Everyone’s been there: It’s a beautiful summer afternoon, warm with light winds and a few puffy clouds on the horizon, but nothing overhead.
You and your friends are enjoying your favorite hike, and as you gain the ridge you see tall, white clouds on the horizon; too far away to matter to you. You head for the summit as the sky turns grey and you think, “It’s mid-summer, we aren’t going to get rain.” When you hit the summit, you feel your hair kind of stand up, and the rocks seem to be buzzing. You finally realize you’re not in a good place …
Afternoon thunderstorms can wreak havoc in the mountains, in the deserts, and on the water we love to play in. They sneak up on you faster than you think, and if you’re on an exposed ridge or summit, they can be deadly. The yearly average number of lightning deaths in the US is 53, and the most common places are on or near the water and under or near trees.
So how do you stay safe during a lightning/thunderstorm? The easiest and safest method: Don’t get caught in one. Make sure you understand enough about the weather to know when one is coming up. It’s not surprising that July is the most popular month to get killed by lightning, with an average of 16 deaths during that month every year. Monsoonal thunderstorms may sound like they only happen in the Amazon, but they’re a common thing in the western US during the late summer months. Heat and moisture buildup during the day means an “afternoon thunder bumper” between 3 and 5 p.m.
Recognize the signs of a building thunderstorm so you can know to bail before it’s too late. There are several ways to know if conditions are right for a thunderstorm. The telltale signs are:
So let’s say you’ve ignored these signs and you find yourself caught in a thunderstorm. What do you do? If you’re on the water, get the hell off the water. There’s no safe place to hide on the water. Being in your boat won’t protect you from lightning unless you have a big boat with a cabin and a lightning protection system. Seven of the 23 lightning deaths in 2013 were either on or near water.
If you’re in the mountains, you need to assess your situation and decide what to do. Here are some guidelines:
Once you’ve found your place of refuge, whether in a group of shorter trees, the back of a cave, a low spot in a meadow, or a low spot on a talus slope, get into the lightning position. Minimize your contact with the ground by standing on a foam pad with your feet close together and crouch or squat to lower your overall height. If you don’t have a foam pad, you can use your pack. Make sure to keep your shoes on, as the sole will help insulate you. The idea is to minimize your contact with the ground and stay insulated from the ground.
If you’re at your camp, evaluate how close a proper shelter is. If a building or your car is nearby, then head for it. Otherwise, evaluate the safety of your camp spot. Are you near tall trees? Are you on a highpoint in a clearing? If your tent is not near tall trees, and you’re in a low spot in a clearing, you’re probably best staying in it. Remove all the metal items you can and put them far away from your tent. Try to stay insulated from the ground using your sleeping pads and backpacks. The exception would be if you have an old tent with steel or non-anodized aluminum poles, as these will conduct electricity. If your tent has anodized aluminum poles or fiberglass poles and you’re pitched in a good spot, staying in your tent may be your best option.
If you’re climbing, you’re in a tough spot. The best option is to go down. If this isn’t possible and you have to wait it out on the wall, try to find a good ledge or a cave you can take shelter on or hide in. Space out as best you can from your climbing partners. If you get stuck at a hanging belay, have some people lower down so your group is as spaced out as possible. Bolts and chains will attract/conduct electricity, but your anodized aluminum carabiners won’t (provided the coating isn’t worn off). It’s important to remember, however, that everything conducts electricity when it’s wet.
If someone gets struck by lightning, there are three major risks: electrical shock, secondary heat production, and explosive force. Electrical shock and skin burns are the most common injuries sustained after a lightning strike. Send for help immediately, treat for shock right away, make sure the victim is breathing and has a strong pulse, administer chest compressions and rescue breathing if necessary, and then treat any burns. Make sure to minimize additional lightning risk while treating victims.
Remember: the easiest and most effective way to stay safe in a lightning/thunderstorm is not to get caught in one. Be alert to signs in the weather that will tell you a thunderstorm is coming. If you do get caught, assess your situation. How far are you from safety? How severe is the storm? Can you go down? Should you stay put? In high alpine terrain, speed is safety. Early starts help you get off the mountain or out of the danger zone before a storm hits. Having a good base of fitness, whether hiking, climbing, or paddling, will help you be able to step on the gas and get out of a bad spot if a storm moves in on your fun.