Mar 14, 2011 at 4:36 pm #1270518
Question for all the knowledgable minds here. Say you're a good 500 feet or more above the tree line when an unexpected t-storm pops overhead. Run for low ground or squat and pray where you are? I would assume there are times when you are simply too far from the timber line to make it back, like when you're nearing a summit. I think because of the 100% complete lack of control (even when a bear attacks you can fight back), lightning scares me more than any other element of hiking and camping.Mar 14, 2011 at 4:51 pm #1708910
@b-g-2-2Locale: Silicon Valley
Been there, done that.
As a general rule, if you feel that the storm cloud is upon you, you are best off to lay down flat and wait it out. This is especially true if you can lay down in a dry depression, although there may not be many depressions high up on a mountain ridge. Even if you can make it down to tree line, you probably do not want to stand directly underneath the tallest tree in the area, because it can easily become the tallest lightning rod in the area.
You know that you are in trouble when your hair stands up on end from the static electricity in the air.
–B.G.–Mar 14, 2011 at 4:57 pm #1708916
@ouzelLocale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
"Run for low ground or squat and pray where you are?"
That is a decision for which it is difficult to provide a general rule, IMO. So much depends on the terrain you would have to cover(low angle vegetation, steep talus, etc), how fast you can move, how rapidly the T-storm is developing. That being said, having survived two close calls myself, my first instinct would be to make a run for it if there was a decent chance of making it to cover in a minute or two. You are really hung out if you are isolated on a slope, and the longer you are exposed to the storm, the more likely you are to get zapped. I like my odds better down in the trees. YMMV, and the circumstances will dictate your response.Mar 14, 2011 at 8:35 pm #1709009
Daryl and DarylParticipant
@lyrad1Locale: Pacific Northwest, USA, Earth
I was advised by a Mountaineering Medicine Dr.to split up if there are two of you. That way one of you can administer CPR if the other is hit. If you are both hit there's no one left to help.
My wife and I dove into low lying brush last time I was in the situation you describe.Mar 14, 2011 at 9:32 pm #1709035
Hike down to treeline where you are not the tallest object. Best to see NOAA site about lightning safety rather than take any of our words.
Short article I wrote
http://texas.sierraclub.org/dallas/page.asp?lightningsafetyMar 14, 2011 at 10:37 pm #1709060
@mechbLocale: Washington DC
Here is a link to the lightning safety guidelines published by NOLS:
If you don't want to read the whole document (which is an excellent resource), here are the Spark notes (no pun intended) from my own NOLS course. I believe the rule was that if the difference between the lightning flash and the thunder clap is less than one second, you get into "lightning position". Lightning position was basically squatting down as low as possible, backpack off, but with only your two feet touching the ground (don't let your butt touch the ground). The reason has something to do with the way the current would enter/leave your body in the event that you are hit. If you're with someone else or in a group, you should spread at least 50 feet apart (as it says in this link).
As described in this document, it's not a good idea to lie flat on the ground because it increases the chance of the current traveling through the ground and getting you that way.
Anyways, don't take my word for it, just read the info in the link. For what it's worth, we did have some serious close encounters with lightning and had to do the whole "lightning position" thing several times. I remember not being nearly as scared as I should have been (I think I was happy to have that 60+ lb pack off of my back for a few minutes, even if it meant potential death by electrocution–seriously).
Edit: Additional info about lightning position: your feet should be TOGETHER. This reduces the chance of the current entering one foot and exiting the other. Also, it says if you have a foam pad or soft clothes available, to "sit" on that. I think that means assuming the lightning position with the pad under your feet, but I'm not sure. It might also help to pray to Zeus.Mar 14, 2011 at 10:55 pm #1709067
as that NOLS link says … there is no such thing as a surprise lightning storm …
if yr ascending and you see bad juju clouds coming yr way … bail … fast …
better to live and climb another day than pretend yr zeus on the mountain top …Mar 14, 2011 at 11:15 pm #1709072
@mechbLocale: Washington DC
True, I obviously left out the part about descending and seeking cover if possible. The idea with the whole "lightning position" thing is that if the lightning is too close for comfort (i.e. < 1 second between flash/thunder, i.e. < 1000 feet away), you don't really have much of a choice. For instance, here is where we were one time when the lightning got too close.
In other words, nowhere to go. It's situations like these where it's a useful tactic to do the lightning position.
Timing is another factor to consider. If you're going to be in exposed areas like this, it's better to time it so that you're passing through at times when lightning storms are less likely (usually the early morning).
But you should stop reading what I'm saying and just look at the link.Mar 14, 2011 at 11:35 pm #1709076
Thanks guys. I have read the NOLS pages, as well as a hundred other articles on lightning safety. I know the basics. As far as reading the clouds and the weather, it gets tricky in the mountains; things could look clear on your side of the peak, and only upon arrival of the summit do you realize a thunderhead was forming on the opposite side. Now what? I guess as pointed out go for the lightning position if it is truly on top of you? I've heard though that when you feel the hair standing up, move immediately as youre about to be struck.
Thanks again.Mar 15, 2011 at 12:43 am #1709083
which brings an interesting question …
what do you do if you're caught in a multipitch wall climb … and the only way off is to rappel … and you dont think youll make it …
stay where you are … bad juju as the lightning will travel down the cracks and wet ropes that yr anchored in …
rappel down … and get zapped through the wet ropes anyways … and risk effing up the rappel and going SPLAT
hmmmmmMar 15, 2011 at 2:07 am #1709087
@rcaffinLocale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
And when it's 2 am and the storm has crept up on you and starts to bleach eyeballs even though they are shut and have fabric over them? And the low scrub is very thick and you really have no chance of bailing out anywhere?
We decided we might as well stay warm and dry in our sleeping bags on our air mats under our silnylon tent. And hope for the best. Boy, it was noisy for about 15 minutes until it passed over to the other side of the range! Inches of rain too.
CheersMar 22, 2011 at 6:38 am #1712551
I have read in a few places to use a modified lightning position.
Take a metal object in both hands and bite it (keeping hold of it with both hands).
Crouch low placing elbows on knees. Feet are only thing touching ground, spaced shoulder width apart.
The idea is that lighting will strike highest point (your head, unfortunately), pass to the metal object through forearms and lower legs to ground. Not passing through your heart.
Did not find anything on it quickly with google, but it sure sounds good…
YMMV, LOL.Mar 22, 2011 at 7:33 am #1712580
No offense Brian, but that advice is just Bad.
The NOLS link above say it all.
Don't be the tallest thing around, or close to the tallest thing, to avoid direct strikes and leaders.
Squat low, feet together, on whatever insulating stuff you've got, to avoid being a conductive path for ground potential steppers.
No laughing here.Mar 23, 2011 at 9:11 am #1713377
I do not disagree, especially since I could not find the source of what I read.
If I do locate the source, I'll post again. It was likely one of my backpacking or golfing books.
The NOLS link above is actually a copy of something from NOLS, then placed on cmc.org. Here is a direct link:
I have read (assume everyone does believe everything they read) that one of the important reasons for using the lightning position is to avoid having current go through your heart.
Yet the NOLS document fails to address this. Is it a Myth or Fact? Does having current go through your heart increase your chances of serious injury? A related question that I have is that the some of the lighting crouch positions in fact seem to make it easier for current to pass through your heart.Mar 23, 2011 at 11:10 am #1713450
Spread apart from others by 15 feet- prevent lightning from hitting you if another is hit
Stand on insulated pad- prevent ground current from getting you
Squat down with feet together- makes you smaller and shorter target
Hands over ears- prevent hearing damageMar 23, 2011 at 11:12 am #1713452
WAG, with a little bit of science –
"A related question that I have is that the some of the lighting crouch positions in fact seem to make it easier for current to pass through your heart."
The "crouch" does two things: 1) makes you lower, and hopefully less likely to take a direct strike, 2) keeps your feet/legs together to make it less likely for a ground step-leader to go up one and down the other, as there is less resistance in the 2" of dirt between your shoes.
From an electrical point of view, electricity doesn't like to be confined. If it strikes a set of concentric metal tubes, it will travel along the outside, not through the middle. In your body I would assume it will travel down the outside, not down the middle. That said, most of your personal electrical system will be damaged. Most survivors have severe long term nerve damage.
"Does having current go through your heart increase your chances of serious injury?"
Yes.Mar 23, 2011 at 11:47 am #1713470
@b-g-2-2Locale: Silicon Valley
You can get increased appreciation of static electricity in the air if you witness Saint Elmo's Fire at a distance of about 18 inches. You will immediately move away from anything that is metal or conductive. If you don't, you should.
Then think that it is just the residual static electricity in the air. A full-blown lightning bolt can make you into a crispy critter.
–B.G.–Mar 24, 2011 at 9:21 am #1713959
So how does the nols lightning position with chest against knees help prevent current from going through you heart? If it did I would expect them to mention it in their articles.Mar 24, 2011 at 10:40 am #1714005
@ewolinLocale: Hampton Roads, Virginia
I've always wondered how much of the lore concerning lightning safety has a sound basis in observable fact and risk analysis, and how much is based on speculation.
E.g. how many people have gotten electrocuted in pools due to lightning strikes, and is it really necessary to clear the pool for long times whenever thunder is heard? Are the risks of not leaving the pool worse than the risk of dying while driving to work each day, riding a bicycle for an hour or hiking on a trail for a day?
Too often we react to the apparent risk and not the true risk, particularly if the risk is unusual and not part of our everyday experience. The argument that doing this or that is safer is only valid if it results in a statistically significant lowering of risk. How many of us wear crash helmets during everyday driving of a car? No one, despite the fact that it most definitely would be safer!
Same questions concerning lightning safety while hiking. E.g. are there statistical analyses showing that the "lightning safety squat" or some other recommended action is actually effective?
Anyone have references on this? I realize this topic is not that straightforward.Mar 24, 2011 at 11:26 am #1714034
The risk of lightning injury per capita is low. But if you place yourself in harms way you increase your chances very quickly. Being in a pool or on a peak during a lightning storm is one sure way to increase your chances VERY quickly.
Without a doubt your chances of getting killed in a car are more likely than getting struck buy lightning.
I've been caught in a couple lightning storms when I did not plan my travel well. In all cases I have been able to run away and not be close when lightning struck the ground.
All the stuff I have read notes the best option is to move to a safer location and lightning position is a last resort.
Here are some stats, but as in all stats, they are not 100% reliable.
http://www.strikealert.com/LightningFacts.htmMar 24, 2011 at 2:07 pm #1714133
@ewolinLocale: Hampton Roads, Virginia
200 deaths by lightning per year across the entire US, 750 severe injuries per year, from the link in the previous post http://www.strikealert.com/LightningFacts.htm.
I wonder what the accidental death rates are per hour of participation in the activity. I.e. driving accidents are a major cause of death, partly because we spend an enormous amount of time in cars. The death rate per hour of driving I suspect is pretty low, which is why we don't worry about it too much.
I wonder what the death/injury rate per hour of hiking in thunderstorms is. This might give a true measure of how serious to take the lightning safety recommendations.Mar 24, 2011 at 2:16 pm #1714146
Not completely on point but a partial answer.
Alan Kolaczkowski, a retired nuclear engineer, consulted with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on specific probabilities of accidents at nuclear plants. He estimates the risk of a disaster at a given plant at 1 in 100,000 — about the same as your chance of being killed by lightning over your lifetime. For comparison, an American's odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 88; being shot to death, 1 in 306; and dying from bee stings, 1 in 71,623, according to the National Safety Council. The council couldn't come up with the odds of dying from radiation because it lists zero people dying in the United States from radiation in 2007, the most recent year for which these cause-of-death figures are available.Mar 24, 2011 at 4:35 pm #1714216
@ouzelLocale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
"I wonder what the death/injury rate per hour of hiking in thunderstorms is. This might give a true measure of how serious to take the lightning safety recommendations."
Good point. I, too, would be interested in knowing what the probability of a backpacker getting killed by lightning is. One could probaly cull the data to calculate it from NP, Forest Service, and BLM records, but that would be really tedious.
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