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August 2000

A Hair-Raising Experience

Why two commonly held lightning-safety beliefs could get you fried, plus expert advice.

After setting out under benign summer skies on a late afternoon hike, my husband and I reached a ridge crest in the Franklin Mountains of western Texas, only to discover a most unwelcome sight on the other side: thunderstorms, crackling with lightning and moving quickly in our direction. That day we were lucky. We scampered off the peak, trailed by rounds of thunder but without our hair standing on end, and gave thanks that we were on a dayhike. On the drive home, I thought about all those years of backpacking above treeline, and wondered: What should we have done if we’d been up high, days from shelter, and loaded down with heavy packs?

The short answer: There’s no prescription that guarantees complete safety when you’re in the backcountry and bolts of electricity dance around you. The only foolproof way to avoid lightning is to avoid thunderstorms, which is easy when you’re at home and can flick on The Weather Channel. But in the backwoods, being able to judge conditions from the ground requires knowledge and experience. Which may be why so many backcountry travelers–and wilderness educators–have come to rely on two practices that are convenient and easy to remember, but which lightning-safety experts say provide dubious protection from lightning strikes.

Ground Insulation

Wilderness educators have long recommended placing a nonconducting object between your body and the ground to keep you from being zapped by ground currents (electricity that travels through the ground from a nearby strike). Items most often cited for use include a closed-cell foam sleeping pad, a coil of climbing rope, or your pack, frame side down.

Such advice is dismissed by experts like Ron Holle, of the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, and the National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI), and Mary Anne Cooper, M.D., a doctor of emergency medicine at the University of Chicago who’s also a member of the NLSI and the Lightning Safety Group, a collection of experts who met in 1998 to establish nationwide lightning-safety recommendations.

“There is a great deal of wishful thinking in the outdoors community that sitting on a backpack or putting down metal can reduce or eliminate lightning danger,” warns Holle. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what you’re sitting or lying on. The flash came from 5 to 8 miles up in the cloud and has 30,000 amps, so it will penetrate absolutely anything. Go to a substantial building or metal-topped vehicle.”

Sound advice if you’re near shelter or a car, but that isn’t likely 10 miles into the mountains. “In a high-risk situation, assuming the lightning-safety position on some kind of insulating material may offer the right person at the right time some protection,” says Eric Johnson, M.D., a physician in Idaho who specializes in outdoor medicine and training. It can’t hurt in other words.

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