By Darcie Murphy,
CTS Ultrarunning Coach
We’re told that the statistical chance of being struck by lightning is low. According to National Geographic in any one year your chance of being struck is about 1 in 700,000, and over a lifetime it’s 1 in 3,000. Still, if you’ve been caught unexpectedly by this powerful force of Nature, you know it’s not a good situation. Here are some recommendations for reducing your risks when a storm is headed your way.
First and most obvious, try to avoid the storm altogether. Make a practice of checking weather and radar maps before heading out the door. There are many terrific weather apps with alert systems built in, and it’s good to get into the habit of using them on the fly. Be willing to alter your route if there is a likely chance a thunderstorm will cross your original course. If you see or hear a storm approaching, act as soon as possible. Thunder heard in calm air means the lightning within 10 miles. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), failing to act in a timely manner is one of the strongest predictors of being struck by lightning.
Not all storms are avoidable, however. In many areas, thunderstorms can materialize in a matter of minutes with little warning. Do research ahead of time. Are there trailheads at intermediate points along your route where you’ll be able to find shelter or a vehicle? Forest Service Stations and private cabins exist in many backcountry areas. Know and map all bail out points ahead of time and be willing to use them in case a storm (or other) emergency finds you.
Get out of the way
When shelter or vehicles are not available, what can you do to protect yourself? Flee! Attempt to determine the speed and direction the storm is moving and whether you have the time and opportunity to get out of its path. When avoidance is not an option you’ll need to make some decisions to avoid becoming that rare statistic.
Reducing risk when lightning strikes
Avoid exposed ridges and peaks. Descend as quickly as possible from these if a storm is approaching. Lightning often strikes the tops of hills and mountains, so valleys and canyons can be relatively safer. And while lightning often strikes tall objects, that only happens when the lightning was going to strike very close to that point anyway. A lightning stroke starts thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of feet above the ground. Objects on the ground only affect its path when it’s within 50-100 feet, and when lightning strikes that close you can be injured from current moving along the ground anyway.
If you are outdoors and exposed, there is not much you can do that will affect the path lightning will take. As such, most of the advice about what to do in a lightning storm is related to minimizing the harm lightning will do if it strikes very close by. For instance, it’s not a good idea to shelter under trees because when you’re close to a tree that gets struck by lightning the current can jump from the tree to you in what’s known as a side flash. The current can also travel down the tree and along the ground, and more current will reach you when you’re closer to the point of contact with the ground.
Avoid standing in water. Again, it’s not that water attracts lightning, per se, but rather that the water conducts electricity and increases the chances current from a nearby strike will reach you. Interestingly, people who are wet may have less severe injuries if they are struck since the current may travel over their skin to the ground, thereby causing less injury to internal parts of the body. This is known as a flashover effect. That doesn’t mean you should intentionally get wet, but you shouldn’t necessarily be more concerned if you are wet from being in the storm.
Taking cover under rocks or at a cave entrance may also put you at an increased risk, especially at a cave entrance as an overhang will allow arcs to cross gaps. If you do shelter in a cave, move as far back away from the entrance as possible.
Be aware of above-ground phone and power lines, metal handrails, bridges, wet ropes and all metal. Electricity travels quickly along conductive objects. If you’re nearby you can be affected by a side flash (see above), and if you’re touching the conductive object when the lightning strikes, the current will travel through you from the object to the ground.
Assume the position
Once you have moved to the safest position you can find, if you’re still exposed and lightning is imminent (hair standing on end, buzzing/cracking noise in the air, small metal objects vibrating), your body position can also help reduce your risk of being injured by a nearby strike. You want to minimize your contact with the ground, so crouch down instead of laying down. Keeping your feet together may reduce the risk of a step potential, which occurs when current travels along the ground and there’s enough of an electrical gradient between your feet that it travels up on leg and down the other. Ditch metal objects, including trekking poles. It’s less that they attract lightning and more that they can conduct electricity to you. Now it’s a matter of being patient. Try to remain calm and wait until the storm passes and it’s safe to continue your route.
Lastly, if you are running with a partner or in a group, spread out. If lightning does strike, a dispersed group decreases the odds that everyone in the party will be affected. This will allow someone to get help and/or offer medical attention in the unfortunate situation someone is affected by a lightning strike. If someone has been struck understand that the current has passed through and there is no risk of being electrocuted by contacting them. Here is more information about medical protocols for lightning strike victims.
The only surefire way to avoid the danger of lightning is to stay home. That’s not a realistic option for those of us gearing up for ultra events or that simply love running in the outdoors and in the mountains. Taking precautions and knowing how to reduce your risks can be life-saving. Understand your surroundings, alter your routes and seek areas least prone to lightning strikes. Keep churning out those miles… safely!