“When thunder roars, go indoors.” This piece of catchy advice about lightning has saved many lives in the front country, but it’s also frequently misunderstood. The presence of a roof alone is not enough to protect from the deadly voltage of a direct strike. Front country homes are built for modern life, with metal pipes and electric wires throughout—all excellent conductors for lightning to travel through toward their ultimate goal of terra firma. The majority of structures in the backcountry—outhouses and simple rustic shelters—do not have these conductors, and the voltage from a strike will travel through all available objects to reach the ground: including you.
If you are unable to reach the safety of a front country structure or car, your goal will be to minimize your risk relative to your surroundings. The first step is simple: get to lower ground. “Avoid peaks, ridges, and significantly higher ground during an electrical storm,” says John Gookin, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) curriculum and research manager, “If you have a choice, descend a mountain on the side that has no clouds over it, since strikes will be less frequent on that side until the clouds move over it.”
Dangers of Lightning
Just getting to lower ground doesn’t mean you’re safe, however. Lightning is looking for the shortest path from storm to ground, but when it starts its journey, tens of thousands of feet up in the air, it’s blind to the location of the peaks and valleys below. As lightning travels downwards, it sends out both a leader and feelers (the forked prongs that are frequently the hallmark of a lightning bolt), looking for the easiest connection to the ground. As soon as it detects a connection, it makes a beeline for it. But it might not sense any connection until it’s already honed in on a low-lying valley or field.
For this reason, it’s important to consider the height of your location relative to both the storm and your immediate surroundings, so being at the bottom of a mountain is better than being half-way up, and being in a stand of similarly sized trees is better than being in an open field or under a single tall tree—either of which would make your location taller than your immediate surroundings.
A common misconception is that you can “hide” from a lightning storm–either in a cave or underneath a rock ledge. Like when lightning travels along the interior plumbing of a house to reach terra firma, lightning will travel down the outside of a rock formation in search of electrical ground. When it hits an opening, whether it’s the mouth of a cave or the overhang of a ledge, it will choose the shortest way to “jump” the gap. If you are in the middle of that gap, you may have inadvertently made yourself into a shortcut.
Given the propensity for lightning to strike taller objects rather than shorter ones, it might be tempting to lie flat on the ground during a storm to make yourself even shorter. This might protect you from a direct hit. It exposes you to an even more deadly killer: ground current. When lightning hits the earth, the energy from the strikes radiates out across the ground. It travels through any object it encounters–including your body. About 50 percent of lightning-related deaths are the result of being hit by ground current. By contrast, direct strikes account for only 4 percent of deaths.
Once you’ve secured your position, start by fanning out at least 20 feet away from anyone you are travelling with. That way, if one of your group is subject to ground current or a direct strike, another member of the group can still come to their aid. Once you’ve done that, you’ll want to minimize both your body’s height and contact with the ground. Do so by crouching down on the balls of your feet. Finally, keep your feet close together to reduce the amount of energy traveling through your body as the ground current fans out and dissipates.
To further protect yourself from the dangers of a direct strike, some suggest making the upper half of your body as horizontal as possible. The idea is that the current will travel through your lower body to reach the ground—bypassing your heart and potentially saving your life. “Many people sit Indian style because it is more comfortable,” says Gookin, “Some other considerations are to wrap your arms around your legs, close your eyes, and/or cover your ears to help reduce the effects of both the lightning’s current and the thunder’s blast trauma.”
As the saying goes, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure. Stay safe in the high country by checking the weather forecast before you head out, planning to be off any high points by early afternoon, and remembering that most predictable part of a mountain thunderstorm is its unpredictability.
How Far Away?
Your tolerance for risk in the high country can be measured by how close together the flash of lightning and clap of thunder can be before you become uncomfortable. You see the lightning as soon as it bolts from the sky, but the sound travels more slowly: about 5 seconds per mile. To determine how far away the lightning is, start counting from when you see the first flash. If you count to 15 seconds, you are 3 miles away from where the lightning struck.
The National Weather Service recommends that you seek out shelter when lightning is 6 miles or less away. An easy way to think of this is to seek shelter as soon as you can associate a lightning strike with subsequent thunder: the range of human hearing means that you won’t be able to hear a lightning strike that is more than 6 miles away anyway. You’ll usually be safe at this distance. Usually.
This article is from the summer 2018 issue of Survivor’s Edge Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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