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Lightning Safety
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Gregory Petliski
(gregpphoto) - F
Lightning Safety on 03/14/2011 17:36:50 MDT Print View

Question for all the knowledgable minds here. Say you're a good 500 feet or more above the tree line when an unexpected t-storm pops overhead. Run for low ground or squat and pray where you are? I would assume there are times when you are simply too far from the timber line to make it back, like when you're nearing a summit. I think because of the 100% complete lack of control (even when a bear attacks you can fight back), lightning scares me more than any other element of hiking and camping.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Lightning Safety on 03/14/2011 17:51:43 MDT Print View

Been there, done that.

As a general rule, if you feel that the storm cloud is upon you, you are best off to lay down flat and wait it out. This is especially true if you can lay down in a dry depression, although there may not be many depressions high up on a mountain ridge. Even if you can make it down to tree line, you probably do not want to stand directly underneath the tallest tree in the area, because it can easily become the tallest lightning rod in the area.

You know that you are in trouble when your hair stands up on end from the static electricity in the air.


Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Lightning Safety on 03/14/2011 17:57:52 MDT Print View

"Run for low ground or squat and pray where you are?"

That is a decision for which it is difficult to provide a general rule, IMO. So much depends on the terrain you would have to cover(low angle vegetation, steep talus, etc), how fast you can move, how rapidly the T-storm is developing. That being said, having survived two close calls myself, my first instinct would be to make a run for it if there was a decent chance of making it to cover in a minute or two. You are really hung out if you are isolated on a slope, and the longer you are exposed to the storm, the more likely you are to get zapped. I like my odds better down in the trees. YMMV, and the circumstances will dictate your response.

Daryl and Daryl
(lyrad1) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest, USA, Earth
Split Up on 03/14/2011 21:35:47 MDT Print View

I was advised by a Mountaineering Medicine split up if there are two of you. That way one of you can administer CPR if the other is hit. If you are both hit there's no one left to help.

My wife and I dove into low lying brush last time I was in the situation you describe.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Lightning Safety on 03/14/2011 22:32:24 MDT Print View

Hike down to treeline where you are not the tallest object. Best to see NOAA site about lightning safety rather than take any of our words.

Short article I wrote

Edited by jshann on 03/14/2011 22:36:22 MDT.

Brendan Lammers
(mechB) - F

Locale: Washington DC
Lightning safety on 03/14/2011 23:37:30 MDT Print View

Here is a link to the lightning safety guidelines published by NOLS:

NOLS Backcountry Lightning Safety Guidelines

If you don't want to read the whole document (which is an excellent resource), here are the Spark notes (no pun intended) from my own NOLS course. I believe the rule was that if the difference between the lightning flash and the thunder clap is less than one second, you get into "lightning position". Lightning position was basically squatting down as low as possible, backpack off, but with only your two feet touching the ground (don't let your butt touch the ground). The reason has something to do with the way the current would enter/leave your body in the event that you are hit. If you're with someone else or in a group, you should spread at least 50 feet apart (as it says in this link).

As described in this document, it's not a good idea to lie flat on the ground because it increases the chance of the current traveling through the ground and getting you that way.

Anyways, don't take my word for it, just read the info in the link. For what it's worth, we did have some serious close encounters with lightning and had to do the whole "lightning position" thing several times. I remember not being nearly as scared as I should have been (I think I was happy to have that 60+ lb pack off of my back for a few minutes, even if it meant potential death by electrocution--seriously).

Edit: Additional info about lightning position: your feet should be TOGETHER. This reduces the chance of the current entering one foot and exiting the other. Also, it says if you have a foam pad or soft clothes available, to "sit" on that. I think that means assuming the lightning position with the pad under your feet, but I'm not sure. It might also help to pray to Zeus.

Edited by mechB on 03/14/2011 23:47:23 MDT.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
descend on 03/14/2011 23:55:24 MDT Print View

as that NOLS link says ... there is no such thing as a surprise lightning storm ...

if yr ascending and you see bad juju clouds coming yr way ... bail ... fast ...

better to live and climb another day than pretend yr zeus on the mountain top ...

Brendan Lammers
(mechB) - F

Locale: Washington DC
Re: descend on 03/15/2011 00:15:58 MDT Print View

True, I obviously left out the part about descending and seeking cover if possible. The idea with the whole "lightning position" thing is that if the lightning is too close for comfort (i.e. < 1 second between flash/thunder, i.e. < 1000 feet away), you don't really have much of a choice. For instance, here is where we were one time when the lightning got too close.


In other words, nowhere to go. It's situations like these where it's a useful tactic to do the lightning position.

Timing is another factor to consider. If you're going to be in exposed areas like this, it's better to time it so that you're passing through at times when lightning storms are less likely (usually the early morning).

But you should stop reading what I'm saying and just look at the link.

Gregory Petliski
(gregpphoto) - F
RE on 03/15/2011 00:35:24 MDT Print View

Thanks guys. I have read the NOLS pages, as well as a hundred other articles on lightning safety. I know the basics. As far as reading the clouds and the weather, it gets tricky in the mountains; things could look clear on your side of the peak, and only upon arrival of the summit do you realize a thunderhead was forming on the opposite side. Now what? I guess as pointed out go for the lightning position if it is truly on top of you? I've heard though that when you feel the hair standing up, move immediately as youre about to be struck.

Thanks again.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
interesting on 03/15/2011 01:43:32 MDT Print View

which brings an interesting question ...

what do you do if you're caught in a multipitch wall climb ... and the only way off is to rappel ... and you dont think youll make it ...

stay where you are ... bad juju as the lightning will travel down the cracks and wet ropes that yr anchored in ...

rappel down ... and get zapped through the wet ropes anyways ... and risk effing up the rappel and going SPLAT


Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Lightning safety on 03/15/2011 03:07:23 MDT Print View

And when it's 2 am and the storm has crept up on you and starts to bleach eyeballs even though they are shut and have fabric over them? And the low scrub is very thick and you really have no chance of bailing out anywhere?

We decided we might as well stay warm and dry in our sleeping bags on our air mats under our silnylon tent. And hope for the best. Boy, it was noisy for about 15 minutes until it passed over to the other side of the range! Inches of rain too.


Brian Dickens
(briand) - F

Locale: Colorado
RE: Lightning Position on 03/22/2011 07:38:57 MDT Print View

I have read in a few places to use a modified lightning position.

Take a metal object in both hands and bite it (keeping hold of it with both hands).

Crouch low placing elbows on knees. Feet are only thing touching ground, spaced shoulder width apart.

The idea is that lighting will strike highest point (your head, unfortunately), pass to the metal object through forearms and lower legs to ground. Not passing through your heart.

Did not find anything on it quickly with google, but it sure sounds good...


Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: RE: Lightning Position on 03/22/2011 08:33:55 MDT Print View

No offense Brian, but that advice is just Bad.

The NOLS link above say it all.

Don't be the tallest thing around, or close to the tallest thing, to avoid direct strikes and leaders.

Squat low, feet together, on whatever insulating stuff you've got, to avoid being a conductive path for ground potential steppers.

No laughing here.

Edited by greg23 on 03/22/2011 08:46:21 MDT.

Brian Dickens
(briand) - F

Locale: Colorado
"Lightning Safety" on 03/23/2011 10:11:15 MDT Print View

I do not disagree, especially since I could not find the source of what I read.

If I do locate the source, I'll post again. It was likely one of my backpacking or golfing books.

The NOLS link above is actually a copy of something from NOLS, then placed on Here is a direct link:

Also another not posted yet:

I have read (assume everyone does believe everything they read) that one of the important reasons for using the lightning position is to avoid having current go through your heart.

Yet the NOLS document fails to address this. Is it a Myth or Fact? Does having current go through your heart increase your chances of serious injury? A related question that I have is that the some of the lighting crouch positions in fact seem to make it easier for current to pass through your heart.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: "Lightning Safety" on 03/23/2011 12:10:14 MDT Print View

Spread apart from others by 15 feet- prevent lightning from hitting you if another is hit

Stand on insulated pad- prevent ground current from getting you

Squat down with feet together- makes you smaller and shorter target

Head down-

Hands over ears- prevent hearing damage

Edited by jshann on 03/23/2011 12:58:05 MDT.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: "Lightning Safety" on 03/23/2011 12:12:48 MDT Print View

WAG, with a little bit of science -

"A related question that I have is that the some of the lighting crouch positions in fact seem to make it easier for current to pass through your heart."

The "crouch" does two things: 1) makes you lower, and hopefully less likely to take a direct strike, 2) keeps your feet/legs together to make it less likely for a ground step-leader to go up one and down the other, as there is less resistance in the 2" of dirt between your shoes.

From an electrical point of view, electricity doesn't like to be confined. If it strikes a set of concentric metal tubes, it will travel along the outside, not through the middle. In your body I would assume it will travel down the outside, not down the middle. That said, most of your personal electrical system will be damaged. Most survivors have severe long term nerve damage.

"Does having current go through your heart increase your chances of serious injury?"


Edited by greg23 on 03/23/2011 12:52:23 MDT.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Lightning Safety on 03/23/2011 12:47:02 MDT Print View

You can get increased appreciation of static electricity in the air if you witness Saint Elmo's Fire at a distance of about 18 inches. You will immediately move away from anything that is metal or conductive. If you don't, you should.

Then think that it is just the residual static electricity in the air. A full-blown lightning bolt can make you into a crispy critter.


Brian Dickens
(briand) - F

Locale: Colorado
"Lightning Safety" on 03/24/2011 10:21:14 MDT Print View

So how does the nols lightning position with chest against knees help prevent current from going through you heart? If it did I would expect them to mention it in their articles.

Elliott Wolin
(ewolin) - MLife

Locale: Hampton Roads, Virginia
Re: Lightning Safety on 03/24/2011 11:40:19 MDT Print View

I've always wondered how much of the lore concerning lightning safety has a sound basis in observable fact and risk analysis, and how much is based on speculation.

E.g. how many people have gotten electrocuted in pools due to lightning strikes, and is it really necessary to clear the pool for long times whenever thunder is heard? Are the risks of not leaving the pool worse than the risk of dying while driving to work each day, riding a bicycle for an hour or hiking on a trail for a day?

Too often we react to the apparent risk and not the true risk, particularly if the risk is unusual and not part of our everyday experience. The argument that doing this or that is safer is only valid if it results in a statistically significant lowering of risk. How many of us wear crash helmets during everyday driving of a car? No one, despite the fact that it most definitely would be safer!

Same questions concerning lightning safety while hiking. E.g. are there statistical analyses showing that the "lightning safety squat" or some other recommended action is actually effective?

Anyone have references on this? I realize this topic is not that straightforward.

Brian Dickens
(briand) - F

Locale: Colorado
Lightning Safety on 03/24/2011 12:26:45 MDT Print View

The risk of lightning injury per capita is low. But if you place yourself in harms way you increase your chances very quickly. Being in a pool or on a peak during a lightning storm is one sure way to increase your chances VERY quickly.

Without a doubt your chances of getting killed in a car are more likely than getting struck buy lightning.

I've been caught in a couple lightning storms when I did not plan my travel well. In all cases I have been able to run away and not be close when lightning struck the ground.

All the stuff I have read notes the best option is to move to a safer location and lightning position is a last resort.

Here are some stats, but as in all stats, they are not 100% reliable.