The Ultimate Guide to Lightning Safety for Thru-Hiking: Tips & Resources
The sizzling crackle of lightning, followed by a booming clap of thunder; that electrifying exchange is often enough to make a thru-hiker run for the hills. Although the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are less than one in a million, lightning safety should be at the top of the list while thru-hiking. Backpackers often spend prolonged periods of time outdoors and miles away from civilization, so self-reliance is key.
My Close Call
As a fledgling thru-hiker trekking the John Muir Trail a few years ago, I can distinctly recall the pivotal moment when the wrath of Zeus himself struck fear deep into my heart atop an exposed mountain pass. In a rush to make camp after a long slog with a newly resupplied pack, I found myself bogged down with weight on an uphill climb over Goodale Pass in the Sierra.
Watching the brewing storm clouds move in, it felt like a race against time, and all the odds were pitted against me. I topped out with time to spare, momentarily celebrating my victory before realizing a grueling stretch of snow awaited me. My ploy of a fast and nimble descent was squashed, and I spent the next mile slipping and sliding and meticulously route-finding.
As I reached my anticipated campsite — a heavily exposed alpine lake above 10,000 feet with not a tree in sight — my stomach churned as I discovered I was likely the tallest object around.
And as I sprinted down the trail to reach treeline, the heavens broke and I saw a vivid flash of light in front of me, immediately followed by a deafening roar. Within seconds, I found myself within a dense grove of trees, shaking and thanking my lucky stars for a near-miss.
Since then, this incident has served as a stark reminder that lightning is a force to be reckoned with, a message I now carry with me on every hike. As a Wilderness First Responder and frequenter of Colorado’s mountains, I’ve come to learn a thing or two about minimizing lightning risk and staying safe on a thru-hike.
What Is Lightning?
Before we dive into safety tips, let’s get familiar with the basics — what is lightning? Lightning, in all its electrifying glory, is the result of positively and negatively charged particles between clouds, the air, or the ground. As storm clouds billow and collide, they generate a tremendous electrical charge. When the tension becomes too much to bear, a lightning bolt releases. This bolt of energy can be hotter than the surface of the sun, and in the blink of an eye, it streaks across the sky with a thunderous roar, illuminating the darkness in a brilliant flash.
If you can hear thunder, you’re within range of a lightning strike. Thunder travels at 5 seconds per mile, or the speed of sound, so it’s important to note that lightning is actually the cause of a thunderclap. Since light travels roughly a million times faster than sound, you can use the sound of thunder to estimate the distance to lightning.
Count the number of seconds from the time you see a flash until you hear thunder. Then, divide the number of seconds by 5 to reveal how many miles away the lightning is. In the event of my close call, the lightning was within a quarter mile of me, which is far too close for comfort.
Moreover, lightning can strike beyond the audible thunder range, so don’t let your guard down when the storm seems to have passed. It’s crucial to wait at least 30 minutes after hearing the last clap of thunder in a reduced-risk area.
Where and When Can It Strike?
Lightning storms can sweep in with astonishing speed, especially in mountainous terrain. When I first moved to Colorado two years ago, I was shocked at how, in the blink of an eye, seemingly innocent clouds could turn ominous so quickly.
Always be alert and aware, as weather forecasts can change rapidly. Southeastern states, and trails such as the Florida Trail, are at the highest risk for lightning strikes. Generally, lightning decreases as you move from the southeast to the northwest. The exception to this rule lies in certain regions, like the Rocky Mountains, where thunderstorms are a common, daily occurrence in the summertime.
Weather patterns can provide valuable insights, and this is where your careful research comes in before embarking on a thru-hike. For instance, in Colorado, afternoon storms are a guarantee throughout July and August’s monsoon season. The tried-and-true saying, “treeline by noon,” are words to live by when minimizing lightning risk, especially in a state with so much exposed terrain. On the Colorado Trail, most of this journey is well above treeline.
Knowledge and Action: It takes both to stay safe
As an avid backpacker and hiker in terrain above 11,000 feet, I follow this rule religiously. I distinctly recall hiking Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park in August. Known for its arduous climb and long mileage, I began my hike in the pitch black at 2am to ensure plenty of time to get back down safely before the assured afternoon storm would hit.
As I descended in the late morning, warning others to turn back, only one hiker listened as I watched others march further and further upwards and away from treeline. As I witnessed the relentless storm unfold from the safety of a grove of trees, the hiker thanked me profusely for my timely advice. It wasn’t just me who was accurate in my predictions, however; it was the weather forecast.
Finding Safe Terrain
No place outdoors is completely safe from lightning. On the National Weather Service’s scale of 0-10, with zero being the highest-risk terrain and 10 being the safest possibility, the safest a thru-hiker with no access to a modern building can get is a three. Yes, you read that right. Three.
While that factoid can sound pretty terrifying, backcountry lightning risk management still matters. Terrain rated as a three, albeit not 100% safe, is still a significantly better option than the alternatives.
Terrain Lightning Safety Hazards
- 0: High points attract lightning, and you are at the highest risk for a strike. Terrain is:
- Exposed areas at the top of the tallest peak above treeline
- 1: These areas are extremely dangerous, and you should avoid them if there are signs of a thunderstorm. Terrain includes:
- Nearby lower peaks
- On a wide-open slope above treeline
- In a cave or rock shelter
- On the windward side of a mountain where the storm is coming from
- On open water in a vessel
- Tall, isolated trees
- Sheltered near trees close to open water
- 2: These areas are still high-risk and you should move through them quickly to avoid exposure. Terrain includes:
- Gullies or lower-elevation areas of a mountain. Gullies are still dangerous, but better options than ridges and open terrain.
- 3: These are the “safest” outdoor options for thru-hikers, but are still higher risk than the inside of a building or vehicle. Terrain includes:
- Ditches and lower-elevation terrain below treeline
- Below treeline and sheltered among trees not significantly taller than you
- 10: This is your safest option, although typically not accessible in the backcountry. This includes:
- Inside a building
- Inside a metal-topped vehicle with tires
Common Lightning Safety Misconceptions
When it comes to lightning safety, myths are common. Confusion about safe, or unsafe, areas is both frustrating and life-threatening, and we’re here to dispel some of the most common lightning myths.
Myth: Your tent will protect you from a lightning strike
This is wildly untrue. Think about the make-up of your tent, specifically the extended, metal rods (a.k.a your tent poles) which serve as a conductor of electricity. Your tent will provide zero protection from an electric storm, and could actually do more harm than good if set up in unsafe terrain. Rather, the key to your safety lies in where you set up camp, based on the above criteria.
Myth: Seeking shelter in an open structure will keep you safe
You should avoid any open-sided structures, including shelters (hello, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers) or picnic area coverings. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, there have been multiple reports of people struck by lightning at the Vanderventer Shelter in Tennessee.
The only shelter fully safe from a lightning strike is a Faraday cage, which is a fully enclosed building or metal-roofed car with tires.
Myth: Stand near a tall tree for protection
If lightning is attracted to the highest point in an area, and you’re standing beneath the tallest tree, you’ll find yourself in a world of danger. Avoid seeking shelter near tall, isolated objects. Rather, minimize your risk by sheltering below treeline, or in a grove of trees that are all similar in height.
Myth: Most people are injured from a direct strike
Contrary to popular belief, direct strikes are actually the least common lightning fatality mechanism. In fact, they are the cause of only three to five percent of lightning fatalities. Keep reading for the bigger causes of concern, and how to avoid them.
4 Types of Lightning Strikes
- Ground Current: Half of lightning fatalities are caused by a ground current, which occurs with every lightning strike. The difference in voltage in the earth where the strike occurs is what drives the current through your body. Reducing your exposure to ground current is essential, and one effective way is by keeping your feet close together. Avoid lying flat on the ground.
- Side Flash: This occurs when lightning strikes a tall object, and jumps to nearby objects (or humans) as a residual strike. Side flash accounts for the above myth that we dispelled as to why you should avoid standing near the tallest tree, or other lofty structures, for protection.
- Contact Lightning: Through a contact strike, fatalities occur when touching long conductive objects such as tent poles, trekking poles, metal-framed backpacks, and metal cookware.
- Direct Strikes: Avoid high elevations and open, exposed terrain to minimize the risk of a direct strike.
Reducing Lightning Risk in the Backcountry
Lightning safety is all about prevention. The key to staying safe is lessening your risk by being well-informed and prepared.
Check the Weather Forecast
One of the easiest ways to avoid inclement weather is to keep a vigilant eye on the weather forecast. Thru-hiking without service for days on end can make this difficult if you aren’t utilizing a Garmin or other satellite communicator that can pull the weather for your current location.
If you don’t have access to the weather forecast, use your eyes and prior knowledge of a region to best assess the weather as it changes. In places like Colorado, expect thunderstorms and plan your day around being back to timberline by noon.
Know Your Clouds
You certainly don’t need to be a meteorologist to identify those menacing, puffy cumulonimbus clouds, which are often the harbingers of thunderstorms and lightning. These towering, dense clouds are dark and have impressive vertical growth. When you see these clouds beginning to grow, which can happen quite quickly in the mountains, assess your terrain and use the criteria above to get to a safe area.
Be Campsite Smart
Selecting a campsite strategically can significantly reduce your lightning risk. Avoid areas near water, open fields, high points, or isolated trees that can attract lightning, and don’t only rely on the false sense of security your tent can give you.
Wait Out the Storm Before Hiking Through Risky Areas
If you are hiking in mountainous terrain that involves ascending to high altitudes or romping through open fields with no trees in sight, it’s crucial to exercise caution. Wait for clear skies and favorable weather conditions before venturing above treeline or into exposed areas, as a lightning storm in such locations is extremely hazardous.
This can be difficult when you’re hiking the Colorado Trail or Pacific Crest Trail during monsoon season, and are itching to make miles. Either get an early morning start to beat the inevitable storms, or plan to wait them out before continuing in risky terrain. Typically, monsoon-type storms are quick-moving and only last a few hours, allowing you ample time to finish your miles before dark.
Know The Danger Signs
Lightning comes with warning signs. If you notice buzzing or crackling sounds around metal objects, such as your trekking poles or backpack, or, more alarmingly, your hair standing on end, you are already in immediate danger. These signs indicate that a lightning strike is imminent. Quickly ditch any metal objects or gear on you, and retreat to safer terrain.
In Danger? Here’s What To Do
Seek Safer Ground
If you find yourself caught in a lightning storm, the first and best step is to move to safer ground immediately. This will be your safest option if you are close to timberline and can reduce your exposure during a lightning storm.
As a Wilderness First Responder, I learned that the lightning position should be your absolute, last-ditch effort. If you still have ample time to run to safer ground, that’s always the better bet than sitting in an open field.
However, if you’re truly out of luck, assuming the lightning position could potentially help minimize the risk of a direct strike. Crouch down with your feet close together, your hands on your knees, your head tucked down, and balanced on the balls of your feet.
This position is difficult to hold for prolonged periods of time, and there’s no surefire guarantee that it will work. You should not need to get to this point, as seeking absolutes to manage lightning risk is far more effective. But backed by educated guesses and a smidge of science, lightning position is a trick to keep in mind for the 11th hour.
If you are with a group of people, spread out to minimize the chances of a side flash or ground current to multiple individuals. Maintain a distance of 100 feet between each person to disperse the electrical current if a strike occurs.
If Someone Is Struck by Lightning
Another myth to dispel is that people who are struck by lightning can transfer that electric charge to you. That is false — a victim does not carry an electric charge after being struck. Nearly 90% of strike victims survive, so there are a few options to provide emergency help.
While the victim may not electrocute you, lightning still can. Always assess the scene before barging in to save someone. If there’s an active electric storm raging, it’s no help to anyone if you become a victim yourself. Be wary of the storm and where the victim is located.
Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) Effectiveness
CPR is highly effective in the case of lightning strikes. Lightning can cause cardiac arrest, and CPR can help restart the victim’s heart in an emergency situation.
Lightning safety is a paramount consideration for thru-hikers and backpackers far from the safest of shelters. Understand the different hazards of lightning, recognize safe terrain, and follow best practices. With the right knowledge and preparation, you can navigate your thru-hike with confidence, respecting the electrifying forces that roam the skies.
- “Backcountry Lightning Risk Management,” NOLS
- “Lightning Safety,” USDA Forest Service
- “Lightning Safety on the Appalachian Trail,” Appalachian Trail Conservancy
- “Lightning Strike Victim Data,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- “Lightning Risk Management for Backcountry Campers and Hikers,” National Weather Service
- “Severe Weather 101: Lightning Basics,” NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory
Featured Image: A Mike Lewinski photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldman.
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