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What to Do If You Get Caught in a Lightning Storm While Backpacking

What to Do If You Get Caught in a Lightning Storm While Backpacking

Tips for Surviving a Lightning Storm

Afternoon storms are common in the mountains, especially during the summer. If you ever get caught in a lightning storm, here's how you can increase your chances of survival.

Focus on Prevention

The best way to keep from being struck by lightning is to plan your hikes wisely. Pay close attention to local weather forecasts and stay in low-lying areas until small storms have passed. Since thunderstorms occur more often in the afternoon or evening, you will be better off hiking early and returning by mid-afternoon. That said, it doesn't guarantee you won't get caught in a morning storm.

When You're Caught in a Storm

Even if you take proper preventative actions, you could still get caught in a lightning storm by surprise. If this occurs, you need to take specific steps to reduce your risk of getting struck. First, start counting from the moment you see a flash of lightning to the moment you hear thunder; if the time is less than 30 seconds, the storm is close enough for lightning to reach you. 

In this case, you need to follow these steps:

  • Do not panic. Hurried action can lead to accidents, so take a deep breath and act in a calm, deliberate fashion. 
  • Do not run. While the odds of getting struck by lightning are low, the odds of getting hurt because of running on uneven terrain are much higher.
  • Avoid metal. Since metal objects conduct electricity quite well, you want to move at least 100 feet from fences, pipes and backpacks with metal frames. If you ever hear a metal object begin to buzz, move away from it as quickly as possible. You should also move at least 300 feet from water since it conducts electricity very well. 
  • Get low. If you are on a summit, plateau or ridge, descend as fast as possible. Take shelter in a valley, depression or low point, being careful not to put yourself in an area that might flood quickly.
  • Don't hide under trees. Since lightning is more likely to strike taller objects, you should avoid trees. If lightning does strike a nearby tree, it could collapse on top of you. If you find yourself in a densely wooded forest, move away from the tallest trees toward shorter wooded areas. You should also avoid rock faces and wide-open areas where you are taller than the landscape. 
  • Avoid caves. It may seem counterintuitive, but caves actually channel electricity fairly well, increasing your risk of being struck by lightning. Buildings with exposed openings such as picnic pavilions and backcountry camping shelters are also not safe during lightning storms.
  • Don't band together. If you are in a group, move about 70 feet away from one another; this will ensure that if one person is struck, others will be safe enough to help. 

As a last resort, you should assume the lightning safety position: Keep your boots close together and crouch down on the balls of your feet. Place your hands over your ears and try to minimize the surface area of your body in contact with the ground. Keep in mind that this position should only be used if you are unable to leave an especially high-risk area. 

National Geographic estimates the average person's odds of being struck by lightning to be just 1 in 700,000 in any given year. That said, over the course of a single lifetime, your odds of being struck increase to 1 in 3,000. If you hike a lot, you can expect your odds to be even bigger. Fortunately, you can reduce your risk by paying attention to weather conditions and planning your hikes accordingly.

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What to Do If You Get Caught in a Lightning Storm While Backpacking