What to do in a Lightning Storm

Cover photo: US Department of Interior via Flickr

A few weekends ago we had the pleasure of summiting Mt. Adams. As we descended the mountain, the weather began deteriorating quickly and we found ourselves in the middle of a lightning storm. Thankfully we were only a mile from the trailhead and car at this point but it made me realize I needed a refresher on what to do when caught in a lightning storm.

According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), on average, 49 people are killed and several hundred are injured each year by lightning in the US. The first thing to note with lightning safety is that no place outside is safe during a lightning storm. So the first tip is to not hike when there is a chance of lightning that day. When we hiked Mt. Adams, we foolishly did not look at the weather forecast before embarking on the hike. Had we looked at the forecast, we would have seen that afternoon lightning was predicted for Sunday.

Tip: Check the weather report before hiking/climbing

If you live in an area of the country where thunderstorms are random and common in the hot summer afternoons, time your hikes to start early and be back to your car well before the thunderheads begin forming.

Now of course weather reports are highly inaccurate and storms can develop quickly and unexpectedly in the summer months. So here are some tips of what to be aware of, how to minimize chances of being caught in a storm and what to do if you do find yourself in a storm.


  •  Count the number of sec­onds between a flash of light­ning and the sound of thun­der. This translates roughly to how far out in mileage that the lightning strike occurred (Example: 5 seconds counted between lightning flash and thunder would translate to 5 miles). According to NOAA, lightning can still strike 5-10 miles from the storm. Keep that rule in mind.
  • Avoid peaks, ridges, or naturally higher ground areas. You want to head to a lower valley when caught in a storm.
  • Do not sit near a lone tree. Find a depression or lower valley if possible.
  • If in the woods, seek shorter tree areas and avoid being near the taller trees in the area.
  • If camping, pick a site that will minimize a chance for lightning strikes if a storm were to come through. Don’t set up camp under the one large tree in the area or on the high point in the terrain.
  • Avoid open shelters or cave entrances. They are not good protection against lightning and can increase your chances of being struck.
  • Remove metal objects. Lay your backpack, ice axe, trekking poles away from you and get into the lightning position.
  • If in a group, separate from each other by 50 feet. If someone were to be struck, the others should be unharmed and able to assist with rescue.

Learn the Lightning Position

The lightning position reduces your chance of being struck. The position involves squatting down and wrapping your arms around your legs. The end position will look like a ball.

Michael Karrer via Flickr

Michael Karrer via Flickr