Alright, Folks, it’s time for another outdoor safety post. Spring is hopefully right around the corner and where I come from we’ve been getting a lot of cold, dreary rain. Although thunderstorms tend to show up a bit later they can occur at any time and this rain has put them on my brain.
I do enjoy thunderstorms much more than this dismal weather we’re having however, it will hopefully be no shock (pun intended) to you that they can be a lot more dangerous. Thunderstorms mean lightning, which is one of the leading causes of weather-related death and injury in the US. So let’s talk about lightning safety in the outdoors.
Lightning is actually very interesting. In this post, we will not only talk about how to protect yourself from lightning-related injuries in the backcountry, but I’ll also try to throw in some interesting facts that you may not have known before.
What is lightning?
Lightning is a massive discharge of electricity. This electricity is actually built up as ice crystals within a cloud bump into each other. Each bump creates a bit of electrical charge. Most lightning never actually leaves the cloud but if enough positively charged particles on the ground attract the built-up negative charge in the cloud. A giant spark will occur between the two, and that’s when we see lightning connect with the earth.
Why is this important to us? Well, we don’t want to contribute to the positively charged particles that attract a direct strike!
How can it “strike” me?
These are the most significant lightning events and can carry 30,000 or more amps. They can reach over 5 miles in length and can raise the temperature of the air by 50,000 degrees F. Pretty powerful stuff. Direct strikes most often occur directly beneath the thundercloud however they can randomly strike horizontally up to 10 miles away from the storm.
But, contrary to what you may think, direct strikes (although very dangerous) are not the only, or even the most common, hazard associated with lightning.
These account for nearly 50% of lightning-related injuries. When lightning strikes the ground, it pumps electricity into the earth. The earth resists electrical flow so the ground current diminishes as the distance from the strike increases. The danger comes when a person is connected to the ground by two (or more) points of contact. The greater the difference in electrical current between these two points the more dangerous the currents that will be driven into and over a person’s body.
If you stand with your legs spread out or lay down, this increases the potential ground current difference. Farm animals like cows are vulnerable to ground currents because of their wide stances, and many are killed from lightning each year.
Stepped leaders are electrical currents that move down from the cloud as they are attracted by positively charged streamers moving up from the tops of elevated objects. When streamers connect with leaders this results in a direct strike from cloud to ground.
If your hair stands up, this is a sign that you are part of a streamer current. This means you are in imminent danger of a direct strike and the streamer current itself carries enough charge to cause injury or death.
Electrostatic Field Changes
Similar to ground currents, there is a large change in field currents around the strike point. These differences can drive currents across your body that can disrupt heart rhythm.
Apart from actually striking you, lightning is very loud and very bright which can damage hearing and vision.
What do I do to avoid this?
Hopefully, you now understand the danger of lightning and aren’t too terrified by it that you never want to go outside again. Luckily for you, there are many things that you can do to protect yourself from lightning danger.
If you’ve read any of my other safety and survival articles you already know that I’m a strong advocate for proper planning. You should never enter the backcountry without checking and rechecking the weather as things can change quickly. My personal favorite way to check the weather is with the Weather Underground and Storm Radar apps. I have found them to be detailed and very reliable.
Know what you’re getting into, the chance of a storm and whether you’re willing to tolerate the risk. If the risk is low and you decide to continue with your trip, plan for what you will do if a thunderstorm does happen to arise including possible areas to take shelter. Are there buildings nearby? Will you be able to retreat to your car quickly?
Plan to turn around and get to safety as soon as you hear thunder. If you can hear thunder it means you are close enough to get struck. Stay indoors until thirty minutes have passed since the last thunderclap.
What if I do get stuck with no shelter?
Planning ahead is the biggest and only way to significantly protect yourself from lightning-related injuries because the only way to stay completely safe is to stay indoors. Staying inside a car with the windows up is also somewhat safer than being outdoors.
If either of these is no longer an option, there are some things that will slightly decrease your risk of being struck, but understand that once you are in this situation there is absolutely no way to eliminate the danger. There is an element of randomness in lightning strikes so doing these things may lower your chance of injury but they will NOT make you safe.
Avoid dangerous terrain
When you are the tallest thing around, such as in an open field, your risk of a direct strike is increased. Also, avoid areas that tend to attract lightning such as mountain tops or tall isolated trees.
Avoid dangerous objects
Things that are highly conductive such as water and metal objects. Long items such as wet ropes can be especially dangerous because they will conduct the electricity easily and increase the danger of ground currents with high voltage differentials.
Removing metal from your person, like a belt buckle, can help you avoid getting burnt.
Group members should move away from each other to avoid currents from traveling between people.
If the storm is upon you and you are exposed to lightning, get into the lightning position. Squat or sit with your feet close together and your arms wrapped around your legs. This does a couple of things for you, it lowers your chances or sending out positively charges streamers and attracting a direct strike. Keeping your feet close together also lowers the risk of dangerous ground currents entering your body. If you have insulated objects like a foam camping pad, stand on top of it.
Stay in this position until the lightning passes.
And now for some interesting facts
- Lightning is suspected to have jump-started life on earth. The heat and energy from lightning strikes are able to convert elements into compounds that are essential for living organisms.
- The Earth is struck by around 100 lightning bolts every second!
- Apart from thunderstorms lightning can be generated by volcanic eruptions, intense forest fires, and nuclear detonations.
- You can tell how close a lightning strike is by counting the seconds between the flash and the sound. Every 5 seconds is equal to one mile.
I personally think that lightning is a beautiful weather phenomenon and the thrill of a thunder crash sets my heart racing. But I prefer to see and hear it from a place of safety.
So be safe out there guys. Please plan ahead and make smart choices with regard to
If you’re looking for more information on lightning safety the National Outdoor Leadership School has some excellent guidelines. Click here to read them.
As always, if you have any questions, comments or concerns leave a comment below and I promise I’ll get back to you!