Each year lightning kills 50 to 100 people in the USA, mostly during the spring-summer thunderstorm season. 9 out of 10 lightning victims survive, although many will suffer chronic aftereffects for years.
This page is about lightning safety while hiking or camping. See some of the links below for general lightning safety.
Disclaimer: There are no guarantees with lightning, as unpredictable effects may occur. Travel at your own risk. No place is absolutely safe from lightning; You can only do things to reduce the risk.
A good lighting safety rule is:
Thunder travels about 1 mi. in 5 seconds (1,000 ft/sec), so if you hear the thunder 10 seconds after seeing the lightning, the lightning is about two miles away.
- If you hear it, fear it.
- If you see it, flee it.
If you can hear the thunder, the lightning is probably within 10-12 miles.
If you are near a permanent building get into it.
Stay away from metal objects connected to the outside (e.g. wired phones, pipes, appliances).
Vehicles with metal roofs are also safe, but be sure not to touch any metal surfaces.
Open sided buildings such as shelters, shacks and pavilions and those without electrical wiring or plumbing are not safe.
Stay inside until 30 minutes after you last hear thunder.
On the trail:
- Descend from ridge-lines or summits.
Most thunder storms come up in the early afternoon. Plan your trip to avoid high areas at this time if there is a chance of a storm.
- Avoid isolated trees or isolated clumps of trees.
- Do not stand near a tall tree that projects above its companions.
- In forested areas, stay at least 8 ft away from the trunk of an average height tree.
- Do not place your campsite in an open field on the top of a hill or on a ridge top.
If you are camping in an open area, set up camp in a valley, ravine, or other low area.
- Avoid gullies, overfangs, edges of rocks.
- Stay away from metal objects, such as fences, poles and backpacks.
- Stay away from water.
- Assume a crouching position with your feet next to each other and your arms wrapped around your legs or hands over your ears.
- Stand on non-conductaive padding, such as ensolite, ropes, packs, etc.
- Avoid contact between hands and ground.
- Keep your feet together, to limit the voltage difference that might cause current to flow up one foot and down the other.
- Stay at least 15 feet apart from other members of your group so the lightning won't travel between you if hit.
- If you are mountain climbing and see lightning, and can do so safely, remove unnecessary ropes extended or attached to you. Electrical current will likely travel along the rope, especially if it is wet.
- If biking, wait out the storm below an overpass.
- If boating: get to shore or get under a cabin; stay as low as possible in an open boat.
- Lightning strike victims have a very good chance of resuscitation when they are immediately given CPR. This is about the only time that CPR in the wilderness is worth doing
Lightning Safety at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI)
Sierra Club lightning pages at: Rocky Mountain Chapter | e-Files
Return to Recreation
last updated 2 Dec 2006