How To Survive A Lightning Storm

The third in our new weekly How To series

Jay counting cows in a cloud

Jay counting cows in a cloud that was a precursor to the storm

Our sandwiches started to get soggy as the rain quickly turned from a sprinkle to a steady pour.  We got up from our seat on a fallen Aspen to seek shelter under a large Spruce tree.  I was only one bite into the sandwich from my new dry picnic spot when I spotted it, a flash of lightning.  Jay and I looked at one another and knew it was time to move.  As part of a rather random volunteer assignment counting cows, we were alone at over 9,000 feet, within 1,000 feet of the top of a ridge line in the Manti La Sal National Forest.  As we started making our way down the hillside into the gully we watched and waited, waiting to count the seconds between the next thunder and lightning bolts in order to estimate the distance.  It was a steep hillside and we were getting off the ridge as quickly as we could without twisting an ankle.  The rain mixed with corn hail which bounced off of our rain gear and blanketed the ground cover.

THUNDER – it reverberated off the steep sides of the gully, the sound waves seeming to multiply in force –  I held my breath and counted, 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 …   LIGHTNING.  Eek!  Too close to stop now.  We kept trudging down and down into the bottom of the gully.  The further we walked the more distant the storm sounded and the safer I felt.  After only a half a mile we were reaching the edge of the storm and could see blue skies ahead.

cow patty with hail in it

Counting cows includes hiking near a lot of cow poop, which became sprinkled with corn hail

It only takes one time caught out in the open with a lightning storm on your tail to remind you about this deadly, if uncommon, threat.  Growing up in the desert southwest, Jay is no stranger to lightning strikes, and he and I reviewed the best practices for how to handle this situation and hope that you will head this advice and better yet, never have to use it.

What to do if you are caught out in the open during a lightning storm and can not get to a building or car:

The basic rule of thumb is, you do not want to be the tallest thing around.

  1. Get Low:  If you are in a meadow or open area, find a low spot and crouch down with your feet together and hands over your ears (if it is very close).  If you are at high elevation and you can move off the ridge safely, do so, but avoid being directly under tall trees or in water as lightning could travel through either one and hit you.
  2. Avoid Metal:  If you are on a bike or carrying metal trekking poles and the lightning is getting close, ditch the metal objects.
  3. Estimate the distance:   By counting the number of seconds between the lightning flash and the thunder you can estimate the distance, less than 10 seconds = less than 2 miles; 30 seconds or more = 6 or more miles.  You are safe if you are 6 or more miles away.
  4. Split up:  If you are in a group, try to keep at least 15 feet apart so that you can not both be struck by the same bolt.
Jay and I quickly reviewed a few things in case one of us became unconscious.  I had a GPS in an inside pocket and my cellphone, so I let him know where they were located and how to find the number to call.  If you are travelling in a group and one person has a radio or satellite phone as a back up safety measure, it is important that all group members know how to use it.
If you see someone that is struck by lightning and does not have a pulse, you should (if trained) start CPR.  CPR is often effective with lightning victims.  In the last few years they changed CPR training so that it no longer involves mouth to mouth resuscitation, only chest compressions, so it is even easier to learn and to perform on a stranger.
Jay and I are sharing our own personal knowledge which we have checked for accuracy against the National Lightning Safety Institute and NOAA resources.

The safety slogan from the National Lightning Safety Institute:
If you can see it, flee it;  if you can hear it, clear it.

10 responses to “How To Survive A Lightning Storm

  1. Wow, scary! Thanks for the info. Do you remember one time when your Girl Scout troop was canoing (in metal canoes) and a lightening storm started? Mrs. Sting (Sharon’s leader) was telling me how worried they were about all of you getting to shore and out of the boats! You were all OK.

  2. You know it is close when the flash and bang are at the same instant… and then you smell the ozone. Have been that close twice. Your hair stands out like static electricity! Not a real fan of this….

  3. Why were you counting cows? Loved the info but still puzzling over those cows.

    • You’ll just have to wait a few days to find out! It was part of our Grand Canyon Trust trip field work and I’ll be writing a detailed post that will go up sometime in the next week.

  4. This is was a helpful reminder. On White Rim our biggest issue and danger seems to be wind. Any new tips on dealing with wind would be good. We strap down, tie down, secure in any way, everything we can but still some of our biggest challenges on that trip have been a result of wind.

  5. i was wondering if counting cows was secret code for something else secret that they were doing! Ha ha!!

  6. Very interesting and helpful. Am copying and forwarding now…

  7. Oh yeah, and thanks for the photo of the cow poop : )

  8. Pingback: A Year on the Road: By the Numbers | Service Driven

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