Lightning Safety in the Backcountry

10:55 p.m. on October 11, 2013 (EDT)
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About five weeks ago, I was camped at Molas Lake in southwestern Colorado, elevation 10,600', and a pretty good storm rolled through around 5 AM. Since I had picked my camp site to allow for just such a possibility, I really wasn't too concerned about getting hit by lightning while in my tent (okay, maybe a little).

However, being up in the very clouds where all this was happening, the lightning and thunder was SO much more intense than at lower elevations it was almost surreal. It was like Mother Nature was giving a not-so-subtle reminder that she will kill you if you fail to respect her power.

So I've been doing more reading about how to be as safe as possible from lightning strikes while in the backcountry and realized I didn't know as much about it as I thought. Anyway, ran across this NOLS article on that subject and thought I'd post the link here for others who might be interested in brushing up.

NOLS Backcountry Lightning Safety Guidelines

11:27 p.m. on October 11, 2013 (EDT)
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Thanks George!

It never hurts to brush up and make sure we do our best to stay safe. 

12:29 a.m. on October 12, 2013 (EDT)
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Over the years, I have had a variety of encounters with lightning. I took this photo of lightning mirroring the Matterhorn the night before I headed up to the Hornli Hut to climb the peak. That night in the hut was made very exciting by lightning striking all around the hut and the neighboring mountain hotel.
matlitn2.jpg

I also learned by experience why Thunderbolt Peak (in the Palisades region of the Sierra) is named that, and saw plenty of lightning when at Philmont Scout Reservation in New Mexico. The most nervous I was about lightning was when flying my plane to Mena, Arkansas. As I approached Hot Springs (on an IFR flight plan), there was enough lightning around me that I asked for vectors to land temporarily at Hot Springs to wait until the storm died down a bit.

As the NOLS guide points out, much of the conventional wisdom of 10 or 20 years ago (in editions of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, for example) is now considered obsolete and misleading. An example of this happened near me when was driving from Denver to Boulder to visit my son while he was an undergrad at CU. There is a golf course near JeffCo airport. A man and his adult son were at the driving range when they were struck by lightning. The father died, as I remember, from a "side strike" that was reported by the papers to have originated in a storm some 30 miles away over the Rockies, coming out the side of the cloud then down at the driving range as a "bolt from the blue". I do a briefing on lightning safety as part of our High Adventure Training course for adult Scout leaders, using photos that are readily available on the web, illustrating vividly what happens to cattle lined up along a fence with metal wire, or even a few feet away from a lone tree, plus photos showing the lightning does not always hit the high point nearby.

By the way, golf is the activity that has produced the largest number of deaths by lightning strike. One reason why golf umbrellas have no metals in their construction.

12:56 a.m. on October 12, 2013 (EDT)
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And your pic reminded me that I meant to post a link to this video. Can't believe all those people standing that close to a thunderstorm, and out in the open, no less, especially with all those metal tripods. I can almost see all the "streamers" coming up out of the tripods as if to say, "Here we are, over here. We dare you to strike us!" And then... BOOM!... they get a strike that is a little too close for comfort.

11:31 a.m. on October 12, 2013 (EDT)
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Lightning is more of a problem than many people want to admit. That is especially true for people that like to travel above treeline, and most especially in the Rocky Mtns. It is quite common to have thunderstorms every afternoon about 1600. Lightning can be intense. My worst experiences have all been in Colorado and Wyoming and involved lots of scared horses and mules. New Mexico can be bad also. There is nothing quite like waiting for the lightning bolts to settle down while waiting to cross the Continental Divide.

Make deliberate decisions and plan for some lightning. Be careful where you camp. Rock outcrops offer some measure of security. Avoid individual trees.

6:24 p.m. on October 12, 2013 (EDT)
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It's bad juju to be stuck above treeline during thunderstorms. Whenever I mountain biked in Colorado especially above 10k, I always watched the skies for any sign of storms. Been caught in hail storms a few times and those aren't fun either.

7:13 p.m. on October 12, 2013 (EDT)
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This past summer, I recall reading about the young man (early 20s) who was working in (or around) Yellowstone. Decided he wanted to hike up to Electric Peak (11,000').

Called his friends from just below the summit (around 2:30 PM) and told them lightning was in the area so he was coming down. Just after the call, he was apparently struck and killed by lightning. They found him just below the summit with his pack not too far away. Apparently, he didn't even have time to put his pack back on after the call.

I try to be well off peaks and ridges no later than 2 PM.

7:22 p.m. on October 12, 2013 (EDT)
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And after reading about "streamers," it makes me wonder about using trekking poles (w/point up) as tent supports. Seems like they would be natural lightning rods.

8:45 p.m. on October 12, 2013 (EDT)
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I'd like to see some input on hammocks.

As far as caves....I was already familiar with the cited comments.

A few years ago the National Speleological Society's American Caving Accidents posted a picture like this to illustrate lightening traveling distances.


dead_cows.jpg

The actual strike to the fence was more than a mile away.

10:09 p.m. on October 12, 2013 (EDT)
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After thinking about the trekking poles and the hammock, here's my take, given what I read in the NOLS document: Assume both shelters are in a forested area where the tree tops are all about the same height.

Tents using Trekking Poles: Since the tree tops are much higher than the pole tops, and the poles are not in an exposed area more than 50m from the nearest tree, lightning should strike the nearest tree before it strikes the poles.

However, once the return charge travels down the tree, surface arcs will shoot out from the base in all directions, up to 20m in length, and if the tent is pitched within 20m of the strike tree, you and the poles could (and probably would) become a conductor for those surface arcs. Plus, once the return stroke travels down the tree and into the ground, if you are sleeping on a pad, you might be safe from ground currents, but the poles could still act as conductors and the ground current could easily travel up the poles and possibly arc from the poles into your body.

Hammock: If lightning strikes one of the trees supporting a hammock, and since the hammock is within 20m of the tree, you could easily (and probably would) become a conductor of those very same surface arcs. Plus, as the return charge travels down the tree, the wet nylon/rope/whatever could conduct that charge through the wet parts of the hammock. However, I think you would be protected from those direct currents because you would not be in contact with the wet surfaces of the hammock but those currents could possible arc from the wet parts of the hammock into your body. And since the hammock is not in contact with the ground, I would think you would be protected from the ground currents.

So I guess best practice would be to avoid isolated trees or isolated clumps of trees, and don't pitch camp in a forested area where some trees are taller than other trees. If you can do that, only a random, bad-luck strike could nail you.

But should there be no alternative, just as you should check for widow-makers, you should also do your best to avoid pitching within 20m of, or tying off to, the taller trees.

5:12 p.m. on October 13, 2013 (EDT)
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I knew I was a fair weather hiker for a reason...

3:40 p.m. on October 16, 2013 (EDT)
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About 6 weeks ago I was camping/hiking in the Schell Creek Range here in Nevada.  It's high desert country.  We were camped out at about 7500 feet in elevation.  Lots of lightning/thunder storms the whole time we were there.  While hiking I saw lightning strike a juniper tree about half a mile directly in front of me.  The tree was about the same height as all the other trees around it.  The strike seemed to vaporize that tree and within a split second of the strike the juniper tree was on fire and sending flames 15-20 feet in the air.  I have never seen anything like it.  Wish I would have had my vid camera rolling at the time.  Pretty amazing sight.  

9:58 p.m. on October 16, 2013 (EDT)
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It's just that type of up-close-and-personal experience that drives home the power of Mother Nature... and should generate a whole lot of respect! :-)

5:57 a.m. on October 26, 2013 (EDT)
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Bill S said:

matlitn2.jpg

.. By the way, golf is the activity that has produced the largest number of deaths by lightning strike. One reason why golf umbrellas have no metals in their construction.

 

That is a wonderful photo, one of the best portraits of The Matterhorn I have ever seen. 

I am sure you already know this, Bill, but… Yes golf umbrellas contain little to no metal parts, but the reasoning is not well grounded (sic).  The notion that lightning is attracted to metal is another “fact” that has been debunked over the years.  Lightning travels along an ion charged path, behaving just like static electricity produced by rubbing a balloon against a wall or wool socks on a carpet.  Wooden lightning rods would be just as effective as metal ones, if not for the issue of heat torching the wooden rod the first time it is struck. Certainly if lighting can travel laterally for miles through the air over a city filled with metal objects before eventually striking a tree, the notion it would prefer a lone metal umbrella on a golf course over all the other objects defies logic, not to mention science.  Why then are so many struck while on golf courses?  Two reasons: 1, People tend to loiter under trees while stuck out in the rain.  And it is a known fact that lurking under trees significantly increases the risk of being involved in the ground path as the bolt strokes the tree and jumps to its victim before finding ground; 2, Most people seek the indoors when it rains.  This lowers their exposure to strokes of lightening as lightening usually will travel over the exterior of the building to reach ground.  Golfers that play on rainy days are too enraptured by their sport to let lightning disrupt their activities.  Thus folks out in an electrical storm are concentrated at golf courses.  So the question beckons: why make golf umbrellas from nonmetallic materials?  Because the public still thinks lightning seeks metal objects.  

11:33 a.m. on October 26, 2013 (EDT)
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And your pic reminded me that I meant to post a link to this video. Can't believe all those people standing that close to a thunderstorm, and out in the open, no less, especially with all those metal tripods. I can almost see all the "streamers" coming up out of the tripods as if to say, "Here we are, over here. We dare you to strike us!" And then... BOOM!... they get a strike that is a little too close for comfort.

 

Can't beleive no one else picked up on the irony of the place where this video was taken.... "Darwin, Au."

I always get looked at like the crazy parent at my son's soccer games, I hear thunder once and I walk out on the field yelling games over, time to go.. The coaches and over zealous jock parents would have them playing in the rain.

11:37 a.m. on October 26, 2013 (EDT)
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Jason,

Now is a great time to be in the Schell Creek Range. I took my girl out there last fall and stayed at Cave Lake. Great place to see deer and elk and aspen spruce forests. She is in love with the place. Glad you are okay.

Nature- it's not what you think.

5:30 p.m. on October 26, 2013 (EDT)
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whomeworry said:

Bill S said:

matlitn2.jpg

.. By the way, golf is the activity that has produced the largest number of deaths by lightning strike. One reason why golf umbrellas have no metals in their construction.

 

Why then are so many struck while on golf courses? 

 

Actually, the belief that golf accounts for the largest number of deaths, or that so many [golfers are] struck, by lightning has proven to be a myth, so neither one of those statements is really accurate.

Based on seven years of data (2006-2012), out of the top 12 activities that resulted in the most lightning fatalities, golf was tied for ninth place with yard work, walking to/from vehicle, and walking to/from home, each accounting for only 3% (*) of all deaths by lightning.

The top two activities for lightning fatalities were fishing (11%) and camping (6%). And if you break it down by sport, golf (23%) still came in a distant second behind soccer (41%). In the top 12, soccer (5%) ranked fourth, while boating (6%) ranked third.

As far as pure numbers go, for the period, fishing (26) had a little more than 3x more lightning deaths than golf (8). Total lightning fatalities for the period: 238.

[*all percentages rounded to nearest full percent]

3:52 p.m. on October 28, 2013 (EDT)
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George,

You should have credited the source of your numbers (there is a Trailspace rule to that effect). Since you lifted several sentences whole from the Jensenius paper, some relevant numbers are:

238 people killed by lightning in the 2006-2012 period in the US (82% males)

almost 2/3 were in outdoor leisure activities (64%)

water-relater 36%

26 fishing (46% of water-related)

15 camping

14 boating (25% of water-related)

11 beach (20% of water-related)

12 soccer

8 golf

12 yard work (including mowing the lawn)

11 ranching/farming (highest in the occupational category)

70% in the summer months (June, July, August)

Saturdays and Sundays "slightly more" than the other days of the week (Jensenius does not give the numbers here, but from his bar chart, Sat is about 19.5% and Sun is about 15.8%)

The National Lightning Safety Institute report from 1997 has some interesting incidents in their "It can't happen to me" section.


NLSI's guide to lightning safety for campers and hikers is worth reading here. In going through it, you will note that some "common knowledge" posted on the web and in highly recommended outdoor books is just plain wrong.

4:36 p.m. on October 28, 2013 (EDT)
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"Lifted" sounds a lot like an accusation of "theft."

And your link is precisely where I got my data. But even though you already posted the link, I'll post it again just to make you happy.

A Detailed Analysis of Recent Lightning Deaths in the United States

Satisfied?

Good... you can have your scarlet letter back now.

There are better ways to introduce TS rules to newcomers. You need practice.

4:53 p.m. on October 28, 2013 (EDT)
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ppine said:

Jason,

Now is a great time to be in the Schell Creek Range. I took my girl out there last fall and stayed at Cave Lake. Great place to see deer and elk and aspen spruce forests. She is in love with the place. Glad you are okay.

Nature- it's not what you think.

I just saw your post ppine.  That is cool that your girl liked the area.  Fall time at Schell Creek Range is beautiful and the weather is quite nice usually too.  Did you guys fish Cave Lake?  I haven't but have heard it is pretty good fishing and intend on trying it out sometime.

I am heading back up that way for a week of camping a week from tomorrow.  I am really looking forward to it.  

1:17 p.m. on October 29, 2013 (EDT)
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ondafringe said:

"Lifted" sounds a lot like an accusation of "theft."

And your link is precisely where I got my data. But even though you already posted the link, I'll post it again just to make you happy.

.....

George,

Sorry you overinterpreted and took offense at a simple reminder of the rules. I did the dangerous thing of assuming that, because you did link to NOLS in your original post in this thread, you had read and were aware of the Trailspace Rules. At the top of each Forum heading is a link to the Rules, and in a number of places throughout the website, there is a statement to read the rules before posting.

My assumption was also that you omitted the credit or link inadvertently or by accident, so I made a note of reminder, not an attack.

Rule 15 says:

Respect copyrights.
Post only your own original content. Do not post images, news articles, gear reviews, or any other published or copyrighted content without permission. Give proper credit when quoting sources.

Unfortunately, many people assume that, just because it appears on the Internet, it is fair game to copy, quote verbatim, reproduce photos and videos, and so on. Copyright and trademark law says otherwise. There are, also unfortunately, a couple of people who violate Rule 15 on a fairly regular basis here on Trailspace.

Rule 14 says:

Keep it legal.
Do not post any information that violates any law, statute, ordinance, or regulation or promotes illegal or unethical activity.

Yes, it is illegal, as well as unethical, to quote verbatim (aka "lift" or, using the legal term "plagiarize") someone else's work (that holds both for registered copyrights and common law copyrights). No one attaches "scarlet letters" here.

I realize that the Trailspace rules (not only the visible Community Rules) are inconsistent, rather arcane and byzantine (something I have commented on a number of times). Still, we should all make a big effort at staying ethical, giving credit to the original sources, and to where credit is due.

5:23 p.m. on November 6, 2013 (EST)
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George:  thanks for linking the NOLS article.  interesting read. 

thanks for crediting the other source too.  i wouldn't take someone pointing out the copyright issue as branding you with a scarlet letter.  i'm a lawyer who litigates these issues from time to time, and copyright violations are not something to treat lightly.  the people who own copyrighted stuff can (a) go to court and ask to shut down anyone who uses their copyrighted stuff without permission and/or (b) notify the people misusing the copyrighted stuff of the violation and ask them to compensate for the violation.  those requests for compensation sometimes seek thousands of dollars and can lead to expensive litigation.   

so keep contributing.  points of view like yours are part of what makes these forums so helpful.

 

 

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