Lightning Safety for Hikers
When you are planning a hike, it is important to be prepared for the worst. While lightning strikes less than 50 people a year in the US, if you are outside your chance of being struck increases exponentially.
Ideally, you should try to avoid thunderstorms before you leave for your hike. However, that is not always possible as weather can change rapidly. Remember to stay alert, be safe, and use your knowledge to come up with a plan.
How To Avoid Thunderstorms on a Hike
Planning ahead is the key to avoiding any emergency situation. There are a number of things you can do to ensure you will not be stuck outside in the midst of a thunderstorm.
Before you leave for your hike, check the weather. If storms are expected, try to reschedule your trip.
It is also good to be aware of seasonal and regional weather patterns. Thunderstorms occur more frequently when the warm weather arrives in spring and summer. In the mountains, storms generally start in the afternoon, so starting your hike early can help you get off the trail before thunderstorms start popping up.
Even if weather reports call for blue skies, you should still remain vigilant. Weather can change very quickly. Watch the horizon for any cloud formation. If clouds appear dark or you see lightning flashes in the distance, start thinking about seeking shelter. Be aware of changing winds or the smell of rain in the air. All of this can indicate an imminent storm.
Keep your ears open to listen for thunder. If you can hear thunder, it is no longer safe to be outdoors. You may not be able to hear the thunder until the lightning is already dangerously close by. This is due to variables such as the terrain, wind, and distance. Regardless on how far away the lightning is, if you hear thunder, you should be on your way to shelter.
You can determine how far away the storm is by counting the seconds between lightning strikes and thunder claps. Divide the number of seconds by 5. This will give you an estimate of the storm’s distance in miles. It will also help you determine the best plan to ensure your safety.
It is always better to be indoors during a thunderstorm. Head towards safety, even if it means turning around. If you cannot reach a safe shelter before the storm hits, it is important to have a plan.
What to do if You are Caught in a Thunderstorm When You’re Hiking
There is no location that is completely safe from lightning. The goal is to minimize the probability of getting hit. Try to stay calm and take every precaution you can.
If it is possible, try to find a closed shelter. Any structure with plumbing or electrical wiring will be the safest. Your car is also a safe place to ride out the storm. Roll up your windows, don’t touch anything metal, and leave the electrical equipment off.
You may be tempted to seek nearby shelter to keep yourself dry. Small, open structures like picnic shelters and outhouses provide no protection from lightning. Caves can also be dangerous as they can channel electricity well. Lone trees are also easy targets for lightning bolts.
You should try to stay away from objects that conduct electricity, like power lines and fences. Also, avoid large bodies of water as flooding can occur.
According to the NOAA, “height, pointy shape, and isolation are the dominant factors controlling where a lightning bolt will strike”. Try to get as low as possible.
If you are in a forest or below the treeline, try to find a group of short trees or a dry, low ravine for shelter. If you are above the treeline or in an open area, get as low as you can. Look for a valley and stay away from any lone, tall objects. Make yourself as small as possible by getting into the lightning safety position. Crouch down on the balls of your feet, tuck your head as low as you can, and cover your ears. Minimize your contact with the ground to ensure you will not get struck by lightning travelling through the ground.
Distance yourself 20 to 100 feet from all other people in your hiking group. This makes each of you a smaller target and minimizes your chance of getting hit. You may also want to distance yourself from any metal frame backpacks, trekking poles, and other metal gear.
Wait a full 30 minutes after the last boom of thunder to leave your shelter and resume your hike. Be cautious, as other storms may follow.
Emergency situations are always nerve wracking, but by being prepared, you can remain calm and increase your chances of survival. Before you leave for your hiking trip, remember to check the weather reports and know the local weather patterns. If you do get stuck outside in a storm seek shelter in lowest area possible, put on your rain gear, and ride out the storm. With a little bit of knowledge and preparation, you can handle any disaster mother nature throws your way.