Avoid Lightning Strikes
By Charlie Reitze

Lightning can be quite nerve-racking, quite unsettling, to say the least. Iím always uneasy when big thunder-boomers are lighting up the skies. Many campers and hikers donít know the best places to go to avoid a volatile strike, nor do they know the proper bodily position to be in. Whatís worse is that they donít know the most dangerous places to stay away from. I don't recall ever writing about lightning so with the season coming, this is a good time to do it.

Places to stay away from include:

1 Mountain summits
2 Ridge lines
3 Any exposed ledge area, be it in a high or low elevation
4 Towers
5 Tall trees
6 Open areas
7 Power lines
8 Railroad lines
9 Long fences
10 Boats, canoes, any recreational type of water-going vessels
11 Water

Stay off the water, period.

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A little common sense goes a long way. If youíre in a high elevation and see a storm coming, get to a lower elevation as quickly as possible. Should you have a hiking schedule, revise it. To cross volatile areas just to keep a schedule would be very unwise. Unless youíre anxious for death, it is much wiser to hole up in a safer place than to wind up as fertilizer for the local daisy patch.

Now letís learn a little about lightning. Having some basic knowledge about lightning not only can keep you out of serious situations, but also help you avoid being struck should you be out in a storm. You always hear about metal objects being the worst thing you can be near during a lightning storm. Yes, while metal is an excellent conductor of electricity, itís imperative to understand that lightning is not drawn to metal objects to any degree, more-or-less than it is to other materials of whatever kind. Now, Iím sure Iíll get called on my last statement, so let me explain. I didnít say that metal wasnít a better conductor of electricity than other materials. I said lightning isnít drawn to metal any quicker than it is to other materials; metal is just a better conductor once itís been hit and can carry it for long distances. Railroads, power lines, long fences, etcetera, are good examples of this. So, stay away from them.

From what Iíve said above, it should be quite plain if you are trying to stay dry during a thunder storm and you drape a tarp over a rope or wooden pole, you arenít going to be any safer then you would if you used a metal pole. Moreover, when you stretch a tarp out like that you are creating a larger area for the lightning to contact. If you have a tarp stretched out over a twelve-foot pole, then youíve created a twelve-foot long area for the lightning to strike. So, letís look at some preventative measures.

1 Common sense will dictate that if youíre just going out for a day hike, check the weather before you go. Plan your trip around the weather, as the weather wonít plan its lightning storms around your plans.

2 Donít wait until a storm hits before you get off some high peak. When you first see or hear a storm coming, begin your retreat to a safer place while you still have time to get away from lightning-prone areas.

3 Thunder that is produced from lightning travels one mile every five seconds. So when you see the lightning strike, count how many seconds it takes before you hear the thunder. This will tell you how far the storm is away. So if it takes sixty seconds between when you see the lightning until you hear the thunder, then the storm is twelve miles away. If youíve waited for a storm to get that close, then youíve waited too long. That is why you need to be vigilant. Check the stormís distance while itís a long way off, then make a decision as to what you need to do and do it. Donít wait.

Unlike campers who are close to home, long-distance hikers and campers canít go home; they have to ride out the storm. When you find yourself in that situation, and if you hike much, you will, get away from tall trees. Lightning strikes tall trees and splits them right down the middle. Sometimes it will topple them right on the spot. If youíre near one when lightning hits it, chances are that youíll be dead. Stay away from open areas. If youíre in an open area where youíre the tallest object, then the lightning is coming after you, as it is attracted to the tallest objects. Find a low-altitude, closed-in area with low growth timber. Shed your backpack. Get away from it. If youíre with someone else, get away from them. The object is to make the smallest possible target. Two people together make a bigger target than one. Donít lie down thinking that your being closer to the ground will make you a lesser target. Wrong! Bad wrong! When you lie down, you give the lightning a much bigger area to strike. The closeness to the ground isnít whatís going to make the difference where people are concerned. The smallest you can make yourself is. So after getting as far away from your pack as is reasonable and shedding your metal belt buckle, scooch down on your feet, keep your feet together and bend your head down. Youíre kind of in a squatting fetal position. This position makes you as small a target as you can get.

Unless youíre a big person this position only gives the lightning a two-foot-wide area to strike. If youíre terribly concerned about keeping dry, put on a poncho or some other waterproof gear. You can even put a tarp over you and tuck in all the edges so itís as small as you can make it and stay under it. The object is to have the smallest exposed area that you can.

Lastly, if you have any inkling that there is a thunderstorm even beyond the foreseeable distance you need to begin taking precautions. Lightning strikes often travel horizontally for long distances even before you see any rain or threatening clouds. For my money, when you hear lightning off in the distance start making plans. Locate a safe place, put your packs someplace a good distance from where you are, get yourself set so youíll be as comfortable as possible, then when the storm comes get in your scooching position and wait it out.

Charlie Reitze is a published author and survivalist. He also is a graduate of Tom Brownís Wilderness Survival School.

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