WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE CAUGHT IN A THUNDERSTORM WHILE HIKING OR CAMPING

Every year, hikers are struck by lightning. It often results in severe burns, cardiac arrest… or even death. Direct lightning strikes are quite exceptional, but indirect lightning strikes and their consequences are to be taken very seriously. We will first see how to try not to find yourself exposed to lightning, then what to do if you find yourself in the vicinity of it. 

As always, prevention is better than cure. So how do you avoid getting within the lightning range?

  • By asking about the weather before leaving. You can do this on the internet or by phone and even contact locals (refuge guardian for example) – who know their area well and can predict the weather locally. It is something you should always do before going hiking. If the risks are too big, stay home, do something else or go somewhere else.
  • By leaving early. Thunderstorms occur more often late in the afternoon or the evening, especially during the summer months. You are therefore less likely to be exposed to thunderstorms if you leave early and return early or mid-afternoon. But be careful, it doesn’t guarantee you won’t have a storm at 10 am.
  • By looking up, spotting threatening clouds and following their progress. Even if you’re not a meteorologist, nothing is stopping you from watching the sky. Do this regularly, as it is possible that only half an hour may elapse between a beautiful blue sky and a storm. Thunderstorms can form very quickly – especially in the mountains in summer.
  • By anticipating. If there is a risk of a thunderstorm, do not enter an area particularly exposed to lightning (plateau, ridge, summit, etc.). Wait for the storm to pass through by staying in a less exposed area (valley, depression, etc.), turning around or adapting your route.
  • By planning. If the weather is uncertain, always have a backup solution in mind and estimate how long it will take you to get to safety. It’s not when the storm is 1 km away that you have to start thinking about going back to the valley that is 4 hours walk away!
  • By knowing how to turn around. Turning around isn’t easy. We always tend to say to ourselves, “maybe the storm will pass us by” and postpone the moment when we have to go the other way. The problem is that in the meantime, there is often no time to turn back to a safe haven. It’s hard to say that you might turn around for nothing, but is the risk of being struck by lightning worth going on?
  • By observing the animals. Although I have never personally seen it, it seems that animals and especially cows come down from peaks and ridges when a storm approaches. So once again, observe what is around you – even if you are suffering, head down, in an endless climb.

If you are in the range of lightning, you must take the following precautions

DO'S

  • Keep away from metal objects as they conduct electricity very well. Leave your metal objects (sticks, backpacks with metal frame, etc.) about 100 feet (30 m) away from you and keep this distance with any other metal objects (fence, pipes, etc.). If you ever hear a metal object buzzing, get rid of it and get away from it immediately.
  • Move away from water points about 330 feet (100 m) – for the same reasons as for metal objects
  • If you are in a group, move away from each other, about 65-100 feet (20-30 m). In this way, it prevents several people or the whole group from being struck by single lightning. It’s easier to assist one injured than many! And if the entire group is struck by lightning, no one can help anyone…
  • Sit in a ball, stand on the balls of your feet, touch the heels of your feet together, arms around knees, head on knees, hands on ears, on your backpack, floor mat or any insulation without your feet touching the ground. At worst, you can try to find a natural insulator (a large stone or other). The goal is to prevent lightning from reaching you by electrical conduction if it “falls” near you. And, this is very easy to occur when the ground is soaked.
  • If you don’t have any insulation to sit on, stay squatting with your feet as close as possible to each other and with the least contact with the ground and your head on your knees. This way, you are more likely that lightning will not reach you and will spare your vital organs if it strikes close to you.
DONT'S
  • Don’t panic. Many accidents happen in this way – hikers who panic and injure themselves by doing something careless (to be polite).
  • Don’t run. It would seem that lightning can pass through the current of air created behind you, but mainly because you risk injuring yourself by slipping or falling.
  • Do not stay on a high point like a ridge, a plateau, a summit… because lightning is more likely to strike in these places. Take shelter in a depression, valley or low point. In this case, be careful not to put yourself in an area that could get flooded quickly.
  • Do not shelter under an isolated tree or an isolated open shelter. If lightning strikes on a tree, it is the tree that will fall on you or you risk getting hit by a piece of burning tree. Also, lightning is more likely to strike on a high point. An isolated open shelter will also not protect you from lightning and will tend to attract it. If you are in a forest, move away from the tallest trees.
  • Do not shelter under a rock face. For the same reasons as the lonely tree, if lightning strikes the rocks, they may fall on you.
  • Do not stay near the void or steep slopes. Many accidents due to lightning are not due to the strike itself, but to a fall following it (people fell into the void, on a steep slope, on rocky walls…).
  • Do not shelter in a small cave or rocky cavity. It would seem this kind of “path” attracts that lightning.
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