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Hiking in a thunderstorm: tips for avoiding lightning

Let be serious, hiking in a thunderstorm is scary. Even if the risks are low, you can’t help but get sinking feeling every time you hear the crackle of thunder while up on a ridgeline. Thunderstorms pose many risks while out in the open and when combined with wet and cold conditions, they can often be quite dangerous. Today I’ll go through some ways you can help protect yourself when a thunderstorm hits in the middle of your next hike and even go over a little bit of how lightning works.

Lightning striking the ground during a hike

Understanding Lightning: How it Works

Understanding how lightning works isn’t super important but is something which is good to know and might make for some great trail chat. Lightning is an electrical discharge that occurs when there is a build-up of electric charges in the atmosphere. The discharge occurs between the ground and the cloud or between two clouds, creating a bolt of lightning.

Types of Lightning

When it comes to the different types of lightning, there is more than just what we see when lightning hits the ground, in fact there are three types of lightning: cloud-to-ground, intra-cloud, and cloud-to-cloud. Cloud-to-ground lightning is the one we watch out for as of course it hits things on the ground.

Lightning Safety Myths

There are several lightning safety myths that can put hikers in danger. For example, hiding under a tree during a storm is not safe, as it increases the risk of getting struck by lightning because a tree is more likely to be struck. Additionally, lightning can strike even if it's not raining, so don't assume that if the sky is clear, you're safe.

Woman hiking in the rain

Lightning Safety Skills and Strategies

After being caught out a few times myself, I've learnt a few things here and there about what to do when you get caught out in a storm. Often they can simply come from nowhere and last hours. Here are some of the strategies I’ve learnt:

Check the Weather Forecast

Before you hit the trail, check the weather forecast to see if thunderstorms are expected in the area. If there is a high chance of lightning, consider postponing your hike or altering the route.

Plan Your Route

When planning your route, choose a trail that offers shelter, such as a hut or valley. If the weather forecast isn’t looking promising, consider changing your route to keep everyone safe.

Avoid Open Areas

Avoid hiking in open areas such as mountaintops, ridges, or fields during a thunderstorm. If you're caught in an open area during a storm, crouch down in a low area, preferably a dry ditch or a depression.

Stay Away from Metal

Stay away from metal objects such as poles, fences, or metal foot bridges, as they can attract lightning. This is the one most people think of and is adhered to all the time.

Take Shelter

If a thunderstorm starts while you're hiking, seek shelter immediately. The best option is to get inside a sturdy building or a hard-top vehicle. If there is no shelter nearby, get inside your tent and crouch down in the middle, away from metal poles.

Stay Low

If you can't find shelter during a thunderstorm, stay low to the ground. Avoid standing on top of hills or ridges, and crouch down on the balls of your feet. Keep your head down and cover your ears with your hands.

Wait it Out

If you're caught in a thunderstorm, wait it out. Don't try to outrun the storm or rush to get back to your car or hut. Lightning can strike several kilometres away from the storm, so wait a while after the last thunderclap before resuming your hike.

Hiking in lightning can be dangerous, but by following these essential safety skills and strategies, you can reduce the risk of getting struck by lightning. Remember to check the weather forecast, plan your route, stay away from metal, take shelter, stay low, and wait out the storm. No matter how much you plan, sometimes you can never really predict nature so knowing what to do when you get caught out in the storm is just as important as planning in advance.

Written by Josh Welch


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