LIghtning Safety 101

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When most people think of lightning, they think of the bolt that powered Doc Brown’s Delorean time machine in the movie “Back To The Future”. However, when outdoors lightning can have serious and sometimes deadly consequences.

A few facts about lightning:

–In the US there are approximately 25 million cloud to ground strikes annually.

–These ground strikes kill, on average, 62 people per year and injure about 300 more.

–Thunderstorms are most dangerous as they approach, especially within one mile.

–The best way to determine how far away you are from a lightning strike – count the number of seconds between when you see the lightning and you hear the thunder and divide that time by five (sound travels five seconds/mile). Thus, if you hear the thunder 10 seconds after you see the lightning, that strike was about 2 miles away from you.

Most lightning injuries occur:

–In high mountain areas and on large bodies of water.

–Between May and September.

–Between 10:00 am and 7:00 pm (80 percent)

Lightning myths and facts:

–Myth – Lightning never strikes the same place twice.

–Fact – Lightning can strike the same place twice!

–Myth – Lightning is attracted to metal.

–Fact – Lightning is NOT attracted to metal. However, metal is a good conductor of electricity, meaning that metal provides less resistance when electricity passes through it as opposed to other materials such as rubber. Therefore, it’s wise to remove any metallic objects from your body such as carabiners, ice axes, jewelry, and if you’re riding your bike get off of it immediately.

Risk management:

–First and foremost, check the weather forecast before you leave for your trip.

–Be mindful of the weather when outdoors.

–Remember the 30/30 rule – get in the lightning position* when the interval between the lightning strike and the sound of thunder is 30 seconds or less (which would be 6 miles away or less from the lightning strike). Don’t resume activities until 30 minutes after the last observed lightning strike.

–*The lightning position can best be described as crouching as low as possible on the balls of your feet with your ankles touching and your head tucked low. One additional caveat is to place your hands on your forehead and your elbows on your knees so the electricity can pass through your arms on its path to the ground, thus avoiding your vital organs. NEVER lie flat on the ground to make yourself even lower because it exposes your vital organs to ground currents from lightning strikes.

–Time your visits to high-risk areas by paying attention to weather patterns. Be off the summits of mountains by 11:00 am because thunderstorms typically occur in the afternoon in the mountains.

–Find safer terrain if you hear thunder (e.g. below tree line).

–Boaters should get off the water immediately.

–Stay away from the shoreline – lightning frequently strikes shorelines.

–When in a group, spread out at least 50 feet apart to avoid having multiple electrocutions with one lightning strike.

–If your hair stands on end, your skin is tingling, you smell ozone (which has a rancid odor), or you hear crackling noises and notice static electricity, then assume the lightning position or get to lower ground immediately!

Photo: Bob Ward

During a thunderstorm avoid:

–Isolated trees


–Cliff tops


–Wide-open spaces

–Conduction paths such as gullies and streams

–Cave entrances and shallow caves


–Bodies of water

–Usually, a good place to be during a thunderstorm is in the forest but not next to the tallest trees in the area.

Treatment for lightning strikes:

–If the victim is not breathing and/or does not have a pulse, begin CPR and rescue breaths.

–Look for both entrance and exit burns and treat them accordingly.

–Evaluate for spinal injuries and other fractures and treat them accordingly.

–Evacuate the person.

–A person struck by lightning cannot shock other people so immediate treatment is not a danger to the rescuers.

Play safe out there!



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