Written by Michael Hasson
As first-year Jesse Metzger strolled along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park last summer, his casual thru-hike quickly turned into an adventure. As he reached the top of a climb, thunder and lightning rolled in on top of him. Deciding that the peak of this hill was not worth his life, he turned around and began running downhill to the safety of the valley below.
“It was the only point that I actually changed course because of lightning in the whole five months,” Metzger recalled. “The trail was like a river, and I just ran all the way back to the bottom of the hill. The whole time I had my phone in my fanny pack and I thought it was water resistant.”
However, upon reaching the bottom, his phone and all of the pictures from the first 850 miles of trail were destroyed. Angrily, he decided to skip the mountain altogether and hike along the road that paralleled the trail.
“To add insult to injury, the road came around a bend and I saw one of the most beautiful vistas of the whole trail: fog clearing over the mountains after the storm,” Metzger said. “And I realized my phone was broken and I couldn’t take a picture. Also, I wasn’t wearing pants that whole time. It was one of the lower moments for me.”
As should be obvious from Metzger’s tale, lightning can quickly put a damper on your day. Summer is thunderstorm season in many of the most scenic locations around the U.S., so in preparation, here is some information about potential risks of lightning and strategies to help you stay safe.
Metzger did a great job of mitigating the risk of being struck: upon realizing the danger of lightning, he quickly retreated to lower ground. Lightning tends to strike tall, lone-standing objects—like you, if you’re hiking on a ridge above tree line or standing on a peak. According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), some other things that you should remember if you’re in a situation that you’re uncomfortable with are:
-Separate your group (but maintain visual contact) in order to reduce the risk of a multi-casualty strike
-Count the time between thunder and lightning. The shorter the interval, the more danger you are in.
-Remember that lightning can still strike after clouds have moved on.
-Get to shelter, if possible.
-If shelter is not an option, get to a uniform forest away from tall, lone-standing trees. Avoid places like caves, lakes, meadows, ridges, and peaks.
-Crouch on a foam sleeping pad (“lightning position”) because making yourself smaller reduces the likelihood of being struck, though this advice is a contentious topic. Crouching like this for a long period of time is impractical, so sitting is generally accepted as being just as safe.
-Descend early: Be off peaks and ridges by 2 p.m. in storm season. Storms can often come in very quickly and leave you in a dangerous position.
Remembering these tips while you’re out adventuring this summer will help keep you safe while you explore. While lightning is scary, there have been less than 30 annual lightning-related deaths in the U.S. since 2010 according to NOAA, so don’t let it keep you inside!