If there is a moment when you feel small when hiking, it is when you are surprised by a storm and find yourself in the middle of it.
The sound of thunder, lightning, rain, wind, and sometimes even hail – all this is often both beautiful and terrifying.
When you are in the coziness of your home, it can be fascinating to look out the window at a storm.
Hiking, far from a shelter, is often another story – you feel a bit at the mercy of nature.
Has this ever happened to you? And what did you do? Did you run or panic like many people? Did you know what precautions to take?
Thunderstorms are responsible for many hiking accidents. In this article, we will focus only on lightning and leave aside the other dangers associated with storms (rain, hail, wind, cold, rising rivers…).
I want to make it clear that I am not a meteorologist. However, as I spend a lot of time wall climbing and trekking in the mountains, I have learned a lot about what to do and not to do in case of a storm.
When rock climbing, you are very exposed, but you can also be easily vulnerable in a thunderstorm when hiking.
So I’ve grouped here all the elements I’ve learned from the research I’ve done.
We hear and read a lot of contradictions and it is difficult to distinguish between what is a myth and what is “scientific truth.”
A lot of information about this is just speculation – and so what you read in this article is to be taken with a grain of salt.
Every year, hikers are struck by lightning. It often results in severe burns, cardiac arrest… or even death.
Direct lightning strikes are quite exceptional, but indirect lightning strikes and their consequences are to be taken very seriously.
We will first see how to try not to find yourself exposed to lightning, then what to do if you find yourself in the vicinity of it.
What to do to avoid being exposed to lightning when hiking?
As always, prevention is better than cure. So how do you avoid getting within the lightning range?
- By asking about the weather before leaving. You can do this on the internet or by phone and even contact locals (refuge guardian for example) – who know their area well and can predict the weather locally. It is something you should always do before going hiking. If the risks are too big, stay home, do something else or go somewhere else.
- By leaving early. Thunderstorms occur more often late in the afternoon or the evening, especially during the summer months. You are therefore less likely to be exposed to thunderstorms if you leave early and return early or mid-afternoon. But be careful, it doesn’t guarantee you won’t have a storm at 10 am.
- By looking up, spotting threatening clouds, and following their progress. Even if you’re not a meteorologist, nothing is stopping you from watching the sky. Do this regularly, as it is possible that only half an hour may elapse between a beautiful blue sky and a storm. Thunderstorms can form very quickly – especially in the mountains in summer.
- By anticipating. If there is a risk of a thunderstorm, do not enter an area particularly exposed to lightning (plateau, ridge, summit, etc.). Wait for the storm to pass through by staying in a less exposed area (valley, depression, etc.), turning around, or adapting your route.
- By planning. If the weather is uncertain, always have a backup solution in mind and estimate how long it will take you to get to safety. It’s not when the storm is 1 km away that you have to start thinking about going back to the valley that is 4 hours walk away!
- By knowing how to turn around. Turning around isn’t easy. We always tend to say to ourselves, “maybe the storm will pass us by” and postpone the moment when we have to go the other way. The problem is that in the meantime, there is often no time to turn back to a safe haven. It’s hard to say that you might turn around for nothing, but is the risk of being struck by lightning worth going on?
- By observing the animals. Although I have never personally seen it, it seems that animals and especially cows come down from peaks and ridges when a storm approaches. So once again, observe what is around you – even if you are suffering, head down, in an endless climb.
What to do once you are within the lightning range?
Even if prevention is the best way to avoid a lightning accident, it can happen to be surprised and find oneself in a storm when hiking.
I know a lot of people who have – and I’m one of them. And in those cases, it’s better to know what to do!
No place is completely protected from lightning, but some are more protected than others.
Before that, you need to know how far away a storm is dangerous – which is not at all what you can imagine.
How do you know if lightning can hit you?
When the time between the moment you see a flash of lightning and the time you hear the related thunder is less than 30 seconds, the storm is close enough (less than 6 miles or 10 km) and lightning can reach you.
In this case, you must take the following precautions:
- Don’t panic. Many accidents happen in this way – hikers who panic and injure themselves by doing something careless (to be polite).
- Don’t run. It would seem that lightning can pass through the current of air created behind you, but mainly because you risk injuring yourself by slipping or falling.
- Keep away from metal objects as they conduct electricity very well. Leave your metal objects (sticks, backpacks with metal frame, etc.) about 100 feet (30 m) away from you and keep this distance with any other metal objects (fence, pipes, etc.). If you ever hear a metal object buzzing, get rid of it and get away from it immediately.
- Move away from water points about 330 feet (100 m) – for the same reasons as for metal objects.
- Do not stay on a high point like a ridge, a plateau, a summit… because lightning is more likely to strike in these places. Take shelter in a depression, valley, or low point. In this case, be careful not to put yourself in an area that could get flooded quickly.
- Do not shelter under an isolated tree or an isolated open shelter. If lightning strikes on a tree, it is the tree that will fall on you or you risk getting hit by a piece of a burning tree. Also, lightning is more likely to strike on a high point. An isolated open shelter will also not protect you from lightning and will tend to attract it. If you are in a forest, move away from the tallest trees.
- Do not shelter under a rock face. For the same reasons as the lonely tree, if lightning strikes the rocks, they may fall on you.
- Do not stay near the void or steep slopes. Many accidents due to lightning are not due to the strike itself, but to a fall following it (people fell into the void, on a steep slope, on rocky walls…).
- Do not shelter in a small cave or rocky cavity. It would seem this kind of “path” attracts that lightning.
- If you are in a group, move away from each other, about 65-100 feet (20-30 m). In this way, it prevents several people or the whole group from being struck by single lightning. It’s easier to assist one injured than many! And if the entire group is struck by lightning, no one can help anyone…
- Sit in a ball, stand on the balls of your feet, touch the heels of your feet together, arms around knees, head on knees, hands on ears, on your backpack, floor mat, or any insulation without your feet touching the ground. At worst, you can try to find a natural insulator (a large stone or other). The goal is to prevent lightning from reaching you by electrical conduction if it “falls” near you. And, this is very easy to occur when the ground is soaked.
- If you don’t have any insulation to sit on, stay squatting with your feet as close as possible to each other and with the least contact with the ground and your head on your knees. This way, you are more likely that lightning will not reach you and will spare your vital organs if it strikes close to you.
At the risk of repeating myself, prevention is the best way to avoid having a lightning accident while hiking – because the precautions you take once exposed to a storm in the outdoors reduce your chances of an accident, but do not eliminate them.
So don’t take unnecessary risks!