Storm Highway by Dan Robinson
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What can I do to reduce the risk of getting hit by lightning while outdoors?

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Outdoor activities in the summer will eventually result in participants being caught out in thunderstorms with no way to reach suitable shelter. As a result, it's a common concern regarding practical ways to mitigate the lightning danger when known safe havens are out of reach.

Unfortunately, if you're caught outdoors in a storm, there is no way to minimize, even slightly, the risk of a lightning encounter. Remember that lightning is a large-scale phenomenon many miles in length that is not influenced by objects on the ground, namely small metal objects like backpack frames, mountain bikes, tents, umbrellas, and such. A lightning bolt's ground connection is already 'set in stone', so to speak - so your task must be avoiding that spot in advance, obviously an impossible feat. In other words, nothing short of a large radio tower or skyscraper will attract or deflect the bolt away from its target - which is a factor of the position of the storm rather than objects on the ground.

Your backpack frame, for instance, will only attract a lightning channel if the bolt is already only a few feet away. In this case, you're already close enough to the bolt for it to be potentially lethal, regardless of if it hits you or not. Remember that most lightning injuries and deaths are due to ground current and side flash effects, not direct hits.

Perhaps the only action a person could take to protect themselves from lightning is assuming the 'crouch' position when shelter is not available. Getting into the 'crouch position', that is, crouching down with both feet close together and the head lowered toward the knees, has long been the advice of experts when lightning danger is inescapeable. However, there's no documented evidence that this will actually help prevent serious injury, and it may not be practical to expect to remain in this awkward and uncomfortable position throughout the duration of a storm.

You might see lists of suggested safety tips like this:

  • Avoid metal objects
  • Stay away from trees
  • Avoid being the highest object
  • Minimize ground contact
But there is no evidence that any of these actions will be of any real help to the outdoorsperson in a storm. Distancing yourself from trees is a good idea, but it won't eliminate the danger. Just being outdoors at all is the risk. Many times, hikers are caught on exposed peaks with absolutely no shelter. In these cases, there is simply nothing that can be done to prevent or reduce the effects of a strike incident. For the person who spends vast amounts of time outdoors in thunderstorms, the unavoidable risk of a lightning strike is one that must be realized and accepted if one chooses to venture out when storms are in the forecast.

Storm chaser and photographer Dan Robinson
About the Author: Dan Robinson has been a storm chaser, photographer and cameraman for 30 years. His career has involved traveling around the country covering the most extreme weather on the planet including tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning, floods and winter storms. Dan has been extensively published in newspapers, magazines, web articles and more, and has both supplied footage for and appeared in numerous television productions and newscasts. He has also been involved in the research community, providing material for published scientific journal papers on tornadoes and lightning.

See Also:

FAQ: If metal doesn't attract lightning, then why do laboratory sparks always hit the metallic objects?
MYTH: Small metal objects attract lightning, and I'm safer outside without any metal nearby.
MYTH: Lightning always strikes the tallest object.
MYTH: Lightning only strikes good conductors.

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