Lightning is stealing the thunder from my backpacking trips

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Home Forums Campfire The Natural World Lightning is stealing the thunder from my backpacking trips

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    I have a fair amount of outdoors experience. I have learned what to do to minimize the risk of being struck by lightning in the backcountry, and I follow those guideline. When I am taking a weekend trip near my home I can pretty much avoid thunderstorms by looking at the weather forecast. But when I take longer trips to the Rockies (Colorado and New Mexico) in the summer months, I cannot avoid them. On my first trip there was only a small thunderstorm one night. It definitely put me on edge. We were in “safer terrain” so I knew my risk was really low, but I didn’t like it at all. On my second trip there were some every day, but they moved through pretty fast, they did not seem too close, and we were in “safer terrain”. I didn’t like it too much, but more comfortable than the first trip. On my most recent trip (this summer), one night we found ourselves under the edge of a thunderstorm that stalled and grew. It hung around for 5-6 hours and just grew. And the whole time it was there I would see lightning flashes and hear the thunder. Once it got dark they seemed like they were right on top of us (they weren’t). We were in “safer terrain” but I could not relax this whole time. To be honest it stressed me out and I wanted to be inside a safe structure. Flash of lightning, “One one thousand, two one thousand…”. “That’s 3 miles away”. For hours. I love being in the backcountry and hiking to and seeing all the really amazing things there are to be seen. But I find myself wondering after this trip what I should do about the lightning. I’m not looking for “your likelihood of getting in a car crash is higher than getting struck by lightning” so just get over it :) Instead, I’m interested in hearing other’s experiences in this regard. I’m with my kids on these trips also so I’m not sure how much of a factor that is.

    Did you experience this and just get used to it? Do you avoid backpacking during the times of year when there are lots of thunderstorms (July and August in CO and NM)? Is it something that just never has bothered you? Other?


    Tipi Walter
    BPL Member


    Lightning storms definitely increase the pucker factor but what choice do you have?  The weather idiots always say “Lightning is Nature’s greatest killer.  Seek shelter indoors.”  Uh, okay, but I’m out in the middle of nowhere and squatting in my tent.  They are a fickle bunch so I call weather people “Wee-tards” and let it go at that.  They’ll tell you it’s dangerously cold at anything below 20F and yes—“You should limit your outdoor activity.” i.e. stay indoors. Yawn.

    On my last trip to the NC mountains I was camping at 5,000 feet during a tremendous thunderstorm with lightning bolts going all around me.  Some struck far away, some struck very close indeed.  The basic technique I practice is to Sit Put and Wait To Die.  This policy has worked for me for decades and I’m not dead yet.

    When it’s really bad a USMC Gunnery Sgt comes into camp and starts yelling at me and my imaginary buddies.  “Keep your f-ing heads down!!” he hisses as he runs from foxhole to foxhole, from tent to tent.

    Wait, I might as well include a couple paragraphs I wrote in my trip report during that lightning storm from June 28, 2018—

    “Bolts are hitting all around me with white electrical flashes and you wonder how long you have to live. My old friend the Gunny Sgt is running up and down the line telling us to keep our heads down and keep our guns facing outboard. The enemy mortar rounds are now landing in our perimeter so we stay low but the Gunny is crazy and running like a wild man shouting orders and hurling grenades down the hill. He sees movement in the wire and tells us to peer about and take aim because once the mortars stop the enemy will follow. If they get amongst us with their stachel charges there will be hell to pay but I’ve never seen the Gunny happier. Explosions still dot the hilltop and white flashes of the willy peter keeps us on edge.”

    “The Gunny stops at my hole and peers inside and screams “Weiner!! Where’s your grenades!” (He likes them all lined up proper like). “Zip up your flak jacket and give ’em hell!” and then he’s off to the next hole. God help any poor Marine bastard who mistakes him for the enemy. The mortar barrage slowly walks its way off our hill but we stay cowering because of that one errant round with your name on it. After 20 minutes the incoming ends and we pinch ourselves in glee but then a few more tubes pop and I scramble like a spider back into my hole. When the white and yellow flashing bolts from hell end then we’ll yawn and laugh and think about writing a letter home. Welcome to Hangover Mt in a lightning storm.”

    So, I guess it helps to keep an exhaustive journal during a Hellstorm—might as well.


    Ken Thompson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Right there

    Your time is up when it is. Other than common sense practices, enjoy Nature’s wrath. Been close to getting hit twice. Both times in town.

    Paul S
    BPL Member


    My trailname recently became “Flash…” We had just aborted climbing Feather Peak (Sierras) because weather was moving in very rapidly. We had found what we thought was a relatively safe spot (sandwiched below a ridge near Lake La Salle 11,500ft) and decided to put up shelters to wait out the storm. I had a poncho tarp almost up. While I was putting a stake I saw the sky flash white and the boom simultaneously. I felt a jolt like an electric fence. Neither of my climbing who were near buddies felt anything. My theory is that I felt the ground current from a strike nearby; there was a couple of inches of built up hail on the ground. Since then I’ve been particularly wary of T-storms.

    In the Sierras T-storms absolutely follow a pattern (mostly monsoonal): cloud building early each day, peaking in the afternoon or early evening, getting worse each day until they produce T-storms then receding in the same way. I try to time my hiking in exposed spots such that I’m not there when they are.

    d k
    BPL Member


    I have told this story on BPL before… I have a friend who was hit twice atop Whitney – years ago, he and his wife got to the top and everyone up there was gawking at the storm, dancing around with excitement at having gotten up there.  He felt his hair stand on end, heard a shrill sound, and the next thing he knew he was on the ground many feet away from where he’d been standing, with his hair and clothing smoking.  Everyone ran into the hut, he was the last one in and there was only room in the center, where the floor was highest.  So he got hit again, through the roof.  He was relatively okay, but had some hearing loss years later.

    A few years ago I was coming over a pass just before Lake Virginia in the Sierra, heard thunder (5 second delay), by the time we got down and in our tents it was more like 3 seconds for a long time, so I felt relatively safe.  Then all of a sudden “flashBOOM” – nearly simultaneously, sounded like it must have been very close.  So my take away was that just because it seems at a safe distance doesn’t mean it might not hit near to you next time.  We were in relatively safe terrain by then, but I was on edge a bit until it was over with.

    All you can do is try to be safe, don’t do foolish things like dancing around on the highest peak in the vicinity during a storm.

    Tipi Walter
    BPL Member


    I watched a TV show yesterday about freakish weather.  It showed a family almost getting hit by a big bolt from a seemingly clear sky.  Turns out you can get hit if a storm is within 200 MILES OF YOU.  Yes, lightning can travel that far to cook my butt.  So heck, why worry?

    Jim Colten
    BPL Member


    Locale: MN

    During a 2010 Philmont trek we were off trail and  paused on top of a low rise (50ft? maybe ) in the Valle Vidal while our naviguessers were trying to determine where on the map we’d wandered to.  We could hear thunder from several miles to the east.   All of a sudden there was thunder in the clouds above us.  I hollered “head back down where we came from”  … the other adult advisor along and I waited for the last scout to get moving and followed him when ZZZZZZT-BOOM … a ground strike about 50 yards behind from me and even closer to the second advisor.  Meteorologists I know tell me that the ZZZZZT was the strike’s “leader” that created an ionized channel for the bulk of the strike’s current to follow.

    AK Granola
    BPL Member


    I agree, lightning is terrifying. If you want to really scare yourself, read Gretel Ehrlich’s book A Match to the Heart. Or not. Great book though. Outside without cover, follow best practices and that’s about all you can do. Or go to places with less lightning, like Alaska.



    Thank you for your responses! There are some incredible lightning stories here :) I’m a bit analytical so I categorized them to see what I could take away :)

    • When your time is up, it’s up, so don’t worry about it (Tipi, Ken T)
    • Had a close call, so I try to be careful (Paul S, d k)
    • Had a close call :) (Jim C)
    • Do your best to be careful, that’s all you can do (Karen)

    Did any of you go through a time where they affected your enjoyment (in a negative way) of the backcountry? And then you outgrew or got over it? Or maybe you just accept it?

    Thanks again for your sharing your experiences!!

    Lester Moore
    BPL Member


    Locale: Olympic Peninsula, WA

    A few too-close encounters with lightening early in my hiking/climbing career in Colorado definitely affected my attitudes in the backcountry. Those first few encounters made me much more wary of getting stuck above treeline or in the open in lightning storms.

    Thankfully, you can all but eliminate the risk by getting up really early and being down below treeline before the thunder starts. Getting up early is the key to having an enjoyable, full day in the mountains with low risk of lightning IMHO. Planning to be off the summit and descending by noon is a good starting point most days, adjusting on the fly as needed. It might mean hiking by headlamp for an hour or so in the morning, but your day ends sooner too, and it’s well worth the trade-offs.

    For typical long day hikes and alpine peak scrambles in Colorado, we would aim for hitting the trail at 4:00am or so. For really long climbs like the Diamond on Longs Peak, we would leave town at midnight and be hiking by 1:30 am (an extreme example).

    Getting to know your local weather is one of the most important things you can do to control the risk. That way you can change your plans on the fly based on what the weather is up to and what it will likely be doing in the next few hours.

    One thing I love about the Olympics in WA state is there’s infrequent lightning in the mountains here in the summer. Afternoon thundershowers is not a common weather pattern here. So on most summer days you can spend as much time as you like above treeline, any time of the day, with negligible risk.

    BPL Member


    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    After almost getting hit with a small bolt near Santa Fe NM. driving a few hours to the Gila only to cancel a dayhike/overnight due to a new violent storm or seeing an endless wall of lightning outside Albuquerque going towards my destination of Durango, I started researching lightning strike maps and now backpack July in the west coast states exclusively.  Certainly there are some bad storms in the Sierra but quantity wise, there seems to be far fewer storms than the 4 Corners states. Fewer storms = less chance of being hit everything else being equal in my book.

    Of course, August there is more wildfires every year and thick smoke…

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