Surviving a Lightning Storm
How to avoid and survive a thunderstorm while backpacking
Each year in the United States, an average of 58 people are killed and 300 people injured by lightning strikes. Although the odds of you being stuck are slim, even if you survive being struck most injuries are serious and lifelong. It’s essential for everyone, especially hikers and backpackers, to learn and understand lightning safety.
NOAA.gov states that “NO PLACE outside is safe when lightning is in the area.” Although the following article does provides safety tips for how to survive a lightning storm while outdoors, no where outside is totally safe. Always find a closed shelter to ride out the storm in long before it reaches you. If you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance of lightning.
Avoid the Storm in the First Place
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While enjoying the outdoors, you still need to pay attention to the changing weather. Look at the forecast before heading outdoors to go hiking or backpacking and know the weather patterns of the area. Weather can change quickly so always be mindful of the clouds. Dark underbellies, changing winds, and a scent of rain all indicate bad weather. But the best sign of a lightning storm is thunder. Even if there is blue sky above, lightning can travel up to 10 miles horizontally before striking the ground. This type of lightning is called Bolts from the Blue and although rare, it can still be fatal. You may think you are safe when miles from the storm, but if you can hear thunder, you aren’t.
Even if you haven’t arrived at your destination yet, always be willing to head to safety (even if that means turning back) if bad weather develops. Unless it develops extremely quickly, you should be able to head to safety long before the storm arrives. Absolutely never take your chances with being outdoors during a thunderstorm. It’s better to be late in this world than early in the next.
The best way to avoid lightning is to find a closed shelter. Once inside, stay away from corded phones, computers and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity. Also avoid plumbing, as lightning can travel through wiring. Stay away from windows and make as little contact as possible with concrete. Staying in a car is actually safer than being outside because the metal roof and sides. If lightning strikes a vehicle, it will travel through the metal to the ground. However, “convertibles, motorcycles, bicycles, open-shelled outdoor recreational vehicles and cars with fiberglass shells offer no protection from thunderstorms” (NWS Lightning Safety). If riding the storm out in a vehicle, roll up the windows, don’t lean on the sides and don’t use any electronic equipment.
Caught Outdoors in a Lightning Storm
Although you should always head to an indoor shelter long before being caught in a lightning storm, there are some last resort safety tips, assuming there are no indoor shelters nearby, that may reduce your chance of being stuck by lightning.
If you find yourself caught in the lightning storm, first of all, do not panic. Stay calm and take the proper immediate precautions. Immediately leave open fields, elevated mountain tops, or watery areas. Get away from tall or isolated structures and never use trees as shelter. The idea that electronic devices and metal on your body attract lightning is a myth, so don’t take the time to remove these. “Height, pointy shape, and isolation are the dominant factors controlling where a lightning bolt will strike” (NWS Lightning Safety). Therefore, metal objects protruding from your backpack, such as trekking poles or antennas, can attract lightning. Also stay away from any objects that could conduct electricity, such as fences or power lines. Once these things are done, you want to get as low as possible. In addition, if lighting strikes an object, lethal shrapnel can be sent flying. Staying low and finding some sort of protection can minimize the chance of injuries from debris.
If you can get to a safer spot quickly, take the risk of running to it as the chance of possible lightning strikes decreases when you move. Do not stop running until you are at a safe location. Find a spot away from the wind and that is low and unlikely to get hit, such as depressions, caves, or between rocks. Even if you feel you are in a safe outdoor location, never lie flat on the ground.
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If there are no closed shelters or low spots nearby, your only other option is to ride it out and hope for the best. Although nothing has proven to reduce the risk of being struck by lightning while outside, the crouch method is believed to lower your chances. Crouch down on the balls of your feet, keeping them close together, to minimize your contact with the ground. To protect your hearing, cover your ears in order to block out the thunder. If you are with a group of people, crouch 20 feet apart to decrease the risk of multiple people being struck.
When boating, take even extra precautions to not be out on the water during a thunderstorm. However, if you are caught in a lightning storm while on water, lay anchor and head to the cabin or crouch as low as possible in the middle of the boat. Be sure not to touch metal or use electronic equipment.
Positive Streamers? You’re About to be Struck.
Being struck by lightning is often preceded by a sensation of tingling and by your hair standing on end along your arms and the back of your neck. If you have this feeling and are in or near a lightning storm, your body has likely sent a positive streamer. If this sudden charge connects with the electrons pooling beneath the storm clouds, lightning will strike. If you feel this sensation, either run as fast as you can to shelter or immediately crouch on the balls of your feet (follow the guidelines above). Hold your breath, as you can breathe in the superheated air that surrounds you and is expanding out from a lightning bolt.
Emergency First Aid for Lighting Strike Victims
If someone is struck by lightning, call 911 or emergency medical support immediately. Wait until the danger has passed to evaluate their condition and to begin medical treatment on the injured person. Because the charge simply passes through the body, a lightning strike victim does not carry an electronic charge after being struck. If they are unconscious but breathing, wait for medical staff. If they are not breathing or have no pulse, start performing CPR chest compressions until they regain consciousness or help arrives. Treat electrical burns as you would any other type. Neurological and internal injuries are possible, however, 80% of people recover after being hit by lightning. It is also possible for someone to be hit by lightning and be practically uninjured.
After the Lightning Storm
Wait for at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder to leave your shelter and resume hiking or backpacking. Be aware of other storms and lightning strikes that may occur.