Often while looking at stories about hiking, I come across what I want to call the ‘bad’ stories that happen to people. In the last week, there were two deaths at a national park from lightning strikes and that has caused me to think about what to do if we are on a hike and a thunderstorm comes up.
The general advice is first not to hike when you know the forecast is calling for lightning and thunderstorms. This is really a judgment call because in the Carolinas we often have a late afternoon shower in the summer, often scattered. Most of the time we simply just go on ahead and hike because more often than not rain does not fall where we are. But while you are hiking, you need to be aware of the weather in case a storm comes up. We’ve been caught in a wind storm up near Roan Mountain on the AT (fortunately in the woods and not on the bald) and all we could do was sit tight until it passed. We were soaked but no worse for wear (as the saying goes).
If you do decide to hike, and this advice is for me as well, and it starts to thunderstorm, the advice is to try and get out of the weather if possible. Your car is a pretty safe place with all the windows closed. If you can’t, then what?
On a bald, you will need to toss your hiking poles as far away from you as possible and squat on your pack, making yourself small until the storm passes. Try and keep your feet from touching the ground directly. If you are in the woods, surrounded by trees, the likelihood of being struck is less but tossing your poles as far away as possible is still a good idea along with your pack, and crouch down in place until the storm passes. Stay at least 15 feet from another hiker but spread out more if possible (to try and avoid multiple victims). You should choose the smallest stand of trees to squat under as the idea is lightning will hit the taller trees. Cover your ears and eyes.
Other advice is to avoid water and single trees as a high percentage of lightning strikes occur near these. Stay off your cell phone. And even though a cave or an overhang might appear cozy (and dry), they are apparently not safe in a lightning storm.
Finally, if you can hear the thunder, you can still be struck by lightning even though the storm might seem far away. This is your clue to seek shelter (if possible) or get prepared per the discussion above.
Hopefully you and I won’t need to take advantage of this advice but if we do we will be ready and know what to do.