How to Survive a Thunderstorm on the Trail

PCT mile 1076.65. Carson Pass Hwy 88, Northern California, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, late September.

After a great lunch outside the ranger station, the rangers on duty warn me about a storm that is going to come my way soon. “Be careful out there”, they say while waving me off. When I look up through the trees, a clear sky is accompanying me. “What bad weather?!”, I think. Having no worries at all I recapture the trail, totally confident in my steps, blasting fresh tunes that I uploaded on my phone the previous day. I sing along with classic Prince songs with a high pitched voice, just like the artist formerly known as did back in the days. I’m on top of my game today crushing miles and feeling quite invincible. Life is f-ing amazing.

For the first time in my life, I’m living my life the way I want to.

I feel so alive and happy that I’m almost in tears.

As I’m hiking through a dense forest, I’m totally unaware of the scene that’s occurring above my head. Clouds have gathered and the sun is withdrawn from sight. Thunder is already audible in the distance. But still there’s that invincible feeling of “nothing can happen to me”. I ignore the danger and hike on.

The trail goes up and soon I’m on a ridge top. The trail follows this ridge for another 6 miles. That’s 2 hours in hiker language. I look up. The clouds look ominous and dark.

Then it’s going fast. First, raindrops. Just tiny ones. It’s starting to rain harder. There is no time to grab rain gear anymore. Then hail stones as big as walnuts. Lightning, and a split second after, thunder claps. I’m right in the middle of the storm. There is no escape. The ridge I’m on is super-exposed. Frantically I look around. Nowhere to hide. I’m the highest point. I throw my backpack and aluminium trekking poles away and I hunch down, making myself super small, hugging my knees, keeping my head down, my heels together. The sky is shooting bullets of hail down on me. I’m freezing cold, totally soaked and scared. I start to cry.

“This is it”, I think. “I’m going to die right here.” The thought that comes straight after is: “I’m not ready to die yet. I’m just not done here.” The thought of dying freaks me out and I start to shiver, my teeth start to chatter. The voice inside my head speaks harshly now. “You’re the dumbest and most stubborn hiker EVER. Why didn’t you listen to the rangers? Why are you even here?!” There is nobody to save me, to comfort me, to hold me. I feel so, so alone. And so insignificant and small.

Nature can take me out in a blink of an eye if she wants.

Then something strange is happening. A calmness comes over me. I manage to give up my resistance to the situation I’m in, and I surrender to it. Whatever happens, it’s meant to happen.

And if I die here, well, this is a damn pretty place to go.

But I don’t die. The storm passes. The hail stops attacking me. The clouds pass. I lift up my head. I’m still alive. And I am so happy that I break into tears.

Also read: The Backpacker’s Guide to Lightning Safety

Here are 10 tips for you to survive a thunderstorm.

1. Count how many seconds pass between the flash of the lightning and sound of thunder. Divide the number of seconds by 5 to find the distance in miles from you to the lightning (5 seconds = 1 mile).

2. Don’t panic. Quickly leave open fields, elevated mountain tops or watery areas. Do what you can do get to a lower height.

3. Avoid large open spaces where you are taller than anything else around you.

4. If you’re in a forest: Retreat to a group of small trees surrounded by taller trees or find a dry, low area like a depression or ravine. Avoid lone trees and other tall objects as well as rocky outcrops and ledges.

5. If you’re in an open area: Become the smallest target possible. Do this by crouching down with your heels touching, head between the knees, and ears covered. Minimize your contact with the ground and do not lie down flat.

6. If lightning is about to strike you or strike near you, your hair may stand on end, or you may feel a tingling in your skin. Light metal objects may vibrate, and you may hear a crackling sound or “kee kee” sound. If you detect any of these signals, assume the lightning crouch immediately.

7. Do not pitch your tent for shelter.

8. If you are with a group of people, maintain a distance of at least 50–100 feet between each person. This will reduce the risk of lightning traveling from one person to another.

9. If you are hiking with a metal frame backpack and/or trekking poles, make sure to leave it at least 100 feet from wherever you are taking shelter.

10. After the storm has passed: Wait for at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder to leave your shelter or to resume hiking or backpacking. Be aware of other thunderstorms that may arise after the initial storm.

References: Wild backpacker and Wiki How

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Comments 2

  • Tristan Marshall : Mar 26th

    Also might I add. when in lightning stance, stand upon something insulated like your sleeping mat i.e. and then crouch down as small as pssble.

  • Carrie (she-who-doesn't-yet-have-a-trail-name) : Jul 14th

    Great tips to know!


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