Outdoor Skills + Advice: Six Steps to Steer Clear of Lightning Strikes


By Contributing Writer Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, faculty member and Diversity & Inclusion Manager at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and NOLS Research Intern Kate Herden

Aaah, summer! The sweet smell of wildflowers, rain-soaked earth, and . . . ozone? Yes, the stormy months have arrived and in this year of apocalyptic flooding, best prepare yourself for an epic light show in the backcountry, complete with the smell of burnt air (that’s the ozone) that accompanies it. You can never eliminate the risk of a lightning strike, but you can reduce it by following these simple guidelines:

1. Time your travel.
Find out when summer storms typically strike where you are travelling (here in the Wind River Range, they’re usually in the early afternoon), and make sure you’ve completed your travel for the day—including peak ascents—and are back on safe terrain by the time you hear that first crack of thunder.

2. “Flash, 30-Seconds, Boom” means head for safety.
Count how many seconds pass between lightning and the thunder. Every second is equivalent to approximately a five-mile distance. If your count gets down to 30 seconds (that’s six miles), go to step 3.

3. Find safe terrain.
Lightning is more likely to strike at high points (peaks, ridges, and lone trees), caves (yes, a cave will not provide shelter), and on water. Lightning can also travel through metal fencing, wet ropes, and other long conductors. Wet ground isn’t any more dangerous and actually dissipates current. So seek a uniform stand of trees on rolling terrain, at least 50 yards from high-risk spot.

4. Get in lightning position.
One of the most common misconceptions is that lying down flat will minimize the likelihood of a lightning strike. Not so! Once you find safe terrain, minimize the contact between yourself and the ground (50 percent of lightning strikes happen from ground current, not from direct hits). Place some padding (clothing, sleeping pad, or backpack) under you, place your feet together (not apart, which can cause a change in voltage between your feet and . . . zap!), and squat or sit hugging your knees until the storm is a safe distance away. If you are in a group, position yourselves about 50 feet apart so you can still communicate with each other.

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5. Avoid contact with metal objects.
If you can safely do it, remove metal backpack stays and crampons while you are in lightning position, and place metal umbrellas and hiking poles far away from you. Understand the consequences of doing so. Will getting rid of your umbrella expose you to the risk of hypothermia? Will getting rid of your crampons jeopardize your descent? Balance the risks before you act.

6. Plan your campsite.
Itching for that panoramic view of the sky and peaks below you when you unzip your tent in the morning? You’re asking for trouble. Pick campsites that are in safe terrain. If a storm hits at night, don’t run helter-skelter in the pitch dark and further risk your safety. Stay in your tent, and get in lightning position.

For more on lightning, read NOLS Curriculum Director John Gookin’s 2010 Wilderness Risk Management Conference article Backcountry Lightning Risk Management.

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