You may not have ever thought that lightning can be especially dangerous. Most of us, during a lightning storm, or a storm where lightning is present are either safe inside our homes or in our cars. However, for survivalists, campers, and even hikers it’s a very real possibility that you are outside when lightning strikes. Literally.
As many as 24,000 people are killed each year by lightning. In fact, these fatalities have been highest in the United States. You may think that 24,000 people to be killed is a pretty high number, but those are only the fatalities. About 90% of people struck by lightning survive. Even so, 80% of those survivors suffer from life-altering and serious side effects. Neurological damage and internal injuries can occur.
It’s also important to know that you can be harmed by lightning not only by it directly striking you. If you are in contact with an object that is struck you may also be affected. In addition, lightning strikes can cause fires as well which can be harmful to humans and animals.
Either way, if you are a camper, backpacker, or hiking enthusiast it is always a good idea to have some basic lightning safety information.
Avoid the Storm
By far the best advice, and the best rule of thumb, is to avoid the storm whenever possible. Check ahead of time what the weather conditions are supposed to be like before heading out for the day. If you are planning to be camping during a thunderstorm, you might want to consider rescheduling. If you’re headed out for a hike but hear the rumbling of thunder in the distance, you may want to wait it out for a bit.
It also helps to have some additional knowledge. For example, in mountainous areas, thunderstorms are most common in the early afternoon. If you have this information you may want to plan around that time. Start your hike in the early morning so that by noon, you’re off the mountain and back to safety, just in case.
Some other pretty obvious tells that a storm is on its way are the clouds. If you’re able to see the sky keep an eye on what the clouds and doing. Quickly moving clouds with dark underbellies can be an obvious sign of a storm. Changing of wind speeds, and the “smell” of rain are also some common signs. If these signs start to pop up you may want to head back.
Also, did you know that just because you can’t see the lightning doesn’t mean you are safe? Even if there is thunder rumbling far away in the distance, you may think it’s too far to do any harm. You’re wrong. Lightning can travel as far as 10 miles horizontally across the sky before it strikes the ground.
AS long as you catch the warning signs early enough you should be able to get to safety before the storm is right on top of you. This may mean that you need to turn back. Be willing to abandon your plans and head to safety once a storm is approaching.
What To Do If…..
As you’ve probably heard as a child, the very best way to avoid lightning is to be in a closed shelter. This, however, does not mean that any shelter will be beneficial. Places such as an outhouse, a shed, or a rain shelter, provide about zero protection.
This is because they do not have electrical, plumbing, or any sort of wiring that grounds from the roof to the earth. Don’t get confused here, wiring or plumbing going from the roof to the ground provides a safer path for the lightning to travel. Shelters without these kinds of paths allow for lightning to travel through other objects, or beings.
Along this same thought process, if you are in a shelter with electrical, plumbing, etc. then you’re going to want to stay away from it. It is more likely for the electrical current of the lightning to travel through these conductors so holding on to one of these can pose a definite threat. In addition, it’s best practice to avoid making contact with any metal objects, water (also a conductor), and windows.
You’re in the Car
You may have also heard that being in a car is one of the safest places to be during a lightning storm. As a child, I was always told that it was because of the rubber tires. I’m not sure how much sense that makes, but even so, it’s false. A vehicle is particularly safe because the roof of most vehicles are metal. Any lightning that strikes it would travel through the metal roof down to the ground. Of course, roll up your windows and don’t lean against the doors just as a precautionary element. In addition, don’t use any electric equipment inside of the vehicle.
You’re in an Open Area
If you happen to be outdoors when a storm approaches and you are unable to find adequate shelter there are a few steps to take to help stay safe. First, look for a low-lying area that is dry. A valley is a good example. Next, you will need to become the smallest possible target. Do this by crouching down. Get your body as small as possible by touching your heels to the ground, lowering your head, and curving your back so you ultimately look like a little ball. You should ideally have your head between your knees and your ears covered.
You will want to minimize your contact with the ground, so if you are able to, stand on the balls of your feet instead of having the entire foot make contact with the ground. It’s been said that making yourself “as low as possible” is your best bet, but this, again, is totally false. If you are going to make yourself one of the lowest items in the area then you would most likely be laying down on the ground. Bad idea! Do not lay your body on the ground, the more surface area that is in contact with the ground the more damage it can do.
You’re in a Forest (or wooded area)
If you find yourself surrounded by trees, or in a densely wooded area you should immediately head to a small grouping of trees surrounded by larger trees. If this is not possible or you do not have enough time then you will find a dry, low, area such as a valley or a ravine as curl yourself into a ball. Tuck your head between your knees and crouch down leaving only your feet (preferably just the balls of your feet) in contact with the ground. you will want to avoid lone-standing trees if at all possible. Trees, or other large and tall objects, that are surrounded by empty space are a larger target than trees surrounded by other things.
Basically, if you are anywhere outdoors, and unable to get into a secure building then you should look for some sort of vehicle to get into. If both of these options are not available then avoid bodies of water and again find a low and dry location to make yourself as small as possible.
As previously discussed you should always check the weather conditions before you head out for the day. The best prevention is to totally avoid the storm if at all possible. However, if you are outside and you unexpectedly hear the rumbling in the distance you may know that a storm is fast approaching. But how soon will it be here?
There is a way to track the distance of a thunderstorm called the Flash to Band Method. Essentially this is when you count the number of seconds that pass between the flash of lightning and the sound of the thunder. Divide that number of second by 5 to find the distance the thunderstorm is away in miles (divide by 3 if you want a result in kilometers). Essentially a 5-second delay means that the storm is approximately one mile away. This will help you gauge how much time you have to find a secure shelter or a low dry area.
The myth that electronic devices on your person can attract lightning is false so don’t even take the time to remove them. Just head to a secure location if there is one. Again, this is a structure that has wiring, plumbing, electrical, etc. This provides a pathway for the lightning to travel down if the building is struck. Otherwise, it may pass through the structure, in turn, passing through you.
There is truth to the fact that lightning is “attracted” to higher, pointy objects that are isolated. For example, power lines. If you happen to have something protruding from a backpack such as trekking poles, skis, or antennas, remove these.
The best way to know you are mere seconds from being struck by lightning is the phenomenon called positive streamers. Lightning strikes are proceeded by the sensation of tingling, or your hair standing up on end. If you ever have this feeling while in a thunderstorm you are just mere moments from being struck. Your body has sent what’s called a positive streamer. If this is the case and you ever get this feeling, immediately crouch day in the above-mentioned position. Stay on the balls of your feet and hold your breath for as long as you can. Holding your breath helps to be sure you do not breathe in the superheated air that surrounds a lightning bolt.
After (Getting Medical Attention)
If you are with someone who has been struck by lightning immediately call 911 or seek emergency help. After this, wait until it is safe to approach the person and you are sure you are not putting yourself in immediate danger by leaving your location. Since the charge simply passes through the body you do not have to worry about getting shocked or struck by touching the person. They are safe to touch.
If the person is not breathing but does have a pulse you should immediately begin mouth-to-mouth before help arrives. If there is no pulse you will want to begin hands-only CPR. If the person is breathing and has a pulse slowly begin to examine them for signs of possible injury such as broken bones, loss of vision or hearing, etc.
The general rule of thumb is to wait at least 30 minutes after the very last rumble of thunder before it is safe to leave your shelter and resume your activities. You should aware though that thunderstorms may travel in packs and just because one ended does not mean another one is not on its way.