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Hiking

Lightning Safety Facts for Hikers: Staying Grounded on the Trail

Despite widespread belief, the efficacy of the “lightning position” is in serious doubt.

Some outdoor education programs have traditionally recommended this posture as a last-ditch effort during thunderstorms when no shelter is available. However, experts like meteorologist Dr. Ron Holle from the Lightning Safety Council challenge this teaching.

They argue that empirical evidence does not support the technique’s effectiveness. Over thousands of documented lightning incidents, no evidence exists to confirm the lightning position as a reliable safety measure.

Research Findings:

  • Expert Consensus: The reputed lightning safety posture does not have data to back up its effectiveness.
  • Alternative Strategies: Experts suggest seeking lower ground or finding uniform tree cover as more effective strategies.

Dr. Kristin Calhoun of the National Severe Storms Laboratory advises against assuming the so-called protective crouch.

She endorses actively seeking shelter over adopting a specific stance. Furthermore, she clarifies that utilizing items like a sleeping pad for insulation against ground currents seems to have no measurable benefit.

Their advice? Concentrate on reaching a more secure location rather than relying on unproven protective poses.

Lightning Hazards from Distant Storms

It’s a common false belief that one is safe from a storm as long as it hasn’t reached them directly.

However, lightning can strike from a storm that is still up to 10 miles away. Even when a storm appears to be a safe distance away, it can still pose a deadly threat.

The initial lightning strike from a far-off storm can often catch individuals off guard, as they’ve yet to seek shelter.

Standing under a tree can sometimes be worse than standing out in the open

When seeking protection from lightning, intuition might lead someone to take shelter under a tall tree. However, this could actually increase the danger rather than reduce it.

Lightning’s Behavior:

  • Prefers the highest point in an area
  • Targets tall objects, like solitary trees

Risks of Sheltering Beneath Trees:

  • Trees don’t get directly struck often, but when they do, the risk extends to the ground area around them
  • Ground current can cause up to 50% of lightning injuries.
  • The energy spreads out from a struck point, impacting nearby individuals

Safer Alternatives:

  • Opt for areas with uniformly short trees
  • Stay away from tall or isolated trees
  • Shorter stature increases safety in this scenario

While direct strikes from lightning to a person are relatively rare, comprising of 3 to 5 percent of lightning-related injuries, the indirect effects, like ground current, result in significantly more injuries.

Individuals close to a tree’s trunk during a strike may receive the full intensity of the ground current, leading to severe injury or worse.

It’s smarter to find shelter in places where trees are relatively the same, moderate height, which can help dissipate the electrical energy more evenly should a lightning strike occur.

Metal Doesn’t Actually Attract Lightning

Despite common beliefs, metal isn’t a magnet for lightning strikes. Rather, lightning usually seeks out three particular features: height, solitary positioning, and sharpness—regardless of the material involved. So, whether a construction is metallic or wooden isn’t the main factor in attracting lightning.

However, in scenarios where lightning does strike a metallic object, it’s the conductivity of the metal that’s concerning.

The metal doesn’t pull the lightning toward it; it simply provides a path for electricity to travel.

This is why, in an outdoor setting, it’s wise to avoid setting up a tent close to metal objects like bear-hang poles.

Metals can effectively channel electric currents to the ground, sometimes with more intensity, and could potentially transfer a dangerous surge to nearby objects or spaces as close as 10 to 20 feet away.

Crouching May Be Safer, But Avoid Lying Down

When caught outside in a storm, adopting a crouched position might make someone less prominent on the terrain. In contrast, lying flat increases the risk considerably:

  • Increased ground contact: Lying down, one makes greater contact with the ground, inviting danger from ground currents.
  • Dangerous current paths: Electrical currents from strikes can travel through a person’s body in this horizontal position, potentially causing severe harm by passing through vital organs.

A Tent Offers No Lightning Protection

Tents are not equipped to safeguard individuals from lightning. They lack the conductive features seen in buildings with electrical wiring or plumbing that dissipate electrical charges effectively. Likewise, tents do not resemble metal-topped vehicles that can act as protective barriers.

Recent statistics have indicated an unsettling trend of more fatalities due to lightning strikes for individuals camping in tents compared to solo hikers.

Close-quarter camping can lead to multiple people being harmed simultaneously during lightning strikes.

When setting up a camping spot, the location is crucial. Choose an area that’s naturally safer during a storm:

  • Below the tree line
  • Distant from elevated areas like tall ridges
  • Surrounded by trees of equal height, not isolated tall ones

Why Taking Shelter in a Cave Can Be Dangerous

Seeking refuge in a cave during a thunderstorm may seem tempting, but it’s a risky move.

When lightning hits a cliff’s edge where a cave is present, it seeks the quickest path downward. Instead of weaving through the terrain, lightning tends to strike towards the cave’s mouth.

If you happen to be inside, you become a convenient conductor for the electrical current. It’s safer to continue moving and find a more suitable form of shelter.

There’s no such thing as getting “accidentally” caught in a storm.

Weather reports have become remarkably precise; they even differentiate between conditions on a hiking trail and those in the nearest town.

When embarking on outdoor adventures, there’s a clear expectation to review and respect the given weather forecast:

  • Modern Weather Forecasts: If they predict a storm, believe it.
  • Preparation is Key: Always check the weather specifically for your location, not a nearby area.
  • Summit Fever: The compulsion to reach the peak regardless of the weather can be dangerous.
  • Lightning Respect: There’s an observed decline in people’s respect for the dangers of lightning.
  • More Adventurers: With the influx of new enthusiasts, awareness about weather risks is crucial.

Ignoring these forecasts often results from a decision-making misstep rather than mere chance. Recognize the potential hazards and always account for the weather in your plans to ensure safety.

Bonus: Lightning Fun Facts

Lightning might be intimidating, but it’s also a captivating spectacle of nature. Once in a safe location, one can appreciate its beauty from a distance.

  • Inescapable Thunder: Lightning and thunder are inseparable companions. A lightning bolt superheats the surrounding air, causing a rapid expansion that rushes air molecules outward, leading to the booming thunder we recognize. This happens regardless of whether or not it’s audible. So-called “heat lightning” is simply lightning too distant to hear.
  • Varied Soundscapes: Not all lightning sounds the same. A quick and sharp crack suggests a lightning strike occurred close by, while a prolonged growl indicates the lightning traveled a greater distance, horizontally. This extended sound is a tapestry of mini shockwaves from the zigzagging path of the bolt.
  • Long-Distance Record Holders: Lightning can achieve remarkable lengths. There are records of bolts that have stretched for hundreds of miles. Satellites have previously witnessed a bolt gliding across three different U.S. states.
  • Volcanic Electricity: It’s not just storm clouds that can unleash lightning. The dramatic eruption of volcanoes also generates electrically-charged ash plumes capable of sparking their lightning bolts, as do the clouds formed in tornados and hurricanes.
  • A Natural Fertilizer: As it slices through the atmosphere, lightning has the power to split nitrogen molecules in the air. This results in nitrogen atoms binding with oxygen to form nitrates that nourish the soil, aiding plant growth and enriching ecosystems from the sky down to the earth.
Posted by
Thomas Caplan

Thomas Caplan is an author and avid outdoorsman who draws inspiration from nature. He enjoys hiking, tree climbing, and rock climbing, which influence his vivid storytelling and passion for the natural world in his writing.

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