Lightning Safety for Hikers

With spring approaching, I’d like to do a refresher on lightning safety for hikers and backpackers. Around 70% of lightning deaths happen outdoors between June and August,  and since we spend a lot of time out there, we are at risk for lightning related injuries or death. The odds of getting struck by lightning are only 1 in 15,300 for a person with an 80 year lifespan. This post is not to scare anyone, but to reiterate the dangers and the safety procedures in case you do happen to get caught in a lightning storm.

The NSSL says that approximately 20 million cloud to ground flashes hit the continental United States a year. Many of these are in high altitude areas, but still happens everywhere else as well.  There are steps you can take to decrease the chance of getting caught in a lightning storm. Planning ahead and knowing what to look for can help you avoid injury on your hike.

Know the Truth About Lightning

Lightning can, and does, strike the same place twice. 

Cloud to ground lightning can cause injury or death by indirect contact. It’s current can reach a person after branching off when it hits a tree, pole, ground, etc. 

Watch the Weather

See if there’s any chance of storms in the area where you’ll be hiking. Also be sure to check for conditions that could lead to a lightning storm.

Know the Signs

Cumulonimbus clouds in a blue sky

Lightning storms often make themselves known beforehand, but don’t always give a lot of time to react. Knowing the signs that a storm may occur makes it easier to head toward safety early on.

Signs of Approaching Lightning Storm

  • Fast growing Cumulonimbus cloud- Even with blue skies, these clouds are the precursor to a storm and can quickly turn from cute shapes to ominous sky cover 
  • Darkening skies
  • Increasing wind
  • Thunder. If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck. Get to shelter immediately. 

Signs of Imminent Lightning Strike

If you notice any of these signs, you know that a lightning strike is very likely to occur:

  • Hair standing on end- like the worst static bad hair you’ve ever seen
  • You hear sizzling bacon
  • You feel tingly
  • You smell a swimming pool/chlorine

If you should notice any of these imminent signs, you should run, not walk, to the nearest safe shelter. Running not only gets you away faster, it reduces the time both feet are in contact with the ground, minimizing the risk of ground current from a strike. 

What to do during

Find Shelter

Open places like trail shelters, fences, and picnic tables are not safe options. The safest shelter is a fully enclosed building, but they’re not always available. If you aren’t near one, or cant safely make it to one in time, you’ll need to look for another safe area. 

  • Low ground
  • Valley
  • Ditch
  • Hard topped vehicle with the windows rolled up. Don’t touch anything metal and do not lean on the doors

Tents do not provide protection against lightning! 

You’ll want to avoid trees, especially lone ones, and other tall or metal objects. 

Remove Your Pack

If you have a metal framed pack or trekking poles, remove them and leave at least 100 feet from where you’ll  take shelter. You don’t want anything near you or group members that’ll attract lightning to you.

Take the “Lightning Stance”

The purpose of this pose is to reduce the amount of contact your body makes with the ground. It also gives a better chance of lightning traveling down your spine, minimizing harm to vital organs should you get struck. 

  • Squat down on the balls of your feet
  • Place feet together
  • Lower your head
  • Cover your ears and close your eyes to help minimize the damage from a loud and bright strike. 
  • Wait

You should wait 30 minutes or more from the last thunder you hear or lightning you see before trying to move on. Stay in the lightning stance until you’re sure the threat is gone then proceed with caution and stay alert. 

Group Safety

Have a Plan 

Before leaving for your hike, you should talk with your group and designate someone as the leader. This is the person who will start the head count after a lightning strike. You should also know who in your group is able to administer first aid and CPR to a strike victim. Knowing this information can save precious time in the event of injury. 

Spread Out

Group members should spread out 100 feet or more to prevent casualties caused by a single strike. 

What to do if someone is struck

Perform a Verbal Head Count

Since your group will be spread out, calling out for a head count will save time from running to find each group member. If there is no answer from a member, those able to perform CPR/First Aid should look for them. Avoid overcrowding of a strike victim, only those who can provide assistance should be near. 

Perform CPR to Restore Breathing

According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, 80% of people who are struck by lightning will survive the shock. Lightning does NOT leave a residual charge. It is safe to touch a lightning strike victim. 


  • National Severe Storms Laboratory – Severe Weather 101: Lightning Basics More detailed information on how lightning forms, strikes, and the various types of lightning.
  • National Weather Service See forecast maps, at a glance weather conditions, and weather warnings for the United States