Who doesn’t thrill to the dazzling sight of lightning pulsing through the sky, flickering out of dark thunderclouds like the tongue of a gargantuan snake high in the sky?
Lightning is one of the most spectacular and powerful phenomena in nature, with power to kill or maim people, explode trees, and start wildfires. However, many of us tend to be too cavalier, not thinking about the force and destruction it can unleash. Perhaps we view it like a rainbow or comet—something far away, majestic and beautiful, that will never touch us.
Most of us have seen lightning thousands of times—from the safety of our cars or houses, on a small or large screen, and occasionally out in the wild. Because we’ve seen it so many times without any harm, we tend to be dismissive and think it is something that won’t ever affect us personally. “Oh, sure, a few people die from lightning,” we might say, “but not me.”
Perhaps we should take more cues from our pets. I’m not suggesting you crawl under a bed and whimper every time a storm passes over or jump, quivering, into the lap of your best friend. But, do respect the danger that this powerful force of nature can unleash that animals instinctively understand.
If you need help reframing how you think about lightning, consider how weather.gov describes the impact of a lightning strike: “Roughly equivalent to the kill radius and injury radius of a hand grenade.”
If you’re on the Appalachian Trail, especially in summer, you’re bound to observe lightning if you’re out long enough. While the odds of being struck randomly by lightning are very low—you’re six times more likely to die from an injury sustained by slipping in your bathtub—some areas along the A.T. can be extremely dangerous in a lightning storm. At least four people are known to have been killed on the A.T. as a result of lightning strikes. Many more have been struck—some of whom made a full recovery, while others suffered severe and lasting injuries.
If you are on an extended hike and far from civilization, you may not have the option of getting to the safest places (a car with a metal roof or a substantial, modern building). However, getting out of high-risk areas can mean the difference between life and death.
Follow these tips to stay safe:
Plan Ahead––check the weather forecast and avoid hazardous weather.
Monitoring forecasts and avoiding the most lightning-prone areas for storms are key.
Having a NOAA weather radio is ideal; weather websites and apps can give you forecasts ahead of time and send you alerts for thunderstorms. The site www.atweather.org provides forecasts for shelters along the A.T.
If you’re planning a day-hike, you might alter your plans by choosing another day or location, or shortening your hike to be off the Trail by the time storms arrive, which are often in the afternoon during summer. If you’re on a long-distance hike, you may be many miles from safety, so you need to know how to minimize your risk.
If you’re on the Trail when a storm is imminent and you hear thunder, see lightning, or spot threatening skies, you need to get away from the most dangerous places and seek places with lower risk.
In remote areas of the A.T., absolute safety cannot be guaranteed. Some areas, however, offer considerably less risk than others.
Here are key points to reduce your risk:
- Immediately move away from open areas, summits, and ridgelines. Lightning hits high points first. Balds (treeless summits that occur below the treeline) such as those found along the A.T. in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia can be especially dangerous. Fatalities have occurred on Max Patch in North Carolina and Cold Mountain in Virginia. Summits and ridgelines above the treeline in New England are also especially dangerous, too; fatalities have occurred on Franconia Ridge and on Katahdin. But any place is hazardous where you become the tallest feature in the surrounding area such as on cliff edges, rocky overhangs, and observation platforms.
- Run for cover – the cover of a forest. Unless you happen to be near your car (with a metal roof) or have access to a substantial, enclosed modern building, the lower slopes of a forest are the safest place. Position yourself the maximum distance away from tree trunks. Avoid caves, which are dangerous when lightning travels along the ground.
Avoid any tall features that stand out from the surroundings, such as isolated trees and tall structures. Communications towers, monuments, and bear poles are features you might need to avoid on the A.T.
- Move away from water, including the Trail itself, if a downpour has turned it into a stream. Move away from ponds, lakes, streams, and even puddles. Water does not need to be deep to conduct electricity. Recently some hikers caught in an open area in a thunderstorm encountered what they described as a fireball moving through the water toward them when heavy rains had fallen. One of the hikers was catapulted two to four feet into the air. The hikers suffered various degrees of numbness in their extremities and shock. The popular destination of Sunfish Pond in New Jersey, just six miles from an interstate highway, has been the site of multiple injuries.
- Drop metal objects such as backpacks with metal frames (internal and external) and trekking poles. It’s less important to get rid of jewelry or clothing with zippers or other metal fixtures or features, as they aren’t likely to attract lightning, but if time allows, after you have found relative safety, remove these items as they could burn you if you are struck.
- Spread out your group, 100 feet apart, to reduce the chance that you’ll have more than one victim if lightning does strike. Many cases have been reported of a group of people who were close together being hit by ground current.
- Stay away from ropes, cords, powerlines, metal fences, and other long metallic objects–those can concentrate currents. A cellphone will not put you at risk unless it is plugged into an outlet.
- Crouch on the ground with your weight on the balls of the feet, your feet together, your head lowered, and your ears covered. Do not lie flat on the ground. Avoid rocks.
- Be aware that Trail shelters will not protect you from lightning. Multiple people have been struck by lightning at the Vanderventer Shelter in Tennessee, which is situated on a ridgetop near the edge of a cliff. A hiker also was killed at a shelter in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park decades ago when lightning jumped from a tree close by to bunks made with metal fencing to the person killed. (Wire bunks have long since been replaced). In a heavy rainstorm with strong winds, when falling limbs and trees are a threat, shelters surrounded by trees of relatively uniform height may be the best option when you are far from civilization. It’s best to assess the various risks; if you decide on a shelter, stay away from the open side and windows.
- Wait 30 minutes after you hear the last clap of thunder in a reduced-risk area. Lightning can strike well after the storm has appeared to have passed.
- Avoid pitching your tent under the tallest tree as storms can develop during the night.
- Be prepared to call 911 or activate a satellite messenger, give CPR with rescue breathing, and treat for shock.
Don’t let yourself become a statistic because you succumbed to the fallacy that “it won’t happen to me.” With some forethought, planning, and caution, you can reduce the chances that you’ll be victim of the worst nature can hurl your way and live to hike another day.
Here are some links for more information: