Lightning Survival Update

If you're caught in a lightning storm on the trail, head for the hills.

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When lightning threatens, head for the rolling hills. That’s the new recommendation from the folks at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

The updated NOLS guidelines advise wilderness travelers to avoid stands of trees (long thought the best lightning cover) and instead seek gently rolling terrain. The reason: Strikes are random and unusual in low, rolling areas where there are few trees to attract lightning. Sit in the “lightning position” —squatting on a sleeping pad or pack—in a ravine or depression.

If you’re stuck among trees during a storm, avoid touching the trunks. The new NOLS guidelines also debunk the old “cone of protection” myth (see “A Hair-Raising Experience,” Wild Things, August 2000). The cone theory held that sitting close to, but not right next to, a tall tree was safe because lightning would go for the tree instead of you. The truth is that lightning strikes are more likely in and around tall, lone trees, and that the surrounding ground also becomes electrified.

NOLS revised its “Lightning Safety Guidelines” to reflect findings from its own extensive field research, as well as standards announced at last year’s International Conference in Atmospheric Electricity.

If a fellow hiker is struck by lightning, administer CPR immediately. If he has a heartbeat but can’t breathe, perform artificial respiration (tilt back his head, hold his nostrils closed, and breathe air into his mouth until you see his chest rise) for at least 30 minutes, the minimum time usually required before normal neurological function returns. Get the victim to a hospital as soon as he is breathing on his own.