Statistically, your chances of being struck by lightning are low. The odds are that only one person in 3,000 will be struck in their lifetime.
Still, it’s easy to forget those stats when you’re in the eye of the story. During last week’s 55k adventure run, as I tried to avoid the wet granite slabs of rock covering the path, the odds weren’t a comfort. Even though the chances were 3,0000 to one, I couldn’t help thinking that I could be that one.
If you’ve been caught outside in a lightning storm, you know it’s a bad situation. But while the prospect of being struck by a lightning bolt scary, it shouldn’t deter you from enjoying a trail in the summertime. Here are ways to reduce risk when storms gather.
First and foremost, try to avoid the storm altogether. Always check weather and radar maps before heading out the door for a big mountain run. There are many terrific weather apps with alert systems built in. Be flexible with your route or plan if there is a likely chance a thunderstorm. If you see or hear a storm approaching, act fast. If you hear thunder in calm air, lightning is within 10 miles of you. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that failing to act fast is one of the strongest predictors of being struck.
Still, it’s impossible to predict every storm. In areas like the Rocky Mountains, thunderstorms can form in minutes with minimal warning, so it’s essential to do your research about your route before you head out the door. Forest Service Stations and private cabins exist in many backcountry areas. Get familiar with the area and have a bailout plan in the case of a lightning storm.
Caught in The Storm
On average, 11 people die from lightning each year in Colorado. Half of the state’s lightning deaths occur on mountain tops, where you might expect lightning to strike. But the other half happen in places that might seem like shelter from lightning’s danger, including victims who’ve stood underneath trees, in caves or in water. The good news is that thanks to education and other factors, lightning-related deaths have trended downward since 1940, when deaths were measured in the hundreds.
First thing first: avoid exposed ridges and peaks. Descend as quickly as possible from high points when storms approach. Lightning often strikes the tops of hills and mountains, so valleys and canyons can be somewhat safer.
If you’re outdoors and exposed, there’s little you can do about the path lightning will take. As such, most advice about lightning storms involves minimizing the harm lightning will do if it strikes close by. For instance: don’t run for shelter under trees. When a tree struck by lightning, the electrical current can jump from the tree to another location in what’s known as a side flash.
Avoid standing in water. Water doesn’t necessarily attract lightning. Water conducts electricity and increases the chances current from a nearby strike will reach you. Interestingly, people struck by lightning while wet may have less severe injuries since the current may travel over their skin to the ground, causing less injury to internal body parts. That doesn’t mean you should intentionally get wet, but you shouldn’t necessarily be more concerned if you are wet from the storm.
Taking cover under rocks or at a cave entrance may also put you at an increased risk, especially at a cave entrance. If you shelter in a cave, move as far back away from the entrance as possible.
Be aware of above-ground phone and power lines, metal handrails, bridges, wet ropes and all other metals. Electricity travels quickly along conductive objects, increasing your odds of being hit by a side flash. and if you’re touching the conductive object when the lightning strikes, the current will travel through you from the object to the ground.
The Last Resort
If you’ve moved to the safest position you can find and you’re still exposed, your body position can help reduce your risk of injury by a strike. Crouch down on the balls of your feet and keep them as close together as possible. Cover your ears and don’t allow other body parts to touch the ground to reduce the risk of electricity traveling to you. Keep in mind that this position should only be used as a last resort.
A recent study of Florida lightning victims found that most people were struck before the rainstorm reached their location or after rain ended. Most of the people that were struck were either near water or trees.
If you feel hairs on your head, legs or arms tingling or standing on end, you’re in an extremely high electrical field. If you or anyone in your group experiences any of these signs, take it as an indication of immediate and severe danger.