Gear Guy

Would a lightning detector be wise for my next fishing trip?

Have you had any experience with a personal lightning detector in mountains above timberline? I like to fish Colorado's high-mountain lakes, where afternoon thunderstorms like to show up without warning. Maybe this detector can help? Todd Denver, Colorado

A: Personal lightning detector? You mean, a long piece of metal tubing held high, so you're the first to know when a storm is overhead?

Hey, only kidding! Everybody knows it's silly to wave metal around when a storm is passing through. Instead, climb to the highest, barest point around, and keep your eyes peeled.

Oh, wait—that's not right, either. Fact is, there's a bunch of handheld devices out there that bill themselves as "lightning detectors." They're gizmos that measure electrical activity in the atmosphere, warning you when a strike has occurred in the area or when a storm is approaching. Some claim a range of dozens of miles.

One very interesting one is the StrikeAlert Lightning Detector made by Outdoors Technologies ($80; It's basically a small radio receiver that "listens" for the radio frequency generated by cloud-to-ground lightning (the same frequency that creates static on your radio when a bolt goes off nearby). The StrikeAlert claims a maximum range of 40 miles, although that'll be more like 15 miles in mountainous terrain. LEDs on the unit—which looks like a pager—emit a particular pattern to let you know if the storm is approaching, receding, or stationary.

There are more exotic devices out there. The Thunderbolt Lightning Detector ( sells for close to $500 and will tell you everything from how severe the storm is to its estimated time of arrival at your location.

So there are two possibilities for you to mull over before your next fishing outing. Myself, I'd get the StrikeAlert. I just want to know if a storm is approaching; after that I'll do whatever seems prudent. Get off high ground and certainly off any lake; stay away from metal objects; avoid trenches or caves. The best place to be is in a wooded area of fairly uniformly sized trees—lightning zeroes in on objects that protrude, so trees that are solitary or taller than those around it are asking for trouble, as you are if you're standing under one.

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Lead Photo: courtesy, StrikeAlert
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