I write about a lot of survival skills that some people probably don’t care about; like trapping animals, building shelter, finding edible plants, and other extreme survival techniques. But if you enjoy outdoor activities, please read this one; it could save your life. You don’t have to be a hunter, fisherman, or even a camper to be at risk, a simple day out at the lake can turn deadly when a thunderstorm moves in. It is estimated that 24,000 people are killed globally each year by lightning, and about ten times as many are struck, often suffering long term injuries.
I know I have had plenty of close calls in my life time, many a little too close. I have felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up just before a lightning strike, I have seen trees explode in front of me, and I have felt the ground below me shake from the force of a lightning strike. Of all the things to worry about when being out in the wilderness, lightning is the one I worry about the most. I endured lightning last week on my turkey hunting trip, and again today while fishing in the mountains. Thunderstorms are common here in Colorado this time of year, and also in the fall when I am hunting in the mountains, so I am very aware of the conditions that will likely lead to lightning, and what to do when it happens.
Thunder is the sound caused by lightning, and about 75% of all lightning is cloud-to-cloud- or inner-cloud, meaning that only 25% of lightning strikes the ground. Thunder is caused by the rapid expansion of air around a lightning bolt as it heats up from the pressure and temperature of the electrical discharge from the bolt. Depending on how close you are to the lightning will determine what you hear. A low, rumbling sound (also called brontide for my Words With Friends friends) means it is far enough away that there is no imminent danger. A loud crack means it is close enough to take action, especially if you see a flash of light in your peripheral vision without seeing the bolt itself.
If you are out on a lake and hear a storm coming, it is a good idea to get off the water, unless you can clearly see the storm passing in a direction that is not going to lead to you. If you are caught on a lake when lightning is very close and you don’t have time to get to shore, it is best to anchor your boat and lie in the bottom of the boat. Don’t try to drive your boat if lightning is striking close by, you don’t want to be the tallest object on the water.
The best shelter you can find when you are in the outdoors is your car; the metal frame of your car will deflect a lightning strike around you. The old wives tale that the rubber of your tires insulates you from lightning is not true; it would take about 400 feet of rubber to insulate you from lightning, so you are not safe in a convertible, unless it has a metal cage around it like my Jeep.
If you are deep in the wilderness or too far from your car, here are some things to keep you safe:
· Never be the tallest object in a flat area, as mentioned above.
· Avoid ridge lines or bare hill tops.
· If you are in the forest, find a depression that is full of smaller trees and wait out the storm.
· Avoid lone, tall trees or large boulders.
· Do not take shelter under a rock over-hang.
· Only take shelter in a cave if you can go in at least 10 feet and it is 10 feet wide, and stay away from the mouth of the cave.
· Remember that a tent offers NO protection from lightning, neither does a picnic shelter like those found at many state parks.
· Stay away from water, wet items (such as ropes) and metal objects (such as fences and poles). Water and metal are excellent conductors of electricity. The current from a lightning bolt will easily travel for long distances.
· Do not hold metal objects or be near them when lightning is striking close by. I violated this rule last week when I was setting up my rain shelter in the middle of a storm, but I was also in a depression of land, with many smaller trees around me. Still, it probably wasn’t a good idea; I should have just sat in my truck until it passed.
· If you are hopelessly caught in a lightning storm, sit on the ground, grab your knees pulling your feet off the ground, and bend your head down. If you have something dry, like a coil of climbing rope or a poncho, sit on that. Even sitting on your rubber-soled shoes will help your chances.
Too often we ignore the dangers of lightning, and that includes me. But knowing what to do when the danger is near is good knowledge to have, especially if you are new to the outdoors, or have children on your outdoor excursions. One afternoon Kyle and I spent three hours in my Jeep waiting out a massive thunderstorm. It was then that I taught him how to play Gin, while we watched lightning striking all around us in the valley and the rain poured down in buckets. That was an awesome storm, and it was also a time I will never forget with Kyle.