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What to Do (and One Crazy Thing Not to Do) to Avoid Lightning Strikes

Lightning is serious stuff: It strikes approximately 400 Americans per year and around 10% of strike victims die.

We at the NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute, however, do not recommend the treatment given to Alexander Mandón, a 20-year-old Colombian man who has been struck by lightning 4 times and survived. As noted in the press, a traditional medicine practitioner prescribed that Alexander be buried alive (!) until the earth can absorb the electricity remaining in his body.

Lightning strike by Larry Johnson

When it didn't work once, his healer told him that he did it wrong and to try again.

Of course, I wish Alexander a speedy and full recovery along with better luck in the future. But his recommended treatment has a few flaws. For one thing, electricity does not remain in the body after a lightning strike. For another, burying somebody alive is rarely a good idea—I struggle to think of a single example.

It is true, however, that the best advice for all of us, including lightning strike victims, centers on preventing an incident from happening. If a person is struck, all manner of injuries are possible ranging from burns to hearing loss to cardiac and respiratory arrest.

Top tips to avoid getting struck by lightning (in approximate order of effectiveness):

1. Plan for expected weather patterns

We have better access to accurate weather forecasts now than ever before. If you are reading this right now, it means you possess technology that will forever protect you from being surprised by a thunderstorm. Use this technology (the internet) to learn about summer storm-building cloud cycles, and do not plan to summit that fourteener at 3pm some sunny, summer day.

Lightning by Leczsynski

2. Find safer terrain if you hear thunder

Lightning has an advance-warning system attached to it, better known as thunder. "When thunder roars, go indoors," they say, and that's because being inside a big building is about as safe as you can get. While there is no "safe" place outdoors, some places are better than others.

A safety rule of thumb we like is called the "30/30 Rule." It states that when the time between an observed lightning flash and its associated thunder is less than 30 seconds, you should be indoors. Since we are outdoor people, we need to get down to the safest spot we can before the flash-to-bang time gets that short. Then you should stay there until 30 minutes after the storm has passed.

SAFE(-ISH) TERRAIN

  • Low down in a forest
  • Low down in a valley or canyon (this is not an article about flash flood safety.)
  • Deep in a cave (this is not an article about bats or bears either.)

DANGEROUS TERRAIN

  • On a peak or ridge
  • In the middle of a lake or large field
  • In the mouth of a cave
  • Hugging a tree or radio antenna

3. Avoid tall trees and long conductors

Isolated trees get struck by lightning all the time. Also, wire fences, train tracks, power lines and the like can conduct deadly lightning current miles away from storms.

Lightning crouch

4.  Get in the lightning position

This is your last resort, when you have no option to move to safer terrain. Perhaps, for example, you find yourself in particularly flat, open country with no nearby shelter. I need to stress that while lightning position may make you safer than standing up, that's about all it's good for. If you stop moving to a safer location in order to assume the lightning position, you are making a rather fundamental error.

Sit on an insulated pad

Crouch down with your feet together if possible, or at least sit down on an insulated pad. The idea is to keep your heart, lungs and brain off the ground (current will pass through the ground if lightning strikes nearby) while also not sticking your heart, lungs and head up too high into the sky.

That’s some compromise! Cowering in the so-called lightning position is not an experience you will eagerly repeat.

Again, all the best ideas regarding first aid for lightning patients focus on staying out of it. Prompt CPR has saved some victims, and you can learn the latest CPR techniques as well as how to manage burns and other trauma on a NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute course near you.

For more information on lightning safety, please see this video from NOLS, and surf the archives at NOAA.gov. Stay safe!

Top lightning photo by Larry Johnson/flickr.com. Bottom and summary lightning photos by Leszel.Leszcynski/flickr.com.

Posted on at 1:30 PM

Tagged: Wilderness Medicine Institute, lightning and weather

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Red Crow

This is a good article. Thanks. Are there special considerations if one is with a group of people and exposed to lightening? Presuming that exposure conditions are relatively "equal" is it better to spread out or to bunch up. Or is it an irrelevant factor? Appreciate it!
Red Crow
Missoula, MT

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