Podcast Episode July 10, 2023

Episode 85 | Backcountry Lightning Risk Management



In this episode of the Backpacking Light podcast we’re going to talk about lightning storm risk management in the backcountry.

What’s new at Backpackinglight?


  • Introduction – Anecdotes from Long’s Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Wind River Range
  • What is lightning?
  • The seasonality of lightning – June, July, and August in the Mountain West; wider windows in the Midwest and Southeast.
  • Mechanisms of injury – ground current, side flashes, contact, upward leaders, and direct strikes
  • Pathophysiology – electrical shock, secondary heat production, and explosive force
  • First aid for lightning strikes – Scene Safety & Basic Life Support, if multiple victims triage, then assess, monitor, and evacuate.
  • Risk Mitigation – avoid travel through passes, peaks, and ridges when storms are nearby; in many situations this is before noon.
  • Other risk management tools – flash bang rating system, the 30/30 rule, terrain and environmental features
  • Regardless of where you are, executing the crouch position on a foam pad is the best thing you can do in a lightning storm.
  • When you can sense the corona of a lightning bolt, then you are at extreme risk of being injured by a lightning strike.
  • Backcountry Lightning Risk Management (PDF)

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Home Forums Episode 85 | Backcountry Lightning Risk Management

Viewing 20 posts - 1 through 20 (of 20 total)
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  • #3785019
    Backpacking Light


    Locale: Rocky Mountains

    Companion forum thread to: Episode 85 | Backcountry Lightning Risk Management

    In this episode of the Backpacking Light Podcast we’re going to talk about lightning storm risk management in the backcountry.

    Ryan Jordan


    Locale: Central Rockies

    We’ve had a pretty intense lightning season in the high country of Rocky Mt NP and neighboring areas this year. Lightning out my office window this morning hitting the peaks of the Continental Divide, I’m wondering how long the season is going to last!

    Any harrowing lightning stories out there while y’all were in the backcountry?

    BPL Member


    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    Storms, lightning, and rain were always present on my summertime excursions to Colorado and the New Mexico mountains.   My closest call was next to Santa Fe, NM while weekend backpacking north of Jack’s Creek TH.  Storm clouds formed early and seemed kind of low coming at me pretty fast with some cracks of lightning and the boom of thunder.    I felt a little tingling from my pack and decided to take it off and go into the treeline for a break.  Right where I’d been a bolt of lightning hit.   The clouds quickly passed and I continued on my hike.  The lightning didn’t freak me out but it made me think about probabilities especially during summer storm (“monsoon”) season in the general Southwest.

    Studying the patterns, my best trips were May to June in New Mexico .. and then hanging out in Colorado watching the weather channel in a hotel room waiting for a multi-day break in the thunderstorm (“monsoon”) forecast.  For any sort of elevation, the higher parts of Colorado didn’t melt off until early July plus my blocks of time off occured in July, and most of August.

    Still a few years later, I hiked around Silverton (where the CT and CDT intersect) during a storm around Ouray where I could hear the thunder, and underneath my MLD Mid, … decided that was that.  I’ll hike the west coast now for summer as the storms can be intense, but not as frequent.

    Probably the worst lightning event I walked into was actually in the Sierra at Tyndall Ck. (there’s a large stand of trees where hikers can set up their tents).  There were bolts of lightning sizzling everywhere, and the ranger was just taking names before retiring to her cabin, .. guessing if anyone got hit.  It ended and dinnertime was spectacular after the rain refreshed everything.

    Still the Sierra doesn’t have those months of constant summer thunderstorms, driving between Albuquerque and Durango seeing a wall of distant lightning and saying “nope”.

    Terran Terran
    BPL Member


    The lightening in Colorado generally comes just before the afternoon rain and is very short lived. I’ve experienced greater effects around Lake Tahoe on up to Alturas. I had a friend sitting in Tustin. Under a tree with her softball team when the tree was struck. Very few anecdotal stories from the local hills.
    I have memories of standing on top of a freshly built fireplace stack, holding a 20’ piece of rebar straight up in the air to drop in a cell, as the storm rolled in.
    I do not advise. Certainly take precaution. I don’t carry a foam pad. Maybe I should.

    BPL Member


    Im definitely gonna listen to this on my way home from work this evening.  We just got back from a trip in the White Mountains and experienced hiking thru a legit nasty thunderstorm with lightning all around us and torrential downpours. It started just as we were descending from the  Franconia Ridge.. and we still had to go up and across Garfield Mt.  The forcast was calling for more severe thunderstorms and even more raining with flash flooding the following afternoon, evening and overnight,  so we decided that we would NOT be able to hike up and across the Bonds ridge as planned and had to hike a different trail, below tree line out… So yes.. this podcast is good timing and definitely has my ear! Thankyou!!

    Terran Terran
    BPL Member


    DWR D
    BPL Member


    Shattered Air…

    David M
    BPL Member


    Great podcast on lightning safety – thank you!  I wish I had this a month ago.

    It’s probably worth reposting the link to the John Gookin / NOLS report

    “Backcountry Lightning Risk Management”

    The diagram at the end of the report is worth a lot.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    crouching on a pad in “lightning position” is highly impractical if a storm goes on for hours or even all night.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Colorado

    crouching on a pad in “lightning position” is highly impractical if a storm goes on for hours or even all night.

    Haha!  +1

    In fact, there are so many things like this in life, where an expert determined the “best practice” without regard to practicality, and other experts just repeat the same advice over and over again.

    David D
    BPL Member


    Here’s a filmed corona event from a very lucky backpacker

    Terran Terran, thanks so much for this:


    40% deaths: fishing

    I was heading out tomorrow for a 5 day backcountry fishing trip but I’m delaying at least one day now due to severe thunderstorms, and might have to skip the whole thing.  Watching the forecast closely.

    Ryan Jordan


    Locale: Central Rockies

    Regarding the crouch: part of risk management is understanding that the crouch position gives you the highest probability of safety if you are in the middle of a storm. The way I’ve approached this personally is that during a long storm, I will use the crouch position during the most intense periods (close lightning) and rest with butt on the pad during less intense periods. You have to play a probability and long game with these tactics over the course of a long storm. In addition, breaks in the storm can be used to find a safer location, which may allow you to spend less time in a crouch position. Risk management is not about dogmatic tactics. You still have to use your brain and manage your physical stress accordingly.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    Ryan is of course right.

    “Typical” Sierra thunderstorms occur in the afternoon and then almost miraculously dissipate as evening falls, at the latest. However on a number of occasions I’ve been in un-typical scenarios. One time among many at high altitude a storm rolled in from the east as evening settled, and sat over me all night. I was pretty exposed but there was a high peak next to me and I rationalized that would serve to protect me (!!HA!). Come morning two women who’d been camped a hundred feet higher and a half mile away on a completely exposed plain wandered in. they’d spent the night crouching in a ditch. It had rained for 12 hours. I thought then and now that they had done the wise thing. I stayed in my tent and played the odds.

    And in fact looking back that’s how I’ve approached lightning in general. Many times I’ve had storms right overhead with no good shelter available and walked on; or again, the storms rolled in at night with lightning and ferocious rain and I jsut rode them out, as long as higher peaks were around. I recall one time when an afternoon storm that I knew would pass was right overhead. I could have stayed in place, but that offered no better coverage than simply moving on. And so I did. Again, there were higher peaks around, more so than in my first example. As I walked, I ran into a wrangler leading a train of horses with supplies for a trail crew. He was surprised to see me. this wrangler had spent many years living out in the open through storms.  Soon after this meeting there was yet another flash boom. A half mile later I turned a corner and spotted a single tree on fire on a cliff five hundred feet above.

    My point isn’t to deny the real dangers of lightning. As Ryan says, one must use their reason to assess the best strategy in any given scenario. Descending into forest if possible is always good. I’m just stating  my actual behavior as it evolved over time and familiarity with lightning. I think this is important, since I’m guessing that many here behave more or less the same.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Colorado

    @jscott, your post resonated with me. I’m not proud of it, but I will confess to doing the same things.

    I consider lightning as one factor when choosing a campsite, so I don’t pitch my tent on peaks or exposed ridgelines. And I’m conservative about venturing into that sort of terrain if a storm is coming in. But I just don’t see myself getting out of my comfortable tent in the middle of the night and huddling for hours in the rain and hail, even if it would be marginally safer. Not trying to be glib, just honest.

    Terran Terran
    BPL Member


    BPL Member


    I did not hear this in the presentation, but respiratory arrest with enough cardiac function for circulation occurs in some cases.  The old mouth to mouth or some sort of mechanical ventilation that is not taught in CCC anymore is required to save a life.  The brain stem respiratory centers are shocked and non functional or tetany of the muscles of the diaphragm and intercostals can also cause respiratory arrest.   Spontaneous resumption of breathing can occur after a number of minutes if the ventilation is supported.  It is similar to a opioid overdose in presentation but without any possible reversal drug.


    Todd T
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    Another point to add to Ryan’s risk management thoughts:  The most important aspect of the “crouch” is touching the ground at only one point.  Since ground currents cause the most lightning injuries, simply standing with your feet touching each other greatly reduces (almost eliminates) the biggest risk.  And you can stand like that for a long time.  Crouching is hard, but it only makes you a tiny bit shorter, which only reduces the risk of a direct hit and only by a small amount.

    Jeffrey L
    BPL Member


    If crouching on a pad in “lightning position” for a very long time seems impractical, maybe a modification such as sitting on your bear can with your feet together and both your feet and the bear can on the pad might be more tolerable. Most bear cans are made of plastic and should be a good insulator, I would think. The carbon fiber ones have aluminum ends however so that might be a problem

    Terran Terran
    BPL Member


    I wish lightening was more practical.

    Sticking with conventional wisdom for best practices is much better policy then trying to rewrite them for a podcast. Faced with countless hours squatting, I would do some risk assessment. Possibly look for deeper cover or try to out hike the storm. If I had gotten myself into dire straits and there was heavy lightening, I’m not going by the “I’m not dead yet” theory. I’ll deflate my air mattress, fold it in half and crotch on it until my feet fall off. Do my best to follow advice that was thankfully passed on to me. At that point, I’ll work on theory only if I need to.

    Ken Larson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western Michigan
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