Dodging lightning in the mountains and canyons

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of July 16-22, 1998
Dodging lightning in the mountains and canyons
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Dodging lightning in the mountains and canyons
Question: Our family will be spending the month of August tent camping in Yellowstone, Tetons, Bryce, and Zion. The one thing I worry about is thunderstorms while we are in the tents. Any suggestions about safety from lightning?

Deborah Agus
Baltimore, Maryland

Campers should respect the
power of lightning

Adventure Adviser: As someone who has seen her hair stand on end while out in the middle of a lake as the sky turned an other-worldly shade of pink, I’m well aware of the fear that lightning can strike in campers’ hearts. You are very wise to respect the power of lightning. Surprisingly, the way that people die in a lightning strike is not a result of severe burns, as most people think, but because the electrical force shocks the heart into cardiac arrest and cuts off breathing by paralyzing the chest muscles. The average lightning bolt packs about 30,000 to 40,000 amps of direct current. Sadly, it only takes about one-hundredth of an amp to kill a person. The good news in all of this, however, is that getting struck by lightning is a one in a million risk, and only one quarter of folks who are struck by lightning die. Enough science. A few good rules of thumb to remember when camping: 1. Lightning is attracted by height. Be sure to avoid two scenarios — camping under the highest tree in the campground, and camping out in the open, where you are now the highest target. Try to find a campsite that tends toward the middle ground, with a smattering of forest canopy. Try to stay away from anything that looks as though it’ll act as a lightning rod, like baseball bats, fishing poles, aluminum canoes, etc. 2. Lightning can travel through tree trunks. Try to avoid pitching your tent on roots of trees. Since roots are water conductors, lightning will follow the roots to the end. When I worked in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, we avoided sleeping directly on the ground by sleeping on our life preservers. Granted, they may not prevent you from getting struck by lightning, but they may provide some insulation. 3. Try to determine how far away the lightning is from your campsite. This is done by counting the time between a lightning bolt and the sound of thunder. To tell how far away the lightning is, count the seconds between the flash and the sound of thunder and divide by five. If you count 15 seconds between flash and boom, the lightning is about three miles away. If you count 20 seconds the next time around, that means the storm is moving away from your campsite. If the lightning is within six miles, you’ll probably want to take shelter immediately. Keep in mind, however, that lightning can strike about ten miles out away from its originating cloud, so don’t be fooled into thinking that the coast is clear if a cloud isn’t directly overhead. 4. If lightning is on top of your campsite, take cover in your car. Although the rubber tires won’t necessarily ground the strike, the outer surfaces will protect against heat and electricity. 5. If you taste a sensation like having a copper penny in your mouth, or your hair stands on end — like mine did — lie flat down on the ground immediately. 6. If you’re in an open area, try to find a ravine or a valley. 7. If you’re anywhere near water, get off it immediately.
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