lightning When you're out hiking, you're at the mercy of nature for everything you didn't properly prepare for and for every little curveball thrown your way. Sudden storms, wild animals, rock slides, and flash floods are all examples of surprises that may pop up with little or no warning. You need to have a plan to deal with the most probable challenges and then good sense and skills to deal with anything else.

Thunder and lightning is one such surprise that you may experience. I love lightning! It is sooo cool to see the power of nature in such an intense instance of energy. Thunderheads in the far distance with bolts of lightning striking under them are an amazing site. Knowing when to enjoy the show and when to seek shelter is the difference between fun and misery.

Lightning Safety

lightning There was a park ranger named Roy Sullivan who died in 1983. During his career, he was struck by lightning 7 times - that's in the Guinness Book of World Records. The amazing thing is that he survived all 7 strikes - he wound up killing himself by committing suicide with a gun.
There are actually very few people struck by lightning while hiking, although around 70 people are killed in the US each year by lightning. If you stay alert and play it safe, you'll be just fine. You have the responsibility to act appropriately when threatened by lightning - there will be no warning sirens or announcements out on the trail.

Keeping an eye and ear tuned to possible lightning is important. You can determine the threat of lightning:

  • Check weather reports before starting a hike. If storms are expected, be more vigilant. If nothing but blue skies are expected, relax a bit.
  • Understand the general weather patterns for the area and season. In mountains, storms typically form in the afternoon so plan an early morning hike with the ability to get off the mountain quickly after lunch.
  • Watch the horizon for cloud formation. Scan the horizon every 15 minutes or so and notice any clouds building.
  • Watch distant clouds for lightning. If a cloud looks ominous or you see flashes, have your escape or safety plan ready and make sure everyone in your group understands it.
  • Listen for thunder. Depending on wind, terrain, and distance, you may not hear thunder until lightning is already dangerously close. If you do hear thunder, you should be at or on your way to shelter.
  • Determine the distance of lightning. If you see a lightning flash, count the seconds until you hear thunder. Divide the number of seconds by 5 to approximate the distance in miles.

30/30 Rule

Count the seconds from the lightning flash until thunder is heard. If it is less than 30 seconds, you should already be in shelter. Lightning can strike 6 miles away from the thunderhead, and occasionally even farther. If its less than 30 seconds and you are not at your shelter site, you need to take quick action.
Stay inside shelter until at least 30 minutes after hearing the last roll of thunder. This gives time for the storm to pass and minimizes your chance of being struck.

Avoiding Lightning Strikes

lightning There is no completely safe place from lightning. Houses get hit, cars get hit, trees, animals, and people all get hit. But, minimizing your strike probability is the name of the game.
If there is an enclosed building nearby with plumbing and/or electric outlets, that makes the best shelter and you should retreat there. Picnic shelters and other open structures do not offer protection from lightning.
If you are at the trailhead, get in your car, roll up all the windows, and don't touch anything metal.

Assuming you are on a hike away from buildings when a lightning storm catches up with you, use these lightning safety guidelines:

  • Do NOT seek shelter under a picnic shelter, lone tree, or other object to keep you dry. It will attract lightning. The rain won't kill you so its better to be wet and alive than dry and dead.
  • Come down from high places. Seek a valley or depression in the terrain. Be careful of entering a drywash that may channel a flashflood from the rainstorm.
  • Seek shelter in a low stand of trees. This will help keep you dry and not attract lightning.
  • If you are above treeline, seek shelter in the lowest area you can reach, preferably with large boulders around so you can get some protection from driving rain behind some smaller boulders.
  • Put on your raingear and remove your backpack.
  • If you have a metal frame pack, leave it 100 feet from where you are seeking shelter.
  • If you have a hiking stick or poles, leave them with your pack.
  • Your group should not huddle together. Instead, have each person find shelter about 100 feet apart. This minimizes the possibility of multiple casualties from a single strike.
  • lightning If you are not able to get to any shelter, you need to become a small target and cross your fingers. Minimize your contact with the ground and minimize your height. Crouching down on the balls of your feet placed close together with your head tucked down is the recommended position. This position reduces your exposure and encourages any lightning strike to travel down your back and hopefully have less damage to vital organs. Lightning travels through the ground from the point of impact in random tendrils similar to tree roots. The smaller your footprint, the less chance there is of you being shocked from a nearby strike.
  • Cover your ears and close your eyes to protect from the intense noise and light of nearby strikes.

Lightning First Aid

lightning bolt Lightning is an extreme electric shock and has similar first aid requirements for burns and stopped heart.
  • Immediately after a close strike, do a headcount of everyone in your party having them call back to you that they are ok. If someone does not respond, go to their location. Only allow those you need to gather. Keep everyone else spread out since there is still danger of additional strikes.
  • There is no electrical residue after a strike. It is safe to touch someone that has been struck.
  • If there are multiple victims, prioritize care needed. A victim that is not breathing is highest priority. There is a relatively good chance of reviving a lightning victim with CPR.
  • Check for and give first aid for burns. Check around jewelry, buckles, and fingers and toes especially.
  • Treat for shock, keeping the victim warm and calm.

 Jul 05, 2012 - Charle
"its better to be wet and alive than dry and dead." Point taken.
Sep 10, 2012 - Jon
Thanks for the column on this safety issue.  I like all the points here, except the first aid point on multiple victims, breathing, and CPR.  It implicitly equates CPR to rescue breathing, which are very different things.  My certs as a lifeguard are expired by some ten years.  Back then, someone that was not breathing needed rescue breathing and someone with no heart beat needed CPR.
Sep 10, 2012 - Hiking Dude
Jon - Layperson Red Cross CPR certification does not teach rescue breathing only at this time.  I'm not sure of the point you are making, but a lightning victim that is not breathing does not, or will not very soon, have a heart beat.  And, the care for that person is to perform CPR.
Mar 21, 2014 - Gen
I really need this information. I was searching the blog about tips to avoid lightning strike. I like it. Thank you so much :)
Jun 02, 2014 - Austin
Hey dude, my names austin. I enjoyed this column. And love your extensive knowledge of the actual matter. I go hiking a lot, and i found a good way to keep away getting striked, reduce your conductive area. As you said, trees, tables, and ground. That's pretty great. A question my brother had was, what if you had, let's say several hiking poles, could you take them and put them a couple hundred feet from you to sorta give the lighting a more high priority strike location other than yourself. And, even though I am thirteen, another good thing to keep with you is aloe vera. And a jar of mayo. This two thinks have powerful healing ability, so if you, or one of your group members gets struck, these items can help a great deal. But anyways, love the column man, and can you answer my brothers question, if so, thanks dude.
Jun 02, 2014 - Hiking Dude
@Austin - If you assembled your makeshift lightning rod waaaaaaay before the lightning storm arrived, then it might attract lightning away from you.  But, that isn't realistic - you'd probably be assembling it because lightning has been noticed and then you're way too late and should be seeking shelter instead.

Aloe vera can be used on minor burns, such as sunburn, but not severe burns as expected from lightning.

Mayonnaise is NOT something to be used for first aid of burns of any kind.
Nov 06, 2014 - sharna pugin
hi there
Very interesting, i am printing out this page and emailing to all my fellow hikers. we will be doing Tsitsikamma hike (Cape Town SA) and i checked the weather, there is going to be a few thunder storms. My first time hiking in a thunder storm, excited and a bit nervous. God willing when i get back, i will update you on our adventure.  Thank you again for this. PS! by the way the only page i found while googling thunderstorms with the info i was looking for.
Nov 06, 2014 - Hiking Dude
@sharna - Good luck with your adventure!  I looked over a map of the trail and it looks like you'll be in open grassland most of the hike.  There won't be any shelter in those places, so the best thing to do is find out what time of day the storms usually occur and try to be off the trail at that time.

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