Hiking, lightning a bad mix
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Tornadoes and hurricanes make most of the headlines for weather-related disasters.
But here’s the shocking news: The deadliest weather event is lightning.
Summer arrived last week along with reports from the National Weather Service that at least four people have died this year from lightning strikes in the United States; the annual average is 54 — and it’s been much higher.
Hundreds more are permanently injured each year after being hit by lightning or from near-misses.
Lightning occurs year-round, but it’s more frequent during summer, when anglers, hikers, campers, bikers, climbers and other outdoor recreationists are in their peak season.
The safest places in a lightning storm are indoors or in a hard-topped vehicle.
Most people can easily reach those sanctuaries for the short duration of a thunderstorm.
But those options aren’t available during many backcountry adventures.
Climbers are perhaps the most exposed to danger when a thunderstorm moves, putting increased emphasis on the timing of their ascents. Climbing is ripe with good reasons to get up early and get down early.
Incidentally, metal climbing gear and wet ropes are excellent conductors. Get away from them in a storm.
People also are vulnerable in the lowlands, in a boat on a lake or walking on a golf course — especially when they make the mistake of taking shelter under a tall tree.
Weather reports are useful for avoiding danger any time of year. Involve them in your daily route planning whenever possible. If thunderstorms are predicted for the afternoon, get up earlier so you can be within easy reach of safety when thunderheads develop.
But don’t turn on a radio outdoors during a thunderstorm.
In the field, your own resources and knowledge must be used to minimize risk.
First thing to remember: If you hear thunder, you’re within striking distance.
• Waste no time getting off summits or exposed ridges and away from water.
• Take shelter, but not under big trees or rock ledges.
• The taller an object is relative to its immediate surroundings, the more likely it is to be struck by lightning.
Any tree can be a conductor, although hunkering in a grove of small trees or under a blowdown would be a bit safer than being around taller trees in the area.
Similarly, campsites should not be in an open field, on the top of a hill or ridge or under or near tall, isolated trees.
Keep this in mind: Rain will not kill you, but lightning can.
If caught out in an electrical storm, seek the lowest point in the area, crouch down making minimal contact with the ground and wait for the boomer to pass. Remove metal-framed packs and ditch the trekking poles.
A foam sleeping pad will not insulate you from lightning that strikes the ground.