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Backpacker Magazine – June 2012

Survival: Lightning Myths: Busted

Knowing fact from fiction can help you avoid—and survive—a 54,000℉ strike.

Illustrations of Myths
1.) Myth: You can hide from lightning.
Busted: No place is 100-percent safe in the backcountry, but some spots are better than others.
>> Top priority: Get low relative to nearby terrain.
>> Uniform forests are safest. Avoid open meadows, lakes, caves, rock overhangs, peaks, or ridges.
>> Best option: Go inside a building or hard-topped car.

2.) Myth: Under clear skies, you’re safe from a strike.
Busted: “Bolts from the blue” can travel and strike as far as 25 miles from storm clouds.
>> Check regional forecasts. Be alert for storms within 100 miles of your route; watch the direction they’re trending.
>> You’re within strike range if you can hear thunder. Look for shelter when (or before) thunder and lightning are 30 seconds apart.
>> Stay under cover until 30 minutes have passed since the last thunderclap.

3.) Myth: Once a person’s struck, he’s dead—and you’ll be electrocuted if you touch him.
Busted: About 90 percent of strike victims survive. After being hit, they can’t shock you—but will likely benefit from first aid.
>> Administer CPR. Almost all lightning fatalities are due to cardiac arrest. Immediate CPR may restart the heart and save a victim’s life.
>> Treat wounds. Look for and address head injuries and fractures. Burn first aid: cool with water, apply antibacterial ointment, and bandage.
>> Immediately evacuate any strike victim to a hospital.

4.) Myth: Crouching on a sleeping pad will insulate you from a direct strike.
Busted: Nothing in the backcountry insulates against a strike or ground current (the most common cause of lightning injury). Reduce exposure to both by assuming a tucked, tight crouch.
>> Stay low. Short objects are less likely strike targets.
>> Keep your arms and feet close. Spreading them increases the severity of injuries and burns if you’re struck.
>> Don’t lie down. Minimize contact with the ground; keep your body’s footprint as small as possible.

What Your Should Know
• Get off peaks early; descend by 2 p.m. in storm season.
• Avoid exposed campsites; tents provide no electrical shelter.
• Stay 50 feet from others.
• Move off lakes and away from tall shoreline trees.
• Flee meadows; even in low terrain the tallest objects attract • strikes.
• Avoid lone tall trees.
• Anticipate nighttime storms; plan a route to safer terrain.
• Safer: ditches and dips.

Interesting Facts
• An average bolt is five miles long, one inch thick, and has • enough energy to power a headlamp for 139,500 years.
• Doh! Guys get struck 4 times as much as gals.
• 5 Seconds it takes for the sound of thunder to travel one mile

Deadliest Wilderness Sports
Whatcha doing when lightning strikes?
Fishing - 25%
Camping - 24%
Swimming -18%
Hiking - 7%

Flash Photo Flash Photo Have to ditch camp in a storm? Learn how to set up your camera to capture the bolts you’re evading. Click Here.


Star Star Star
Jul 14, 2014

As far as my understanding goes, LongRange, it is advised generally because some rock types spread lightning across the surface, e.g. granite, and that the bolt can spread to you whether you are in a cave or not. In fact, I have read a few incident reports of people in caves being shocked. However, I believe this depends on the rocky type, but I could be mistaken.

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Oct 24, 2012

Always wondered why the lone tree or small cluster of trees should be avoided. I mean, hey, they've been there for 200 years and haven't got hit yet, right? What are the chances they will be hit when you are under them?

Oct 17, 2012

Why is it advised(as mentioned above) that caves are NOT a safe sanctuary from lightning while in the back country?

Oct 15, 2012

Beth, your instructor is incorrect, CPR CAN restart a stopped heart---I've witnessed it myself and I'm a professional Paramedic-Specialist with 20 years on my ambulance. While it is meant to circulate blood like your instructor said, sometimes just that action can restart the heart, like a precordial thump---it's happened to my patient's a few times, all under ECG monitoring. Definitely give a precordial thump, but also continue CPR for best patient outcome.

Aug 05, 2012

I read in a New Mexico hiking and camping guide that there is a lower chance of a strike in a 45 degree angle zone under a power line. I haven't tried this (obviously!). I usually don't camp near power lines anyway but I wonder if anyone has heard of that?

Aug 05, 2012

Look up the precordial thump. On the rare chance that the victim is in a lethal arrhythmia after the strike, this may be your only chance.

Aug 03, 2012

I was told by Red Cross CPR instructor that CPR CANNOT restart a stopped heart. It is only meant to keep the patient viable (they said keep the meat fresh) until an ambulance can arrive to treat. Even a defibrillator looks to see that the heart hasn't completely stopped, then shocks to restore a normal rhythm.


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