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March 18, 2023 4 min read

Lightning is one of nature’s most beautiful and ferocious forces. We’ve all marveled at the power of an approaching storm echoing in the distance. But while you’re hiking, a lightning storm can be a terrifying experience. 

As impressive and romantic as lightning can be, it can be deadly. According to the National Lightning Safety Council, lightning strikes killed 418 people in the United States between 2006 and 2019. 

Hiking puts you at a greater risk for lightning-related injury than other outdoor sports. You’re often far from the shelter and sometimes out in the open. Plus, storm systems can form quickly and catch you off guard. Fortunately, with a little preparation‌, you can stay safe from lightning while hiking outdoors. 

Checking the weather forecast is crucial 

Before you hit the trails, double-check the weather from a trusted source. Storms can form quickly, so look to expert forecasters for your information. Once you’re on the trails, keep your smartphone, weather app, or radio tuned in to get up-to-date information during your journey. 

If you left your phone or radio at home or in your tent, you can still do a few things to predict the weather. First, keep an eye on any sudden weather changes. If the sky suddenly turns dark, the wind picks up, and you hear thunder in the distance, you’ll need to take cover. Many people can also feel the pressure of the air falling, which is sometimes a sign that a low-pressure thunderstorm is approaching. 

The time of day you go hiking may raise your risk of being caught in lightning while on the trails. In many parts of the United States, the late afternoon produces the most frequent thunderstorms, especially in the summer. For safety, hiking in the morning is preferable, so that you can return home before the late afternoon.

Make your way to shelter

If you get caught in a lightning event while hiking, the best thing to do is to seek shelter. For a shelter to be safe from lightning, it needs to have walls with plumbing or electric wires that can safely move the electricity of a lightning strike from the roof to the ground. 

Consider getting in your car, if you’re away from a proper building, r. Roll the windows up, and don’t touch any electronics or doors while you’re inside. 

Anything that’s not enclosed in a hard surface like a tent, trail shelter, or shed is not safe. High voltage electricity can easily permeate these structures, especially if they’re wet. It’s much safer outside your tent in the woods than inside. 

When you find shelter, use the recommended rule known as 30 and 30 to know when you’re in the clear. If you hear thunder less than 30 seconds before you see a flash of lightning, stay indoors. Wait at least 30 minutes until you hear the last thunder clap before heading outside. 

What to do when there’s no shelter

If you can’t get to a proper shelter, find the lowest point you can and get it. Any depression in the ground or valley that’s away from water will do.

Where you’re standing and what’s around you also matters. If you’re in a forest with lots of tall trees, find a place surrounded by many of them and not a single tall one. If you’re in a field, find a dry, low-lying piece of ground, away from any solitary tree. 

If you’re with another person, don’t shelter together. Find a separate area‌ at least 100 feet away from the other person. If you’re huddled in a group, one lightning strike may be enough to electrocute everyone. 

In the worst case, if you’re caught in a thunderstorm while hiking and you can’t find shelter, never lie down on the ground. When lightning strikes, the currents can travel through the ground via roots, water, or organic material. If you’re lying on the ground, you’re increasing the chances of being struck by providing a direct path for the electricity to flow into your body. 

More guidelines lightning safety guidelines

Besides the information above, there are other things you can do to keep yourself safe in a storm. Lightning is an unpredictable, natural phenomenon, but following these guidelines can help you stay safe. 

First, never enter an open field when there’s lightning. Even if you’re standing up and running to shelter, you’re making yourself a target. Stay low on the balls of your feet at all times. 

When hiking with a backpack, make sure you empty any metal poles or objects like canteens before taking shelter. Lightning is electricity, and metal conducts it. You don’t want to be anywhere near a metal object during a lightning storm. 

Make sure you and your group know what to do in an emergency. If someone gets struck by lightning, you must act quickly, call 911, and be prepared to give CPR. Knowing your coordinates and location can help rescue workers and first responders, and by learning CPR, you’re one step closer to saving a life.