How to Stay Safe and Avoid Lightning Strikes Outdoors

Lightning is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring yet dangerous phenomena. If you enjoy spending time outdoors, it’s crucial to know how to protect yourself from lightning strikes. In this article, I’ll share essential tips and insights to help you stay safe during thunderstorms.

According to the National Weather Service, the odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime are about 1 in 15,300. While that may seem like a long shot, it’s still a risk not worth taking.

I once had a close call with lightning while out on a hike. The storm came out of nowhere, and I found myself in a very exposed position on a ridge. Luckily, I remembered the safety tips I had learned and was able to get to a safer spot until the storm passed. It was a frightening experience that reinforced for me the importance of always being prepared and knowledgeable about lightning safety.

Steer Clear of Tall Objects and Open Spaces

One of the most important things to remember is to avoid tall objects and open fields. Lightning tends to strike the tallest object in an area, so you want to make sure that’s not you. Don’t stand under isolated trees or near poles or other tall structures. If you’re out in an open field with no shelter nearby, avoid being the highest object. Get to lower ground if possible.

I always make a mental note of potential safe spots when I’m out in nature, in case a storm rolls in unexpectedly. Ravines, ditches, and small depressions in the landscape can provide some protection. Just be sure to avoid any low-lying areas that could flood.

Seek lower groundStand under tall trees
Avoid being tallest objectStay in open fields
Look for ravines/depressionsChoose spots prone to flooding

Seek Lower Ground and Proper Shelter

Seeking proper shelter is key to protecting yourself from lightning strikes. If there’s a substantial, fully-enclosed building nearby, get inside as quickly as possible. Once indoors, avoid contact with electrical appliances, wiring, and plumbing. Stay away from windows and doors.

If you’re in the backcountry with no buildings around, head for lower elevations. Avoid ridge tops, peaks, and the mouths of caves. Dense woods can provide some protection, as long as you avoid the tallest trees. Look for an area of shorter trees of uniform height.

When I’m planning a wilderness trip, I always study the topographic maps to identify the high and low points along my route. That way, I have a better sense of where I can seek shelter if a storm catches me off guard. It’s all about being prepared and knowing your surroundings.

Assume the Lightning Squat Position

Let’s say you’re caught in a thunderstorm and can’t reach proper shelter. In that case, outdoor experts recommend using the lightning squat position to minimize your risk:

  • Squat down on the balls of your feet
  • Keep your feet close together
  • Cover your ears to protect against acoustic shock
  • Touch the ground as little as possible

The idea is to make yourself as small a target as you can. Don’t lie down on the ground, as that can make you more vulnerable to ground currents. Also, spread out from any groups, keeping at least 15 feet between each person. You don’t want lightning to have the chance of jumping from one person to another.

If you’re near a body of water when a storm hits, get away from the water immediately. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity. I know of tragic cases where dozens of people were struck while in the water together. Don’t take the risk.

Stay Alert and Know the Weather Forecast

One of the best ways to avoid getting caught in a lightning storm is to stay alert and tuned into the weather forecast. Before heading out on any outdoor adventure, I always check the predictions for the areas I’ll be in.

Keep in mind that weather can change rapidly, especially in mountainous regions. So even if the forecast looks clear, stay vigilant. If you hear thunder, immediately start seeking shelter. Don’t wait until the storm is on top of you.

There are some great weather apps that provide real-time lightning alerts. I rely on them heavily during the summer storm season. The key is to react quickly when you first detect signs of an approaching storm.

Take Steps to Minimize Your Risk

Beyond knowing what to do in the moment, there are steps you can take to minimize your overall risk of being struck by lightning:

  • Plan your outdoor activities around daily weather patterns (storms more likely in afternoon)
  • Avoid being outside during the most lightning-prone times of day
  • Have an emergency plan and share it with others
  • Carry a means of communication in case you need help

I always let someone know where I’m going and when I plan to be back, especially if I’m heading into the backcountry. I carry a portable GPS tracker that allows me to send an SOS if needed. It gives me peace of mind knowing I can summon help even in remote areas.

The more you can do to reduce your chances of being in a high-risk situation, the better. But even the best-laid plans can’t eliminate risk entirely. That’s why it’s so important to know how to react when a storm catches you off guard.

Understand the Odds and Dangers

Finally, I think it’s important for every outdoor enthusiast to have a healthy respect for the power of lightning. Understanding the odds and dangers can help motivate you to take lightning safety seriously.

According to the National Weather Service, lightning kills an average of 49 people per year in the United States and injures hundreds more. While the odds of being struck in your lifetime are only around 1 in 15,300, those odds go up the more time you spend outdoors in lightning-prone areas.

So don’t underestimate the risk. Follow the lightning safety tips we’ve covered and err on the side of caution. No outdoor adventure is worth putting your life in danger.

I hope this article has given you a better understanding of how to protect yourself from lightning strikes while enjoying the great outdoors. Stay safe out there, and remember: when thunder roars, go indoors!

Photo of author

Paul Samis