Lightning Safety While Hiking

Lightning SafetyEvery hiker should have the lightning safety knowledge about what to do when it is seen or thunder is heard.

I have sat on my front porch on many late afternoons watching a fierce thunderstorm off in the distance.  Lightning, although extremely dangerous, is also quite beautiful.  When the storm started rolling towards me, I immediately went inside.

When hiking, you may not have the luxury of retreating into a house or other protective structure.  Every year, there are on average 58 people who are killed by lightning and over 300 injuries.  So, what can you do?

Thunder, Lightning and Storm Clouds:  (“Ka-Pow”, Lightning McQueen)

While you are hiking, be aware of sights and sounds of approaching storms.  If you can hear thunder, then you are close enough to get struck.  Thunder can be heard up to 10 miles away and likewise lightning can travel that far.  Just because the sun is overhead, does not mean that you are not at risk.

Keep an eye on developing clouds.  About every 15 minutes, scour the horizon for any signs of a storm developing.  If it looks like the storm is forming and headed your way, take the necessary precautions.

If you can see the lightning you can figure out how far away it is by waiting for the sound of the thunder and counting the number of seconds between the flash and the crash.  Every 5 seconds is one mile away.

Lightning Safety – How to Protect Yourself:

  • Watch the Weather Forecast: Before you leave the house, check out the weather.  This will give you an idea of how likely it is to be caught in a storm while on the trail.  You may have to change your plans.
  • 30/30 Rule: Many people use the 30/30 rule.  This rule states, that if the lightning flash is 30 seconds (6 miles) or closer seek shelter.  Then wait until 30 minutes after the last thunder clap until leaving your sheltered position.
  • Find a Safe Shelter: The safest shelter is an enclosed building with plumbing and/or electricity. Personally, I haven’t found many of these standing on the side of the trail.  What is not a safe shelter?

Never Find Shelter:

  • Under a lone tree
  • Under a picnic shelter or other open shelter
  • At the entrance to a cave
  • Along a ridge line

Always Find Shelter:

  • In a thick, low stand or grove of trees
  • If you are on a ridge or open area, seek a low place (make sure that it is not in a rain gulley)
  • Your car with all the windows rolled up
  • Crouching Tiger: When you are out in the open or at least not in a protective shelter, you need to minimize your lightning strike area.  Crouch down and place your feet close together.  Balance on the balls of your feet.  Put your knees into your chest, close your eyes and cover your ears with your hands.  Pull your elbows in.  Never lay down on the ground, this makes you a much larger target.  If you have a sleeping pad, place it on the ground and step on top of it.
  • Metal Objects: Take your pack off and put it 100 feet or so away from you.  Remove any other metal object that you have; trekking poles, tools, fishing rod, bicycle.
  • Group Hug, NOT: If you are in a group, have each member stand about 100 feet apart.  This will reduce the number of people getting hit from a strike.

Lightning Safety – First Aid:

  • Safe to Touch: A person that has been struck by lightning is safe to touch.
  • CPR: There is a good change to revive a victim if CPR is administered.
  • Burns: Check and treat for burns.  With a normal lightning strike, there will be an entry and exit wound.  Also check any areas where the person has on jewelry; wedding ring, earrings, piercings, buckles etc.
  • Shock: Treat the victim for shock.

One last tip: in the western mountains during the fall, spring and summer months, storms can form in the afternoon. It is best when day hiking to get a very early start so that you can be finishing your hike by early afternoon.

Lightning can be a beautiful sight from a distance, but it can become an extremely dangerous situation while hiking.  Having lightning safety knowledge is the first line of defense to prevent injury or death.

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