Dangers of Hiking and Lightning

This article was prompted by an e-mail from Don Kawano to club members about hiking when lighting is in the air.  An old-time, big-time hiker once said that you’ll live longer and enjoy the Great Outdoors a whole lot more if you adhered to 3 principles: Love Wilderness, Respect Wildlife, Fear Lightning.  So, be knowledgeable.  Prevent a nasty unforgettable experience, and even save your life, along with other hikers in your group!

Canada averages about 10 lightning fatalities and 90-165 injuries per year.  We average 2.34 million strikes annually and once every 3 seconds over the summer months!  4,000 forest/grass fires start by lightning per year.  80 % of lightning-related injuries occur between 10:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.  Although hundreds might be struck by lightning, the survival rate is relatively high but the extent of damage often is difficult to statistically trace due to undetermined long-term effects.  However, awareness and education appear to make some difference as the reported number of strikes on humans has been on the decline in the “developed” countries over the past few years.

Lighting is the hottest natural thing that happens on planet Earth.  (Nuclear energy is hotter but it is man-made).  Lightning occurs in varying strengths. Weak sheet lighting can flicker to a heat of only 1,000 amps whereas a cloud-to-ground bolt can reach 300,000 amps and 28,000 degrees C, which is about 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun – quite enough to kill any human!  Lightning energy can flash along your skin and burn you, but if it penetrates your body and enough energy reaches your heart to stop it, you can count that it also puts a stop to your hiking days—like forever.

Lighting injuries can occur from two kinds of stikes. A direct hit is one kind, but another more frequent kind is one in which the electrical energy runs through the ground and then into your body.  For example, lighting can strike a tree directly and the energy passes through the ground for some distance where you are standing and the electrical energy strikes your body.  Therefore, standing under tall trees, crouching in small holes or depressions, or being in the mouth of a cave are dangerous places to be in during a lightning storm.

Question:  How close is lighting when you can see it or hear thunder?   Answer:  Too close!  Seek shelter ASAP.  Stop hiking just to reach the top or get to the end of the trail, or it could really become the end of your trail indeed!  The old rule of thumb of counting “one-one thousand, two-one thousand, etc.” to estimate the number of miles lightning might be away can by inaccurate by as much as a factor of 5.  One estimate is that every 5 seconds between a lightning flash and thunder means that the strike is about 1 mile away.  Another estimate is that one second between a flash and thunder means that lighting could have struck less than a quarter-mile away.

Lightning is no different here than anywhere else in the mountains.  Our summer/lightning season is relatively short but the danger potential is as high as anywhere else.  In an e-mail to club members, Don Kawano wrote:

When I led a small group up Fisher, I announced that if storm clouds were approaching when we got to the Saddle we would turn back…others have pushed on in spite of cloud cover and yes they have made it to the top, but for what purpose?  To see a few feet in front of them?  I can’t imagine the danger of climbing back down when you can’t see very far ahead of you.  I hope this article (an article on lighting killing one and burning several others in the Tetons in the U.S.) sounds a warning to those who risk bad weather and lightning strikes just to be able to say they got to the top.

Don notes that there are numerous mountains in our area that pose deadly dangers when hiking them during lightning storms.  He notes Fisher, Lakit, Teepee, St. Mary’s Alpine, and the trails above the Bugaboo cabin as only some of the dangerous areas to be wary of when lightning is about.  On the tops of others, you can see where lightning has smacked away at rock outcroppings.  Don concluded his e-mail by noting that “a fabulously clear, hot day in the East Kootenays can turn into a savage thunderstorm in a very short time.”

The Internet offers websites on safety when mountain hiking if lightning is present.  Some safety practices are noted here.  First rule: Avoid a potential situation in the first place! Note weather conditions before you go and read the sky continually to be aware of cloud formations.  Hike early or late – 80 % of lightning injuries occur between 10:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.

second rule is to STOP HIKING when lighting or thunder is in the air! Lighting does not have to be close to strike you.  The danger exists if you can see lightning or hear thunder.

Also note the 30-30 rule:

30 seconds or less between a flash and thunder means lighting is within 6 miles so seek shelter
30 minutes after the last strike– you can resume your hiking

Over half of deaths occur after the storm has passed!  Remember that afternoon storms can last a few hours and you can resume your hike.  Wait it out and live to hike another day.

third rule is to find shelter in the right place!    Best place is in a vehicle or house, but these places are difficult to come by in the backcountry.  Seek shelter in a low lying area, perhaps under small trees or bushes.  Places to avoid are: under high large trees, water (lakes, marshy areas, streams) and damp areas, open rock/cliff and scree areas, or in holes or the open mouths of caves.  These are areas of greater potential for either a direct strike or a just as dangerous indirect strike when the lightning strikes the ground or object nearby and the lighting charge travels through the ground where you are standing.

This brings us to the fourth ruleAvoid being near or touching metal or dissimilar objects!  Get away from your metal hiking poles or any backpack that has metal on it.  Also, get rid of any wire-rimmed glasses!  They have proven to be deadly for some unfortunate hikers.  Set anything with metal in it on the ground a considerable distance away.  Do not go for shelter inside an outdoor/forestry toilet that has a metal roof.  Avoiding touching dissimilar objects like standing on the ground and touching a rock or standing on the ground and leaning against a tree.  Such situations create a pathway for lighting that can then enter your body.

What can you do if you feel a lightning strike is imminent?  Your hair and skin feel prickly.  Your hair starts to stand on end!  You see your metal hiking poles glow!  You might hear them buzz.  NEVER  lie flat or outstretched on the ground!


People have survived lightning strikes.  If you’re with another person or in a group, you should already be spread out.  Be at least 3 meters apart.  Get into a squat position.  The idea is to make yourself as small as possible and create a less than a fatal path for the lighting.  Crouch on the balls of your feet with your heels touching, hands on your forehead, and elbows on your knees.   This position is thought to create a better chance for a path for the lighting to travel through your extremities rather into the core of your body and heart which would be fatal.  This Lightning Body Position potentially enables lightning that hits the ground around you to go through one foot, transfer to the other foot, and back into the ground.  Practice this position in your house.  Lighting strikes fast.  There are no guarantees.  But people have survived.

Related Websites:

Environment Canada

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