White Mountains (Pemigewasset Wilderness)

Surviving a Lightning Storm while Backpacking

The American Backpacker

You are backpacking and a lightning storm quickly moves in.  What should you do?  Tragically, for the last 10 years an average of 27 people have been killed by lightning each year in the United States. 

This is a dramatic decrease in lightning deaths since 1940, when they began officially keeping records of these tragic deaths.  In 1943, (432) people in the United States died from lightning strikes.  This decrease in deaths is a result of education and advanced weather forecasting technologies.

So what should you do when you are caught in a severe lightning storm on your wilderness adventure? I will discuss what you need to do by breaking down this article into three sections:

–  Pre-planning

–  On the trail

–  At your basecamp

It is important to remember that there is no exact science on where and when lightning will strike. Your knowledge on how to react is the key when it comes to survival.  This article will discuss how you can reduce your risk in a wilderness area when a lightning storm moves in.

Lightning Bolt
Lightning moving in

Pre-planning:

I have been wilderness backpacking for years and before I head into any wilderness area I always check the weather prior to my trip.  Watching the news, going on the Internet, or checking a weather app on your phone will give you valuable information.  Knowing the weather pattern for the area you plan on visiting can help you decide what gear to bring and where to place your basecamp during inclement weather. 

Today’s weather technology allows me to decide what type of weather I may encounter, (10 days out), before my trip.  Of course, this is only estimation but it helps me plan my adventure.  One specific technology that has been invaluable for me while I am on my adventure is my Garmin inReach Explorer Plus (GPS Satellite communicator). This unit has a weather feature that allows me to predict weather 24 hour out using satellite technology.

Pike National Forest (Lost Creek Wilderness)
Sheltering from the rain in the Pike National Forest (Lost Creek Wilderness)

ON THE TRAIL

When you are on the trail or bushwhacking through and a lighting storm moves in you should do the following:


DO THE FOLLOWING IF YOU ARE ON THE TRAIL

1.  Look for shelter if available, (A fully enclosed structure or vehicle)

2.  Look for a low-lying area (based on the terrain around you).

3.  Avoid open areas.

4.  Drop your backpack and any metallic gear to include hiking poles and weapons.

5.  Distance yourself from these items maintaining at least a 10-meter gap.

6.  Avoid tall objects such as trees around you. If you are in an area with lots of trees look for the section of smaller trees in a low-lying area.

7.  Crouch or squat down covering your ears during the storm. Do not lye down since it will expose your body to ground surges from lightning strikes. If you are in a group of people spread out with at least 10 meters between people.

White Mountains (Pemigewasset Wilderness)
Rain in the White Mountains (Pemigewasset Wilderness)

AT YOUR BASECAMP

I have always told you that when you are looking for a basecamp use the acronym W.E.S.S. (Water, Elevation, Security and Safety). Using this acronym will give you an ideal basecamp but during a storm it may increase the risk of lightning striking your basecamp. 

The letter E, elevation can be the issue in this acronym.  Elevation is important when setting up your basecamp because having it in a low-lying area can expose you to flash floods, rising water, or unwanted cooler temps, especially during the winter months.

Having elevation also provides you with a good vantage point to fight off dangers such as animals that may wander into your camp.  So with that said elevation in a thunderstorm may expose you to lightning strikes.  It is kind of that old saying; you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  So in this situation good intelligence helps if you know that a storm is coming in. 

If you are in your basecamp when a lightning storm hits there is not much you can do to move it quickly so you must ride out the storm.  Most backpackers will not readily get out of their tent so here are some points to follow in effort to lessen your risk of getting struck by lightning:


DO THE FOLLOWING IF YOU ARE AT YOUR BASECAMP

1.When setting up you basecamp look for a separate low-lying area not in the open that you can retreat to if a storm hits. Set up a small tarp system, (poncho) in a low-lying area for rain protection so you can wait out the storm and return to your tent if you decide to leave.

2.  If you decide to stay in your tent then use your air mattress as an insulator. Do not lie down but instead crouch down or kneel on your air mat avoiding contact with your tent especially your tent poles. Lightning will probably not hit your tent and the dangers are from the ground currents caused by lightning strikes.

3.  Ground currents occur when lightning hits an object by your tent such as a tree and it travels through the tree to the surrounding ground. Crouching on your sleeping pad and sleeping bag will help reduce and insulate you from the ground current.

Pike National Forest (Lost Creek Wilderness)
Bad weather moving in at the Pike National Forest (Lost Creek Wilderness)

Conclusion

Backpacking in a wilderness areas has its risks.  Being caught in a lightning storm is one of those risks.  Pre-planning your adventure to include checking weather forecasts plays in big role in how safe your adventure will be.  Unfortunately even with the technology we have today the potential for being caught off guard exists.  Lightning is not an exact science and it has a mind of its own.  Knowing what you can do during a lightning storm if caught off guard will greatly increase your chance of survival.

There has been a dramatic decrease in deaths due to lightning strikes since the 1940’s because of education. I hope this article has added knowledge to your skill set on increasing your chances of surviving a lightning storm if you encounter one on your adventure.


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