How To Reduce Lightning Risk In The Backcountry

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The arrival of spring usually brings with it plenty of unstable weather and this means thunderstorms. Even in the summer, afternoon thunderstorms are a common occurrence in the mountains. So how do you keep yourself safe from lightning when you are out enjoying the backcountry?

NOLS teamed up with the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to offer some advice and tips on how you can manage your risk of being hit by lightning. Although no place outdoors is actually safe from a hit, there are some things you can do to reduce your chances.

The following four behaviors are recommended – listed in order, with each roughly twice as important as the next.

1. Perhaps the most obvious – time your visit to high risk areas with the local weather patterns. Check the weather before you go, head for summits in the early hours of the day, observe changing weather patterns when you are out, turn around immediately if you hear thunder (lightning is usually 10 miles away), etc. Basically- do everything you can to make sure you are not outside when a thunderstorm hits.

2. Find safer terrain as soon as you hear thunder – don’t wait until the storm hits. Lightning tends to strike high points and surrounding terrain. Avoid peaks, ridges, and significantly higher ground. Note — on low, rolling terrain, strikes are generally random.

3. Once lightning gets close, avoid trees and other tall conductors, as they may be the highest objects and therefore susceptible to a strike. Interestingly enough, also avoid cave entrances or hiding under overhangs, as you could be the perfect object to help the current jump the gap between roof and ground.

4. Finally, if you have no choice and are stuck outside in a bad spot, assume the lightning position. If you have a backpack, sit on top of it. If no pack or pad, crouch (do not lie down) and keep your feet together as it will reduce the effects of ground current.

To learn more about lightning safety in greater detail, download the pamphlet here.

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