I love hiking and camping in the Rocky Mountains and I have learned how important it is to plan all of my activities early in the day. This is because during the afternoons in the Rockies there are often storm clouds and lightning over the high peaks. You do not want to be anywhere high up in the mountains during a lightning storm because there is nowhere safe to go. Keeping that in mind, here are some general tips to minimize the risk and keep you safer when you are outside during a lightning storm.
To begin with though, I want to give a little bit of background information so that the risk from lightning is clear. Every year in the United States there are about 49 people killed by lightning. That number may seem high, but compare that to the 90,000 people that die in car accidents every year. That is almost 1,500 times more than die from lightning. Yet, we do not let that keep us from driving in a car. Likewise, you shouldn’t let the fear of lightning keep you from enjoying the mountains.
Lightning tends to strike the tallest object in an area. That could be a tall tree, boulder, or building. It is important to keep this in mind as you think about what you should do to minimize your risk in a lightning storm. I say minimize your risk here as opposed to be completely safe, because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that there is nowhere outdoors completely safe during a lightning storm.
NOAA recommends that you get into a substantial building that is completely enclosed and has plumbing and electricity. If you can’t do that, then here are some tips on what to do to minimize your risk, and make you as safe as possible.
The first thing to do is to stay out of the mountains if a lightning storm is coming. Keep your eyes on the weather or forecast and if the forecast is for lightning storms don’t go high up in the mountains. This means the best way to be safe is to simply not go in the mountains if you know a big lightning storm is coming.
However, if you are going to head up for some fun in the mountains remember what I said in the beginning, storms typically come later in the afternoon in the mountains. So, if possible plan your hikes and activities early in the day. Do not go for a long hike that will have you up high on a mountain later in the day. This is like the old saying: an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. The best way to avoid being struck by lightning is to not be outside during a storm.
Here are a bunch of things that you should never do during a lightning storm. First, you should never take shelter under an isolated tree. The tree will attract the lightning and increase the odds of your getting struck. If the lightning strikes the tree you will not get a direct strike, but you may get hit by a surface arc, which is a short electric burst that goes out from the base of the tree in the air. Or you may feel the ground current if you are near an object that gets struck by lightning. The area surrounding a strike often has an extremely high voltage current that travels in the ground.
Secondly, never use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter. Both of those may attract a lightning strike and you may feel the surface arc or ground current. Third, never lie flat on the ground. That simply makes you a bigger target and assures you will feel any ground current in the area. Contrary to what you may think, a tent is not a safe place to shelter. While a tent may keep you dry from rain, the metal tent poles will conduct electricity.
Now, that we covered what not to do, here are some things to do in a lightning storm. First, get away from water such as ponds, lakes, or other bodies of water. Water conducts electricity. Secondly, get away from open fields or the tops of ridges and hills. If you are in these places you will be the tallest object around and increase your chances of being struck. Third, you should get in your car if you are at a campground and your car is nearby. This is not the safest, but it is better than your other options.
The best place to go when you are outdoors often depends where you find yourself when the lightning storm comes. If you are in a forest look for a group of shorter trees and take shelter under them. This is because the lightning will strike the taller trees in the forest. If you are in a group spread out to prevent the current traveling between you, from one person to another. If you are in open areas, look for lower areas in the terrain and seek shelter there. This could be a dry ravine or valley, but not one with water in it.
Finally, as a last measure if you have thought about everything else and you are simply stuck somewhere outdoors, get down low. Get into a squatting position with your arms wrapped around your knees. Keep your feet together and make yourself into a ball. Try to make yourself comfortable as you may sit like this until the storm and immediate threat has passed, which could be quite some time.
Hopefully, you will never need to use these precautions in the mountains. But, personally, I feel safer going up to the mountains with my kids knowing these things.