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How To Stay Safe In A Thunderstorm When Backpacking

The weather is one of the most influential things to consider when planning a backpacking trip. From sunshine and rain, to wind and hail, all weather conditions can have major implications for your preparation. That’s why it’s key to understand how to stay safe in a thunderstorm when backpacking.

The best way to stay safe in a thunderstorm when backpacking is to seek shelter immediately. If you’re not near shelter, avoid open areas, and stay clear of isolated trees or other tall objects. Don’t stand in water, avoid metal fences, and if you’re in a group, everyone should stay 100 feet apart.

Below, we’ll go through all of these points in more detail, so you can understand how to stay safe in a thunderstorm when backpacking. Then, we’ll take a look at some other types of weather to be aware of that often occurs during or as a result of thunderstorms.

3 Types Of Lightning Strikes

1. Direct Strikes

It is a common misconception that direct lightning strikes are the only way to get injured during a thunderstorm. 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.

2. Ground Current

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 away and can cause injury up to 15 to 20 yards. For this reason, it is best to avoid standing in puddles during a thunderstorm.

3. Side Flashes

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

Common Lightning Strike Injuries

Tissue damage as a result of receiving electric current through the body tissues is one of the most common injuries caused by lightning strikes. Burns due to conversion of electrical to thermal (heat) energy is another common injury, as lightning can reach temperatures exceeding 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mechanical trauma is also common, which could involve being thrown due to a shockwave or direct strike from a lightning bolt, or flying debris from a nearby object that was struck. Neurological damage (damage to the nervous system) is often the most devastating consequence of lightning strikes of all types.

How To Stay Safe In A Thunderstorm When Backpacking

Avoid Open Fields And Isolated Trees

One of the best ways to stay safe in a thunderstorm when backpacking is to stay away from open fields. Equally important is staying out from underneath isolated trees. In the middle of an open area, you are the tallest thing, and therefore the most likely thing for lightning to strike. Standing under an isolated tree puts you in danger of side flashes.

Get Below The Treeline

You should also try to avoid the summits of mountains or ridges, and any hiking above the treeline. Essentially, you never want to be the tallest object – or next to the tallest object – in a given area during a thunderstorm.

Descend To Lower Elevations

Descend to lower elevations, and ideally somewhere in a dense forest in a depression, rather than on a hillside. Lots of trees adjacent to each other should provide you with enough protection to stay safe, but if possible, find shelter inside a building or in your car.

Note that standing next to any trees, even in a dense forest, leaves you in danger. While there is no safe place outdoors during a thunderstorm, it can often be more dangerous to try and reach safety if you need to cross an open field for example, where you would be the tallest object, and thus more likely to get struck.

Don’t Stand In Water

You should also avoid standing in water, such as rivers or streams, or even puddles. Wet ground can result in ground current injuries, so stay off marshy areas too. Also avoid metal fences and anything else that might be a good conductor of electricity.

Separate From The Rest Of Your Group

If you’re in a group, stand at least 100 feet away from each other if possible. This means that, should anyone be struck by lightning, the rest of the group should remain unharmed. This means you can then get help for the injured person, and it minimizes the number of people that can be injured by a single strike.

The 30-30 Rule

If you get caught in a thunderstorm, the best thing to do is to abandon your plans immediately, and seek the most appropriate shelter. Lightning may strike up to a mile away from the storm itself, and it’s also possible for lightning to strike up to 30 minutes after a storm has seemingly passed. So, how do you know when it’s safe to get back to doing what you were doing?

The 30-30 rule is the best practice to follow after a thunderstorm. This means you can resume activities when the thunder sound and lightning flash are at least 30 seconds apart, and the most recent lightning flash was greater than 30 minutes ago.

How To Deal With Other Aspects Of Thunderstorms When Backpacking

Rain from thunderstorms 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 quickly turn into rivers and eventually rage toward the lower ground.

Choose Your Spot Carefully

Avoid setting up camp in dangerous natural drains, and pitch your tent on higher ground. Rainwater can flow into canyons and trap hikers unaware of the ensuing danger. Be aware of this when planning your hike, and check several weather report sources before you head out.

If you do get caught in a flood, never attempt to swim across a stream that is more than knee-deep. Keep an eye on water levels of any nearby streams. If the water starts to rise, climb to safety. Water during a flash flood can rise very quickly, hence the name.

Beware Of Hail

As thunder clouds quickly gather and rise into the atmosphere, the water vapor cools and forms ice droplets. Ice droplets attract water vapor and, when heavy enough, fall from the sky. Hailstones can reach the size of golf balls or larger, so if hail starts falling, seek shelter immediately, ideally in a proper shelter or car.

Heavy Winds Can Be Destructive

Thunderstorms can bring with them very heavy winds. Gusts of more than 50 mph are common, and these can be very destructive. They can knock down trees, or send branches falling to the ground, along with other debris. This can be lethal if you get caught in the wrong place, so never pitch your tent under dead trees or trees with visibly loose branches.

Final Thoughts

To stay safe in a thunderstorm when backpacking, the best thing you can do is seek shelter immediately. Avoid standing next to isolated trees, and don’t venture into open areas. Also avoid standing in water, and stay 100 feet apart from others in your group.