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What To Do If You Are Caught In a Thunderstorm While Hiking

As I get ready for my trip to Lake Shore Trail MI a lot of questions have been flooding my mind. Since this is my first multi-day backpacking trip I want to be prepared for the situations I will encounter. I know I can’t prepare for everything, unexpected things will probably happen at some point, but I want to be as prepared as I can.

So what do you do if you are caught in a thunderstorm while hiking? Here is what I’ve learned:

1. Look for shelter

2. Avoid open fields

3. Get to low elevation

4. Avoid tall objects and tall trees

5. Take off backpack & metal object

6. Avoid Water

7. The Lightning Safety Position is no longer advised by N.W.S.

The statistics for lighting-related injuries & death aren’t as high as I expected them to be. This is great news, but I do wonder if this number is higher from people not reporting injuries that aren’t serious. I actually got hit by lighting, indirectly, when I lived in Florida. I was at my desk, which was near a window when lightning struck right next to me outside. I was on a landline phone and it sent a shock through it that I felt.

The statistics, according to the National Weather Service is that lightning kills an average of 27 people each year in the United States and injures an average of 243 people. This is between the years 2009-2019. There is another page on their site that has the average number of deaths at 49. Whichever one is right it’s a lot lower than I expected.

The odds of being struck by lightning this year are 1 in 1,222,000. Roughly 1 in 1.2 million. Of course, this number is likely to be higher among people who spend time outdoors, hiking, and backpacking. The good news is that the odds are in your favor. There is more of a chance that you won’t get hit by lighting! It’s still good to prepare I suppose.

Doing these things may minimize the risk of being struck by lightning but it’s not a guarantee. If I found myself caught in a storm while backpacking then I’d for sure take every safety precaution I could but there is no safe place outdoors during a storm.

  • Look for shelter. This might seem like an obvious. If you are hiking and find a dangerous storm approaching then the best thing to do is go indoors or in a closed vehicle. If this means you have to turn around then so be it. If you have some idea of how far away the closest structure is then make haste and get to it!
    • I should probably add, according to authorities, a tent is not considered a shelter that will protect you from lightning. It will protect you from the rain but if you are in a severe storm you should seek shelter indoors if possible.
  • Avoid open fields. Lightning usually strikes the highest point of an area. If you are in an open field than you’d be the highest point. This could, possibly, attract lightning to you. The advice that used to be given in this scenario was to lay flat on the ground but according to the National Weather Service, this has been proven to not lower your chance of getting struck by lighting.
    • It’s best to seek shelter in a forest as long as you are not near any tall trees. This might be difficult as well. Remember that there is no safe place outside during a lightning storm. Planning is important.
  • Get to low elevation. As previously mentioned, lighting is attracted to the highest point. If you are at a high elevation in the mountains or on a hill you must get to lower elevation as soon as possible. Be sure to avoid areas that look like they could flood. Getting to low elevation is thought to reduce your risk of being struck.
  • Avoid tall objects and tall trees. Now that, hopefully, you are not the highest object, you want to avoid other high objects that could attract lightning. Avoid tall trees especially. You could either be indirectly hit by lightning or run the risk of having a large tree or limb fall on you—if it gets struck.
    • Remember, there is no safe place to be outside—the only thing you can do is try to minimize your risk of danger. If it were me I’d look for a patch of forest that doesn’t have tall trees—I’d avoid the highest trees around me.
  • Take off backpack & metal objects. Metal can be a powerful conductor of electricity. If you have a backpack you should take it off and set it on the ground along with any other metal items you are wearing. This would include watches, compass, jewelry, etc. Many experts advise that you stand between 30-50 feet away from your pack during a thunderstorm.
  • Avoid water. Water is also a powerful conductor of electricity. When lightning strikes a body of water it doesn’t penetrate very far through the surface. Instead, it spreads out and travels horizontally. The distance its thought to travel over a body of water is debated. If lighting strikes a large body of water and you happen to be standing in a large puddle of water that is directly connected with the body that got struck—there is a good chance it will travel and electrocute you.
  • The Lightning Safety Position is no longer advised by N.W.S. Many blogs, videos, and forum posts I’ve read recommend that you assume the Lightning Safety Position, usually as a last resort, when you find yourself in lightning. The National Weather Service states on their websitethat they stooped recommending “the crouch” in 2008 because it does not offer a “significant level of protection.” They’ve since emphasized prevention. My guess is that it created a false level of security. With that said, you could use it as a last-ditch effort I suppose.
    • Ironically, the CDC does recommend the L.S.P.
    • I’m not going to cover it in this article but it involves crouching in a ball-like position on something that insulates you from the ground.

Is It Safe To Camp In a Tent During a Thunderstorm?

As mentioned, there is no safe place to be outside during a thunderstorm. From what I have read researching this topic—many backpackers do seek shelter from the rain in their tent. If I knew a storm was coming, and I had time, I’d set pitch my tent in an area following the recommendations above.

If you’ve already set up camp and find a thunderstorm is approaching you should evaluate the area you are in. If you set up camp at high elevation in the mountains then you might consider evacuating to an area at a lower elevation. You could leave your campsite and set up a temporary shelter with a tarp. If it looks like there is a chance of a thunderstorm then it’d be better to avoid setting up camp in a highly elevated area, to begin with.

How To Tell If You Are Within Striking Distance

According to the N.W.S, it takes thunder 5 seconds to travel one mile. We can use this to calculate the distance of where lightning is striking.

  1. Count the number of seconds between when you see a lightning bolt and when you hear the thunder.
  2. Divide this number by 5 to get the distance of the storm.

So if you see a bolt of lightning in the sky start counting the seconds. Stop counting when you hear thunder. Let’s say we do this and count 20 seconds. Well, if we divide this number by 5 we get 4. In this example, the storm would be 4 miles from us. This would give us an idea of how fast the storm is approaching and how much time we have to take proper precautions.

So now you know what to do if you are caught in a thunderstorm while hiking. Hopefully, you can prevent this with good planning. We know it can be dangerous if you are caught in one outside—but to be honest, the statistics aren’t as bad as I’d thought they’d be. That provides a bit of comfort to me if I ever find myself in this situation—but even so, I would follow the recommendations in-line with the National Weather Service.