One item I keep reading about on longer hikes or backpacking trips is managing weather issues and concerns like a Thunderstorm. Since these are dangerous when out in an open area, since many hikes will leave you exposed, to enclosed canopy with lightening rod trees all around you.
What to do when caught in a thunderstorm while hiking? Seek shelter immediately from an enclosed space, if this is unavailable then find a low stand of trees and drop trekking poles or metal objects at least 100 feet away from your position. Then make yourself into as small a ball as you can limiting your contact with the ground.
When you hike seriously or recreationally you will have times where the storm may just be unavoidable. This means you need to learn the ins and outs of setting up the best ways to maintain your own safety while waiting for it to pass. According to the National Weather Service(source) there is, on average, roughly 20 million lightning strikes that result in 273 injuries and 48 deaths in the U.S. each year.
Personally, I LOVE watching storms roll in. A perfect evening is with storms coming in while relaxing and watching the lights dance in the sky and the rolling booms… While camping though this can be very stressful.Josh
Six Keys to Determine Weather Issues:
- Know Your Weather Report – You should understand and consistently be checking the weather reports before starting your hike. If storms are predicted or expected, you need to be aware and focused.
- Know The Traditional Weather Patterns – Understanding the area and its overall weather patterns for the season.
- For example: In the mountains, storms will typically start forming in the afternoon. This means you should plan to start early which will give you the ability to get off the mountain after lunch.
- Focus On The Horizon – Every 15 minutes or so you should glance out along the horizon and look at the cloud formation. The purpose of watching for this is to give you a heads up on building up of a storm front to allow you to plan effectively.
- Lookout For Lightning – You always want to watch the distant clouds for signs of lightning. Should you spot a cloud which looks ominous or you see the flashes occurring you can build your escape or safety plan ready. This way you can effectively convey it to your tramily or group and know everyone understands it.
- Listen for Thunder – This will be more difficult as it will depend on the wind, terrain, and distance away. You may not hear the thunder until lightning is already right around the corner and too close for comfort! If you hear thunder, you should focus on finding a proper shelter.
- Determine the Distance – When you see a lightning flash, count the seconds until you hear the following thunder. Then you will want to divide the number of seconds by 5 which will give you the approximate distance in miles.
The 30 Seconds / 30 Minutes Rule: If the sound of thunder comes less than 30 seconds after the flash of lightning, you must find shelter immediately. Stay in the shelter for at least 30 minutes after you’ve heard the last rumble of thunder.National Lightning Safety Institute (Source)
What Should You do if You Are Caught in a Lightning Storm?
First off, let me say that there is no completely safe place from lightning and ground current. Your goal is attempting to minimize overall risk and find the safest option available, for example if still at the trail head, this would be inside your car.
- Don’t Seek Shelter Under Single Object The Isn’t Enclosed on All Sides – That tree or picnic cover may look like a perfect place to bunker down but it is also then a single point of a lightning strike leaving you at risk.
- Drop Out of High Areas – Get out and away from higher places, you can look for a valley or other depression in the terrain to get low.
- NOTE: Be cautious and don’t enter a washout area that may channel flash-flooding from the rainstorm.
- Find a Low Stand of Trees – Seek shelter in a low stand of trees as this will help to keep you drier along with less chance to attract lightning.
- Rain Gear Up Drop Your Pack – Put on your rain gear to keep yourself as dry as possible and remove your backpack, especially should you have a metal frame pack. If metal framed then you should leave it 100 feet from where you are seeking shelter for your safety. This also applies to your trekking poles!
- Defend Your Eyes and Ears – It is very important when outdoors in close proximity to strikes that you cover your ears and close your eyes. This help to provide protection from the intense noise and light of nearby strikes.
- If In a Group, Spread Out – This is one of the hardest things to do when you are in a group, but to keep the overall group safe you want to be at least 50′ from each other and if possible 100′. This would ensure that if a person was struck it wouldn’t hit the entire group.
How Do You Stay Safe While Camping in a Thunderstorm?
What you want to do is choose your camping site wisely and not be in the middle of a large open flat area, if at all possible. This will help make sure that you aren’t the tallest object in a location and that the trees or other surrounding objects are the point of impact for a potential strike.
Your first thing to focus on is to not pitch your tent in the middle of a flat area if there are a chance of thunderstorms in your area. I get that it may not be easy, but that doesn’t make it any less a good thing to do. If it isn’t proper and storms are coming then re-evaluate.Josh
If you are in the vicinity of your car while camping then you should immediately move into your car, roll up all windows, and make sure to not be touching metal.
Do Tents Attract Lightning?
Most tents use a form of aluminum poles to support the structure, when they don’t have poles they will utilize trekking poles. Each of these could be considered a lightening rod if a storm should pass into your area, this means it is very possible for your tent to attract lightning towards it.
Very important note: If your tent is equipped with aluminum poles which resemble a lightning rod then they absolutely DO NOT provide any type of lightning protection or lightning safety for occupants.
Is it Safe to be in a Tent During a Lightning Storm?
Tent safety in a thunderstorm can be extremely difficult at best and challenging at worst. If your tent is taller or stands higher than the nearby objects, or is located under a tree, you could be at increased risk of being struck by lightning or ground current after a strike which are all dangerous.
There have been fatalities which after evaluation resulted in more explanation that limiting overall contact with the ground while maintaining a low profile could be much more beneficial than laying down.
By not laying down you limit your ground contact which stops any ground current from passing through you.
Is it Dangerous to Hike During a Thunderstorm?
This is hazardous and dangerous at best and should be avoided at all costs, but if you are caught out and very exposed you may have no choice but to move and find either a low indention to hunker down in while the storm passes or to find a less exposed area with some coverage.
This is a resounding no from myself as you should have been able to prepare in advance and stop long before the storm hits.
Final Thoughts on Thunderstorms While Hiking
Getting out into nature is amazing, but it always has possibilities of events beyond your control. What you can do, is like you are doing now, being well read and knowing what your course of action will be when an issue hits.
Having this kind of understanding and knowledge will help keep you safe from dangers that may otherwise threaten your life, I would love to hear from you if this helped you out and please share it out if you found it valuable as I want to help as many people like you as possible.
Now get outdoors and enjoy your time in nature!