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Lightning Safety

October 31st, 2009

There are three different ways that of lightning can harm you: direct cloud-to-ground strikes, side flashes, and ground currents. In a cloud-to-ground strike, two arcs of energy meet, an upward leader, emanating from a high point such as a tree or mountain top and one emanating from a cloud. These complete a circuit and create the flash of a direct strike. Direct strikes like this are relatively rare but can cause serious burns and stop the heart.

Side flashes occur when the cloud-to-ground strike fails to meet the upward leader and is attracted to another high point which is more conductive. Side flashes can arc through the air or travel over the ground and carry the same energy as a direct strike. Injuries due to side flashes are much more common than direct strikes.

Ground currents occur once the lightning has hit the ground. From there, it emanates from the point of the strike, dissipating along pathways such as wet rocks, crevasses, and tree root systems. Injuries from this type of lightning strike are also quite common and are just as serious as side flashes and direct cloud-to-ground strikes.

To minimize your risk from lightning, you want to get away from tall trees and away from mountain peaks or high ridges. If you are near or on the water, you want to get to shore and avoid wet areas that can conduct ground current. And if you are in a field, you want to get out of the open to avoid being the high point.

You can further protect yourself by squatting on top of your pack or a sleeping pad or on a boulder that sits on top of other boulders. If you can squat without your hands touching the ground, ground current will travel up one leg and down the other rather than traveling up your torso and cooking your major organ groups.

NOTE: The Following Lightning Safety Guidelines Have Been Adapted and Excerpted from “The National Outdoor Leadership Schools Wilderness Guide” by Mark Harvey (1999)

  1. Stay off high peaks and ridges. The higher you are, the greater the chance of getting struck.
  2. Stay away from shallow caves and overhangs. Although they may look safe, the electricity can jump these small gaps and electrocute you.
  3. Stay away from lone, tall objects like single trees in an open field. They are likely to be hit, and you could be hit by the ground current. If you can’t avoid this situation, then crouch in the “cone of protection”. Project a line from the lone object, often a tree, at a 45 degree angle. This forms an imaginary circle around the object that you should stay at.
  4. Avoid metal objects and bodies of water. They are good conductors and can attract lightning. This includes metal pack frames, trekking poles, canoes, tent poles, etc.
  5. If you are in a group, separate yourselves by at least 30 feet. That way, others can give first aid if one person is struck. If you stay in one big bunch, then there will be nobody to help if you all get struck.
  6. Avoid wide open spaces. You are at a greater risk of being struck if you are the only thing around. The best place to be during a lightning storm is in a large group of trees.
  7. Assume the Lightning position by insulating yourself from the ground with your sleeping pad. This will help with ground current, which is what kills most people in lightning-related accidents. Crouch on this pad with your toes pointing down hill and your heels together. This will allow the current to run through your feet rather than your whole body in the event that the ground current finds you.

Additional resources:  www.sectionhiker.com

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