6 miles (9.7 km) or less). Don’t resume activities until 30 minutes have elapsed from the last lightning and thunder.
- There are no certain warning signs that will tell you that lightning is about to strike, such as your hair standing on end, or a tingling feeling in your body. The first sign of a lightning strike may be the flash itself. Of course, if your hair does stand on end, or if you do feel a tingling sensation, then immediately take steps to protect yourself; assume the lightning position.
- Seeking shelter inside a hard-topped vehicle is much safer than a tent, because it places you inside a metal cage. The current from a lightning strike goes through the car’s frame rather than through you. This is called the “Faraday Cage” effect. It is not the rubber tires that protects you.
- Seeking shelter in a small cave or under a boulder are not safe options. Lightning can jump from the top of the gap to the bottom of the gap, passing through you.
Disclaimer: I offer the advice above for purpose of providing information that may benefit campers and hikers if they encountering hazardous weather. The information carries with it no implication of providing absolute safety from thunderstorm hazards.