How to protect
From a distance, lightning can be a mesmerizing,
awe-inspiring sight. Up close however, it's one of the most
powerful and deadly threats to your life in the wilderness.
In fact, lightning's deadlier than any other weather-related
phenomenon, including tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. In
the United States alone, lightning kills between 150 and 300
people each year. You should know what to do when lightning
threatens you in the outdoors.
Since lightning is very unpredictable and
a subsequent strike can occur many miles from a previous one,
you should seek shelter whenever a lightning storm approaches.
To estimate how far away a lightning storm
is, count the number of seconds which elapse between a flash
of lightning and it's corresponding bang of thunder and divide
this number by five. This will tell you how many miles away
the storm is.
For example, a twenty-second flash-to-bang
count means the lightning strike occurred approximately four
miles away. If subsequent flash-to-bang intervals decrease,
you'll know the storm is moving closer.
The safest place to seek shelter during
a lightning storm is inside of a substantial, enclosed building.
Avoid touching or standing near doors, windows, walls, and
other things--such as telephones, TV's, computers, radios,
appliances, fireplaces, sinks, tubs, toilets, etc.--which
may conduct lightning into the building's interior.
A parked, fully enclosed, metal vehicle
with the doors and windows closed is also a good place to
seek cover. However, to be protected, keep your hands in your
lap so you don't touch anything which might conduct lightning
into the vehicle. Touching a steering wheel, gear shifter,
ignition key, radio, microphone, telephone, or window crank
could be dangerous.
Since convertibles, fiberglass vehicles,
mountain bikes, ATV's, motorcycles, open-decked boats, canoes,
sea kayaks, gazeboes, and small sheds offer no protection
whatsoever, abandon them and keep your distance.
Lakes, wet beaches, rivers, riverbanks,
wet boggy areas, hills, ridges, clearings, and areas with
tall isolated trees are some of the worst places to be during
a lightning storm, so avoid them.
Anytime you're the tallest object within
a 30-yard circle, or you're within a few yards of a taller
object, you could be at risk. In forested areas, avoid tall
trees and seek cover in a low, brushy area. If you're caught
on a hilltop or ridge, descend as far as possible, avoiding
caves, overhangs, and rocky outcrops.
In open areas lacking any apparent shelter,
seek out a low spot such as a depression, draw, or ravine--just
make sure it's not waterlogged. Keep in mind people have been
killed by lightning which has struck up to 100 yards away.
Once you've taken shelter, squat down on
the balls of your feet on whatever dry insulating material
is at hand. A sleeping pad, seat cushion, PFD, coil of rope,
or some extra clothing will do. Squat with your feet together,
hands on your knees, head lowered, and mouth open.
Never lie down, or stand with your feet
apart, as you'll increase your chances of injury from a ground
shock as the lightning from a nearby strike dissipates. Lightning
dissipating along the surface of the ground tends to seek
the path of least resistance, so your goal is to prevent it
from traveling up one leg and down the other (if your feet
are apart) or through your vital organs (if you're lying down).
Since lightning tends to jump between people
in a group, avoid the tendency to huddle. Instead, stay at
least 15 feet apart. Lightning can also jump from nearby objects,
so keep your distance from fences, gates, poles, signs, telephone
poles, power lines, underground pipes, trees, building exteriors,
large rock outcrops, vehicles, and other large metal objects.
In addition to squatting down to avoid
a direct hit, you should also discard metal framed backpacks,
fishing poles, rifles, shotguns, shovels, walking sticks,
and other projecting items which might act as a lightning
rod. If you don't exit an aluminum or steel framed tent--and
you should--assume a squatting position. Resist the temptation
to wait out a storm lying in your sleeping bag as dozens of
campers have been killed this way.
Many of these victims were not killed
by a direct hit; instead, they were fatally injured by a ground
shock as lightning from a nearby strike dissipated along the
ground or through tree roots under them. If you hear crackling
or zinging sounds, or your hair stands on end, act quickly,
as a lightning strike may be imminent.
If someone is injured by lightning, immediate
first aid is essential since approximately 80 percent will
survive. Many victims who appear dead can be revived by administering
CPR, so treat them first. Dressing burns or consoling screaming
survivors can wait. As with any serious injury, keep an eye
out for the onset of shock too. Impaired eyesight, balance,
and hearing are commonplace among lightning victims.
Since the majority of lightning fatalities
occur either before or after a storm's peak, seek shelter
early and use caution before resuming any outdoor activity.
By understanding the different ways lightning can injure you
in the wilderness, you'll be better able to protect yourself
when a lightning storm threatens.
To learn more about lightning, visit
Lightning Protection Institute
Read The Lightning Book,
by Peter E. Viemeister (MIT Press, 1972). Very thorough.