Lightning – A Shocking Development in the Outdoors Ideally all our summer hiking, riding, fishing and climbing would take place under clear blue skies, but that’s not always possible in the Rockies and especially in New Mexico during the monsoon season. It’s bad enough for us that monsoon thunderstorms often bring drenching rain – good rain gear can help with that – but the lightning presents a real threat to people in the outdoors. The Rockies along with Florida are the most lightning prone areas in the US, and New Mexico leads the country in per capita lightning deaths.
One way to avoid being struck by lightning is not to go outdoors at all, but that isn’t really an option for us.However we can try to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time by taking a few precautionary steps. It makes sense to forgo outdoor adventures on days when the weather forecast calls for a high chance of lightning storms. Summer thunderstorms in the Rockies are typically an afternoon affair, so starting early enough in the day so that you can be back safely before storms start will help keep you from harm. And of course, changing your plans or turning around as soon as the weather appears threatening is a no-brainer.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, our best-laid plans don’t work out and we find ourselves outside when a thunderstorm is approaching. Since lightning generally is attracted to high points, it’s a good idea to avoid high terrain like ridges and peaks and tall and isolated trees. Head to lower ground when lightning approaches and if you’re in the forest look for dense stands of smaller trees. For that matter, you want to avoid being the high point yourself, so you should move out of open areas like meadows and fields.
Other terrain features that you should avoid include overhangs and shallow caves (as well as partially enclosed buildings) since lightning can jump the gap from top to bottom by passing through you. And long vertical cracks in rock will conduct electricity as well, especially if they’re wet. Lakes and streams clearly present a hazard during lightning storms – get away from those.
A fair-sized ledge or a talus slope where you can squat, crouch or sit between rocks may be your best bet if you’re caught out in the high mountains. Don’t lie down since that presents more of your body area to conduct electricity from a nearby strike. Place your pack or sleeping pad or even your coiled climbing rope under you to insulate you from the ground. Ditch any metal or graphite gear like hiking poles, pack frames, climbing gear and even keys and electronic gear. If you’re a climber, you don’t want to be tied into a wet rope – it can carry current to you.
Having done all this, if your skin starts tingling and your hair is starting to stand on end, you need to move quickly and promptly away from the area. Run – the static charge is a sign that a lightning strike is building up nearby.
- So, to recap: – Check the weather forecast for thunderstorm activity, and either postpone or time your outing to be back before it’s likely to start. Turn back if things get threatening. -
- Avoid high spots, tall and isolated trees, and open meadows and fields. Also avoid overhangs and shallow caves, water, and long vertical cracks in rock. -
- Squat or sit on lower ground, between rocks, or under short trees. Get rid of any metal or graphite, untie from ropes, and use packs, pads and things like that to insulate your from the ground.
- Don’t lie down. – If your skin tingles or your hair stands on end, beat feet immediately.
And finally, consider taking a CPR class, just in case. Have a safe and electricity-free time this summer,
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