Lightning Safety in the Mountains

Photo Michael Karrer.

Photo Michael Karrer.

The Rocky Mountains can be a scary place if you get caught in a lightning storm.  You better know what to do if you are hiking or camping with your kids and a lightning storm comes along.

Every year in the United States there are about 49 people killed by lightning.  That number may seem high, but 90,000 people die in car accidents every year.  That is almost 1,500 times more than die from lightning.  Yet, we do not let that keep us from driving in a car.  Likewise, you shouldn’t let the fear of lightning keep you from enjoying the mountains.  Following some precautions and knowing what to do will help keep you and your kids as safe as possible.

Avoid Storms if Possible

Photo Leszek Leszczynski

Photo Leszek Leszczynski

The first thing to do is to stay out of the mountains if a lightning storm is coming.  Keep your eyes on the weather or forecast.  Storms typically come later in the afternoon in the mountains.  So, if possible plan your hikes and activities early in the day.  Do not go for a long hike that will have you up high on a mountain later in the day.

This is like the old saying, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.  The best way to avoid being struck by lightning is to not be outside during a storm.

Where Does Lightning Strike?

Lightning tends to strike the tallest object in an area.  That could be a tall tree, boulder, or building.  It is important to keep this in mind as you think about what you should do in a lightning storm.

 Keep in mind that NOAA states that nowhere outdoors is completely safe during a lightning storm.  They recommend that you get into a substantial building that is completely enclosed and has plumbing and electricity.  If you can’t do that, then here are some tips on what to do and avoid to make you as safe as possible.

Never take shelter under an isolated tree.

Never take shelter under an isolated tree.

Never Do This During a Lightning Storm Outdoors

  • You should never take shelter under an isolated tree.  The tree will attract the lightning and increase the odds of your getting struck.
  • Never lie flat on the ground.
  • Never use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter.

*Note – Tents are not safe during lightning storms.  The metal tent poles can conduct electricity.

lightning storm

Get away from water during a lightning storm.

Do This During a Lightning Storm Outdoors?

  • Get away from water such as ponds, lakes, or other bodies of water.
  • Get away from open fields or the tops of ridges and hills.  If you are in these places you will be the tallest object around and increase your chances of being struck.
  • If you are in a forest, look for a group of shorter trees and take shelter under them.  This is because the lightning will strike the taller trees in the forest.
  • If you are in a group spread out to prevent the current traveling between you.
  • You should get in your car if you are at a campground and your car is nearby.
  • If you are in open areas, look for lower areas in the terrain and seek shelter there.  This could be a dry ravine or valley, but not one with water in it.

As A Last Measure Get Down Low

Get into a squatting position with your arms wrapped around your knees.  Keep your feet together and make yourself into a ball.  Try to make yourself comfortable as you may sit like this until the storm and immediate threat has passed.

You can learn other safety tips, such as bear safety, mountain lion safety, or moose safety.