Timber Wolf, Lake Superior, Ontario

A lone timber wolf greets
paddlers along the north shore
of Lake Superior, Canada
(Photo by Michael Neiger)

The Rucksack Masthead
By Michael A. Neiger, Marquette, Michigan
Wilderness tripper: backpacking, winter camping, swift-water canoeing
Web site URL: http://therucksack.tripod.com • E-mail: mneiger@hotmail.com
Contents copyright © 1984-2007 by Michael A. Neiger • All rights reserved.

Lightning bolt
(Photo courtesy of NOAA)
Bush skills

A RuckSack primer on...

How to protect
yourself from
lightning in
the wilderness

By Michael A. Neiger
Copyright 2001

Last updated on October 13, 2004

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** Recommended




How to protect
yourself from
lightning in
the wilderness


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.


Seek shelter early

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.


Buildings and cars

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.


Avoid water or wet areas

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.


Assume squatting position, don't lie down

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.


Discard 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.


Ground currents are the biggest killers

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.


Immediate first aid is critical

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

To learn more about lightning, visit

Lightning Safety

Lightning Protection Institute

Read The Lightning Book, by Peter E. Viemeister (MIT Press, 1972). Very thorough.


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In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.
— John Muir 1838-1914, Alaska Wilderness, 1890

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