Lightning Safety in the Backcountry

Lightning is something that almost all serious adventurers have encountered. It’s not something everyone knows how to deal with, though. While most people know how to stay relatively safe in town, it’s harder when you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Sometimes you’re miles from the nearest building or vehicle, and may be on a mountain somewhere with nothing but the clothes on your back. Knowing how to prepare in advance, spot potential danger, and react accordingly can save your life in the backcountry.

Lightning statistics and facts

According to National Geographic News:

  • Each year, the odds of being struck by lightning in the US are 1 in 700,000.
  • The odds of being struck in your lifetime are 1 in 3,000.
  • Only around 10% of strike victims are killed, but 70% have lasting effects.
  • If you can hear thunder, the storm is fewer than 10 miles away.
  • Lightning can strike from miles away, even under apparently clear, blue skies.
  • People can be struck indoors while talking on corded phones.

 

A lightning bolt strikes a rock formation in the desert

Tips for staying safe in the backcountry

 

Prepare in advance for storms

One of the most important steps to preventing a lightning strike is to avoid storms altogether. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, but in many situations this can be planned.

Simply checking the forecast before leaving on a trip can give you a good idea of what to expect. A storm can pop up unexpectedly regardless of the forecast, but knowing the likelihood and timing of potential storms is helpful.

Knowing the patterns of your region is also a good thing to have in your back pocket. For example, in a lot of mountainous states, storms happen almost daily during the summer at fairly predictable times. Here in Colorado, we’ll see the occasional morning, evening, or all-day rain, but for the most part we can count on an afternoon mountain storm just about every day from June through August.

Even if I don’t get a chance to check the forecast, I schedule my day accordingly around a potential storm between noon and 3 o’clock. Planning to be off ridges, peaks, and out of open areas above treeline before the afternoon is a good strategy.

Preparing for storms also means setting up camp in a wise location. A tent won’t protect you from lightning, so putting in on lower ground or in uniform woods is a good idea. Don’t pitch your tent on a ridge or near an isolated tree.

 

Know how to spot a storm

Even if you plan in advance, unexpected storms can still pop up at any time of day. The key here is being able to notice changes early on and being able to react in time.

A couple things to look for that could potentially indicate a storm in the near future are…

  • large, fluffy clouds that look like cauliflower (especially dark ones), even in the distance.
  • a quick and significant drop in temperature.
  • clouds that seem to be swirling or moving in different directions.
  • a switch from eerily calm to noticeably windy conditions.

Also, obviously hearing thunder in the distance is a sign that a storm is on the way. If you see a flash of lightning, it’s definitely time to act. Counting the seconds between the lightning flash and thunderclap will indicate how far away the storm is.

For every five seconds between lightning and thunder, the storm is a mile away. This is close enough for a lightning strike, so don’t be fooled into thinking a mile is nothing to worry about.

 

Look for warning signs of a strike

If you are near a storm, in reality the odds of being struck are still fairly low. While you should definitely still get to safety regardless, there are a few more warning signs that indicate a lightning strike is a much more real possibility.

These include…

  • a buzzing, hissing, or cracking sound.
  • A tingling sensation on your skin.
  • Arm or head hair standing upright.

If any of these things happens, it’s time to get to a safe place immediately. This doesn’t just mean that a storm is in the area, but that the air is charged and a lightning strike is likely.

Once while some friends and I were fishing in central Colorado, a storm rolled in. My friend’s long hair was floating up along the sides of her hat, and both of our fly rods were sparking our hands as we held them. We made a mad dash for the car, and could feel the power that was lingering in the air. It’s not a pleasant feeling, and I would highly recommend nipping that situation in the bud before it gets to that point.

 

Get to safety

This is really the step that should be taken as soon as you are aware of an approaching storm. The way things often work though, this step might not happen until the storm is right on top of you. There are some general places to avoid and to seek during a storm.

 

AVOID

  • Elevated areas like hills, ridges, or peaks, especially those above treeline
  • Bodies of water including rivers, lakes, and ponds, especially those in wide open spaces
  • Open fields and flat hilltops
  • Tall, isolated trees
  • Overhanging cliffs, rocky outcroppings, or cave mouths (they feel like shelter but will not protect you from lightning)

SEEK

  • Lower, uniform areas of forest where all trees are around the same height, without isolated tall trees
  • Uniform shrubs and other vegetation if not close to a uniform forest
  • Low areas like valleys, ravines, or trenches

 

Remember, it’s easy to think you’ve found shelter just because you are covered from above (think a tent, rocky overhang, or tree), but lightning doesn’t just strike from above. Most often, lightning doesn’t strike directly. It usually strikes something nearby and can jump and spread to areas around the point of impact. If you are near a tree that gets struck, you can also be struck. This is the same for hiding under rocky ledges and similar features. They won’t protect from traveling lightning.

Set up your tent where it is safe, and don’t assume the tent itself will keep you safe.

 

Follow lightning protocol

Never lie flat on the ground.

Never shelter under an isolated tree, cliff, or overhang.

If you are in a group, spread out to prevent the current from traveling between group members.

Stay in a crouching position on the balls of your feet, with your feet together and hands on your ears.

 

 

With just a little effort, the risk of a serious injury or death from lightning can be almost eliminated. By following safe protocols both before and during a storm, you can ensure that you’ll be alive and well for plenty of outdoor adventures in the future.

 

 

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