Lightning Safety Outdoors

The capricious nature of thunderstorms makes them extremely dangerous; however, following proven lightning safety guidelines can reduce your risk of injury or death. You are ultimately responsible for your personal safety. You have the responsibility to act when threatened by lightning.

No place is absolutely safe from lightning; however, some places are much safer than others. The safest location during lightning activity is an enclosed building. The second safest location is an enclosed metal vehicle, car, truck, van, etc., but NOT a convertible, bike, or other topless or soft-top vehicle.

How Far Away is Lightning from Me?

Bolts From the Blue

There are times when a lightning flash can travel horizontally many miles away from the thunderstorm cloud itself and then strike the ground. These types of lightning flashes are called “Bolts from the Blue” because they seem to come out of a clear blue sky. Although these flashes are rare, they have been known to cause fatalities.

When a Safe Location Is Nearby

When a safe location is nearby, follow the “30/30 Rule.”

  • Seek safe shelter when you first hear thunder, see dark threatening clouds developing overhead or lightning. Count the seconds between the time you see lightning and hear the thunder. You should already be in a safe location if that time is less than 30 seconds.
  • Stay inside until 30 minutes after you last hear thunder.

Plan Ahead! Your best source of up-to-date weather information is a NOAA Weather Radio (NWR). Portable weather radios are handy for outdoor activities. If you don’t have NWR, stay up to date via Internet, TV, local radio or cell phone. If you are in a group, make sure all leaders or members of the group have a lightning safety plan and are ready to use it.

Determine how far you are from a safe, enclosed building or a safe vehicle. As soon as you hear thunder, see lightning, or see dark threatening clouds, get to a safe location. Then wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before you leave the safe location. If you are part of a group, particularly a large one, you will need more time to get all group members to safety. NWS recommends having professional lightning detection equipment so your group can be alerted from significant distances from the event site.

When groups are involved, the time needed to get to safety increases. So you need to start leaving sooner. Your entire group should already be in a safe location when the approaching storm reaches within five miles from your location.

When a Safe Location Is Not Nearby

The lightning safety community reminds you that there is NO safe place to be outside in a thunderstorm. If you absolutely can’t get to safety, this section is designed to help you lessen the threat of being struck by lightning while outside.

Being stranded outdoors when lightning is striking nearby is a harrowing experience. Your first and only truly safe choice is to get to a safe building or vehicle. If are camping, climbing, on a motorcycle or bicycle, boating, scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities and cannot get to a safe vehicle or shelter, follow these last resort tips:

  • Do NOT seek shelter under tall isolated trees! The tree may help you stay dry but will significantly increase your risk of being struck by lightning. Rain will not kill you, but the lightning can!
  • Do NOT seek shelter under partially enclosed buildings.
  • Stay away from tall, isolated objects. Lightning typically strikes the tallest object. That may be you in an open field
    or clearing.
  • Know the weather patterns of the area. For example, in mountainous areas, thunderstorms typically develop in the early afternoon, so plan to hike early in the day and be down the mountain by noon.
  • Know the weather forecast. If there is a high chance of thunderstorms, curtail your outdoor activities.
  • Do not place your campsite in an open field on the top of a hill or on a ridge top. Keep your site away from tall isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees. If you are camping in an open area, set up camp in a valley, ravine, or other low area. A tent offers NO protection from lighting.
  • Wet ropes can make excellent conductors. This is BAD news when it comes to lightning activity. If you are mountain climbing and see lightning, and can do so safely, remove unnecessary ropes extended or attached to you. If a rope is extended across a mountain face and lightning makes contact with it, the electrical current will likely travel along the rope, especially if it is wet.
  • Stay away from metal objects, such as fences, poles and backpacks. Metal is an excellent conductor. The current from a lightning flash will easily travel for long distances.

Originally published in the 2006 Winter issue of The CampLine.

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