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How To Stay Safe In A Thunderstorm When Backpacking!

If you are new to backpacking, you might think that the weather is always perfect, and you won’t get stuck in a thunderstorm. However, that is not how it works. When backpacking, storms roll in at a moment’s notice. It is best to learn about what will happen when it happens. And it will happen.

With all the opinions in the backpacking industry, I decided to look at the evidence from leading experts and share my findings with you.

12 Best Practices When You Are Caught In a Thunderstorm

  1. Avoid standing in water, rivers, lakes, and streams
  2. Avoid large tree-less openings, like big fields and open valleys
  3. Never set up your tent under an isolated tree – tree roots carry the lightning bolt away from the tree
  4. If caught in the open with a group, spread out at least 100 feet from each other
  5. Stay off ridges, peaks, and rocky areas
  6. Avoid caves and cave entrance – electricity travels down through openings hitting anything in its path.
  7. Never stand in puddles or marshy, soggy water
  8. Assume the lightning position, see description below
  9. Remain in the woods near shorter trees
  10. Keep metal objects away from you, like knives, and pots.
  11. Don’t lay down in your tent, assume the Lightning Position
  12. Avoid picnic shelters and outhouses – they are not grounded

To get a better understanding of avoiding lightning strikes, let’s take a closer look at the evidence.

Avoid Open Spaces and Isolated Trees in a Thunderstorm

avoid isolated trees on high points during thunderstorm
Avoid isolated trees on high point!

For several years, scientists have attempted to predict when and where lightning will strike. In doing so, they have revealed factors that lead to lightning strikes and what are some no-nos during storms.

In a recent article by sciencedirect.com, they stated “for the past 7 years, the top activities associated with lightning-related fatalities include getting caught in an open space, and seeking refuge below an isolated tree.”

Further, in the sciencedirect.com article, they note that the American Meteorological Society (AMS) provided recommendations regarding lightning safety and also conducted public awareness campaigns. Recommendations that pertain to hiking and backpacking in the backcountry include:

“seeking shelter or evacuating threatening areas; avoid standing under an isolated tree or being the tallest object in an open field; getting out of lakes, rivers, or streams…staying away from metal objects; and if caught in the open with a group of people, spread out.”

American Meteorological Society

Another study by the American Meteorological Society notes that “outdoor locations frequently involve people seeking shelter under or near a tree.” 15.1 percent of lightning fatalities in the 1990s were from people struck near trees. This is twice the rate of the 1890s.

A Storm Data found that the casualty rate from 1959 to 1994 were people who stood under trees.”

In comparisons of backpacking related activities between the 1890s and 1990s, the following charts reveal that camping (in general), being under/ near a tree, and being in an open field continue to lead the way in causal factors for lightning-related deaths and injuries.

Per location
Per location

“Taking shelter under trees is a consistent killer during both centuries.”

Comparison between 1890s and 1990s

A study by Michael Cherington, et. al. reported that “sports activities associated with the greatest number of lightning-related injuries and deaths included camping and hiking.”

Per recreational activity

Three Types of Lightning Strikes

The three types of lightning strikes are direct strikes, ground current, and side flashes.

Direct strikes cause 3 to 5% of lightning fatalities

It is also a common misconception that lightning strikes are the only way to get injured. Direct strikes only cause between 3 and 5 percent of lightning fatalities. Avoiding high places and open ground significantly reduces the risk of direct lightning strikes.

The majority of lightning injuries and fatalities occur from ground currents, side flashes, and explosive blunt trauma. In the event of a storm, it is best to focus efforts on avoiding ground currents and side flashes. These injuries can be mild to severe, including the risk of death.

ground current off of an isolated tree
Image of ground current

Ground current is fatal up to 10 yards from a lightning strike

When lightning strikes, the electricity that travels through the ground is called ground current. Usually carried by moist ground and puddles, a ground current is fatal up to 10 yards and can cause injury up to 15 to 20 yards. For this reason, it is best to avoid standing in puddles during a thunderstorm.

Side flashes account for 35% of lightning injuries

When an object is struck by lightning and continues sideways it is called a side flash. Therefore, it is not advisable to stand near an isolated tree or other tall objects. While this is not a direct hit, side flashes cause up to 35 percent of lightning strike injuries and numerous fatalities annually.

The explosive force of a lightning strike may cause excessive blunt trauma. Blunt trauma includes contusions, soft tissue injuries, fractures, and concussions. Avoid standing with your feet apart as the current will travel up your leg and down the other leg. Ouch!

It is advisable to avoid fences or power lines as these items attract lightning and lead to high amounts of ground current.

If you get caught in your tent during a thunderstorm, squat as noted above, and avoid laying down, as the ground current may travel from head to toe (or vice versa) and stop your heart.

Finally, for the reasons noted above, don’t pitch your tent near a short or isolated tree. Pitch it in a wooded area with a canopy above for the least likelihood of lightning strikes.

When do most lightning strikes occur?

Another safety factor to keep in mind, when do lightning strikes occur most frequently? According to the Springer Link article, “the highest frequency of lightning strikes in the Rocky Mountains occurs between 11 am and 9 pm, from April to September.”

When planning to hike into higher elevations above the tree line, hiking earlier in the morning and paying attention to the weather patterns is our best advice. Also, the article noted that the majority of lightning strike cases are vacationers, who are unaware of the lightning weather pattern.

What types of injuries occur with lightning strikes?

We now understand where, when, and what activities are most frequently related to lightning strikes let’s look at what type of injuries are most common during a lightning strike.

According to a research project by The National Center for Biotechnical Information, lightning can harm an individual in three main ways.

Top 3 Lightning Strike Injuries

  1. receiving electric current through the body tissues
  2. burns due to conversion of electrical to thermal (heat) energy
  3. mechanical trauma:
    • Thrown due to a shockwave or direct strike from a lightning bolt
    • Flying debris from a nearby object
    • A fall after being struck
    • Involuntary muscle contraction

Also, Michael Cherington et. al. in 1991, reported that “neurological damage (damage to the nervous system) is often the most devastating consequence of lightning strikes.” We report the cases of six patients with severe, immediate, and in at least three cases present permanent clinical problems.”

And, of these cases, “patients with signs of spinal cord lesions are most likely to have permanent disabilities.”

What should you do if caught in a thunderstorm?

Numerous studies attempted to find the answers to keeping people safe in a thunderstorm. The underlying theme of all of the studies stated that lightning appears random and very difficult to predict.

Therefore, the best information is to perform activities that provide you with the most safety available at the time. However, this is not always enough.

The 1997 Philmont Scout Ranch Guidebook to Adventure provides the most rigorous explanation for what to do during a thunderstorm. I found this excerpt, as published in an article by Chuck Doswell, a Senior Research Scientist, Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorology
and Assistant Scoutmaster, Troop 777, Norman, OK.

His article quotes the Guidebook:

“The summits of mountains, crests of ridges, slopes above timberline, and large meadows are extremely hazardous places to be during lightning storms.

If you are caught in such an exposed place, quickly descend to a lower elevation, away from the direction of the approaching storm, and squat down or kneel on a pad, keeping your head low. A dense forest located in a depression provides the best protection.

Avoid taking shelter under isolated trees or trees much taller than adjacent trees. Stay away from water, metal fences, and other objects which will conduct electricity long distances.

By squatting or kneeling on a pad with your feet close together you have minimal contact with the ground, thus reducing danger from ground currents (the lightning position)

If the threat of lightning strikes is great, your crew should not huddle together, but spread out at least 100 feet apart. If one member of your crew is jolted, the rest of you can assist. Keep track of one another by numbering off in a loud voice from time to time.

Whenever lightning is near, take off backpacks with either external or
internal metal frames. Be sure to pitch your tents in an area that is protected from lightning strikes. (p.30)”

1997 Philmont Scout Ranch “Guidebook to Adventure”:

Is the lightning position really safe in a storm?

the lightning position crouching
The lightning position

Is the lightning position really safe in a storm? yes, if it is your only option!

Mary Ann Cooper, M.D., an acknowledged lightning expert, wrote that “our best-educated guess with science is that it’s acceptable to kneel or sit cross-legged.” She continues, “no action achieves safety from lightning in the wilderness, away from [being in] a substantial building, or a metal-topped vehicle.”

Furthermore, she goes on to state that the following efforts below, do not reduce the risk of being struck by lightning.

  • Being inside a tent
  • Sitting on a pad
  • Removing metal objects from a person, or any configuration of the body

Why the 30-30 Rule Is Best Practice After a Thunderstorm

If you get caught in a thunderstorm, abandon your plans immediately, and seek the most appropriate shelter.

It is well-known that the first lightning strikes coincide with the first rain. However, lightning may strike up to a mile away from the storm. It is also possible for lightning to strike up to 30 minutes after a storm has passed.

The 30-30 rule is the best practice to follow after a thunderstorm. Meaning, you can resume activities when the thunder sound to lightning flash is at least 30 seconds apart, and the most recent lightning flash was greater than 30 minutes ago. Stray lightning bolts may strike for up to 30 minutes after a storm has passed.

Flash floods, hail, wind, and tornados with thunderstorm

approaching thunderstorm, hail, lightning, and strong winds
Approaching thunderstorm!

Thunderstorms also bring the chance of many other happenings. Flash floods, hail, wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour, and tornados.

How do flash floods occur?

Rain from the storm poses a great danger for backpackers. During a storm, water collects in higher areas and trickles down the mountain toward lower ground. As the storm continues, the streams turn quickly into rivers and eventually rage toward the lower ground.

In the Southwest, rainwater flows into canyons and can trap hikers unaware of the ensuing danger. Staying alert is a good practice when backpacking. To avoid dangerous natural drains, pitch your tent on higher ground.

If caught in a flood, never attempt to swim across a stream that is over knee-deep at its deepest point. Take notice of the stream; is it speeding up and rising up the banks or moving toward you?

Philmont’s Guidebook to Adventure warns hikers to “pay attention to upstream water; flash floods are most common at night, so, never camp on flat stream or in a canyon, and have an escape route planned.

If the water starts to rise, climb to safety. Water during a flash flood can rapidly rise or present as a wall of water effect; Both are equally dangerous.

Remember that slower storms have the potential for flash floods. Due to the slow-moving nature, the water has time to build up in the rivers and streams. Then the waters rise and send floodwaters below.

Hail forms quickly when thunder clouds gather

As thunder clouds quickly gather and raise into the atmosphere, the water vapor cools and forms ice droplets. Ice droplets attract water vapor and, when heavy enough, fall from the sky.

Fast-moving storms pelt the ground and anything else in its path with the little ice rocks. Damage and injuries from hail are fairly common as hail, in some cases, grows to the size of baseballs.

Wind gusts reach up to 60 miles per hour during a thunderstorm

According to weather.gov, wind gusts reach 57 to 60 miles per hour during a thunderstorm. As you race to get out of the storm, it is advisable to take cover in wooded areas. However, be aware of the wind knocking down large branches and trees near or onto you.

Tornados occur at the leading edge of a thunderstorm

Shelf clouds form at the leading edge of a thunderstorm. These clouds bring stiff winds and may develop into tornados. When taking cover, be on the alert for flying debris from menacing tornados.

Final words

To say that lightning and thunderstorms are unpredictable is an understatement. Knowing that nothing short of getting inside of a house or into a car provides the ultimate in safety. It is important to adhere to a few simple rules:

5 Safety Rules During Lightning and Thunderstorms

  1. Study the weather ahead of time
  2. Pay attention to your surroundings
  3. Be ready to run for cover
  4. Know that the highest object in the area attracts lightning: isolated trees, outhouses, picnic shelters, a tent in a field, and you.
  5. Choose to be off of high peaks before the afternoon hits

Have a fun, safe backpacking trip.