As we approached the mountains ahead, our eager anticipation of the awesome hike we were about to undertake was suddenly matched by a sense of dread. An ominous purple cloud hung over the mountain range and poured its rainy contents on the peaks. Flashes of lightning licked the sky. We pulled over. After a short discssion, we decided as a group to put off our hike till the following week. We were disappointed. A couple wanted to go anyway. After all, we had brought ponchos to keep us dry from the rain. And the chances of getting struck by lightning are slim, right? We chose not to take our chances. Why?
We were preparing to hike Table Mountain in the Teton range. In the summer months, the air is warmer and drier, and the high elevation of the Rocky Mountains means that afternoon thunderstorms are a common occurrence. If I had checked the weather beforehand, I would have known how likely this was to happen, and if we had hiked in the morning, we would have been more likely to avoid the storms.
So why shouldn’t we have just gone anyway? I mean, everyone knows getting struck by lightning is about as likely as winning the lottery. Couldn’t we just suck it up and go? Besides it generally being much less enjoyable to hike in the rain, it’s not worth the risk to hike in a lightning storm, however small the risk may be. According to the NOAA (National Weather Service) 70% of lightning strikes happen between the months of June and August, and about two-thirds of all lightning-related deaths occur while victims are involved in outdoor leisure activities. Most happen in the afternoon. Hikers are most frequently out doing what hikers do during these times.
Hearing stories over the last few years of those being struck by lightning in the same area we would be hiking was enough to convince me. In 2003, an entire team of climbers in the Tetons was struck by lightning. A similar incident involving three teams of climbers occurred in 2010. There have been other incidents here. And this is in just one small area.
The solution may be as simple as checking the weather before you go out and avoiding hiking at high elevations during the afternoon (most suggest the morning instead). This is not always possible, however, and unpredictable storms can happen. So what do you do if you get caught in a storm up there? I’m glad you asked. I did a little research on this.
If a lightning storm happens while you are up in the mountains, away from cars and buildings or safe places, it helps to know what you can do to minimize risks. According to the National Outdoor Leadership School, most advice offered on this subject is considered more of an “expert hunch” than guaranteed safety advice because of the difficulty in testing it. But it is suggested that, in order to make yourself a little more safe, you immediately turn around and head for safety if you hear thunder. You want to stay away from elevated positions like peaks or ridges during storms. If you need to descend from a peak, it is advised that you descend on a side without clouds if possible. Get to low terrain with gently rolling hills if possible. Avoid flat, open meadows and stay away from trees. Stay away from bodies of water and cave entrances. Avoid metal poles, rails or anything similar.
As soon as you are able to get to a lower risk area, experts advise that members of a group spread out at intervals of 50 feet to avoid multiple injuries. At this point, if you cannot find a safe building or car, it is advised that you assume the “lightning position.” In this position, you squat or sit, put your feet together, and ball up into the fetal position. Some say to wrap your arms around your legs, and some suggest putting your elbows outside your knees and covering your ears. It is also advised that you close your eyes (not sure why). You basically want to be as small and close to the ground as possible without actually laying down. People standing upright are a taller and thus more likely target for lightning. And laying down will make you more susceptible to currents travelling on the ground. See the illustration, courtesy of the National Park Service.
Any near-miss should be reported to rangers or local authorities. You should sketch where people were in relation to a strike and vegetation and landmarks. This helps experts record lightning incidents in order to better study them and predict future weather patterns.
I hope this information has been useful and interesting. Prevention is always better than damage control in the situation, so remember to check the weather and avoid problems to begin with. Lightning strikes aren’t too common, but you never know what might happen if you’re not prepared. Hike smart! Happy trails.
Please note that I am not a safety expert. Any advice in this post is based on my research or personal experience, and should not be construed as professional safety advice. I am not responsible for any outdated/mistaken information or misapplication of correct information. This post is accurate to the best of my knowledge. Readers are responsible for their own safety and knowledge.