You're on what you hope will be a leisurely camping trip. It's a warm summer afternoon. You're cooking up the catch of the day over a crackling campfire. Suddenly, a few raindrops splat your arms, and before you know it, the sky opens up. Then you hear what sounds like thunder in the distance. What should you do? Your tent is close by and would offer shelter from the pouring rain. There's a campsite picnic shelter a few minutes down the trail. And then you remember that your car is parked down the road. What's your safest bet to ensure you and your family's safety?
It's a common question for many hikers and campers -- especially when they're camping during the steamy, thunderstorm-prone summer months. While your best choice depends on the severity of the storm and your location, heading to your car is almost always the safest option [source: NOAA]. Your tent and a picnic shelter will keep you dry, but they offer little or no protection against lightning. Your car, on the other hand, will keep you dry and protect you if lightning strikes. Protecting yourself against possible lightning strikes is very important; lightning kills an average of 62 people in the U.S. each year [source: NOAA]. If you keep all of the windows and doors closed in your car, you'll be able to weather out the storm and return to your campsite.
Of course, if you're backpacking, not car camping, and you're deep in the backwoods, your vehicle won't be a shelter option. So, what should you do if your car is far away and there's no other safe shelter nearby? First, you'll have to take some practical precautions to make sure that tree limbs or other unsecured objects don't fall on you or your campsite. Then you'll have to get in a safe position to avoid lightning, tornadoes or flash flood conditions. What else should you do?
Signs of a Storm
Thunderstorms are common throughout the United States, but they occur most frequently during the summer months in the Southeast, Midwest and Great Plains. They form when the air rapidly heats and lifts clouds to high elevations. Mountain thunderstorms usually form in the early to mid-afternoon. So as a general rule of thumb, hike to peaks in the early morning so that you're able to head down from high elevations when the thunderstorm threat is the greatest.
You should always plan trips in advance and be aware of the weather forecast for the day. Despite your preparations, weather can be anything but predictable, so it's a good idea to be on your guard at all times. Keep your eyes on the sky and be prepared to take a rain check for your hiking excursion if a storm develops. Clouds indicating fair weather are usually puffy, short and show little vertical development. When clouds begin to build up darker bases, they're on their way to becoming thunderstorm clouds. A cloud that is tall and flat at the top is definitely an indicator of thunderstorm activity. A dark sky, flashes of light, heavy wind and claps of thunder indicate that a storm may soon be approaching.
If you can hear thunder, you're close enough to the storm to be in danger of being struck by lightning [source: American Red Cross]. You can judge the distance of an oncoming storm by the time between flashes of lightning and claps of thunder. Count the number of seconds between flashes and claps and divide this number by five to estimate how many miles away an approaching storm is [source: Lobe].
When setting up your camp, pitch tents in areas protected by a lot of tree growth. This will make it less likely you'll be struck by lightning. Before the storm hits, remove dead trees and branches that might cause damage if felled by high winds. Put all equipment in your tent so that nothing blows away. Check your camp for structures that might become unstable in a storm.
If you're caught in a storm while camping or hiking, finding a safe shelter may be difficult. You need to be out of the way when lightning strikes and you also need to be out of the rain as much as possible. If you're in a wooded area, squat near thick growths of trees. If a cluster of trees isn't around, look for a low-lying open place away from trees, poles or other metal objects. Avoid hilltops, open fields and locations that serve as natural lightning rods, such as a tall, isolated tree in an open area. You never want to be the tallest object in the area or be near to the tallest object in an area.
It's important to note that there's no safe place outdoors during a thunderstorm. But if you have no other options, there are a few precautions you can take to be as safe as possible.
It's a good idea to carry a battery-powered National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio to get updates about weather developments. If you're in an area that will pick up a signal, NOAA will deliver updates to you about the progression of the storm.
If you're debating whether you should stay where you are or go through an open area in order to get shelter during a thunderstorm -- stay put. While you're crossing through the open area, you'll be the tallest object and you'll attract lightning. If the lightning hasn't yet hit your area, you may cross quickly so that you're not caught out in the open. In general, if the lightning to thunder time is less than 30 seconds, you should stay where you are.
Weathering the Storm
Once you've found the spot where you'll stick out the storm, make yourself as small a target as possible. Squat low to the ground, place your hands on your knees and put your head between your knees. The soles of your feet should be the only part of your body touching the ground.
Don't kneel or lie flat on the ground; this will make you a larger target for lightning. Since water conducts electricity for long distances, stay away from bodies of water. Steer clear of bicycles, fishing rods and any other metal camping equipment; they'll attract lightning. Get rid of your backpack if it has a metal framework. Wet ropes are also very good conductors of electricity, so remove any excess ropes near or attached to you.
Lightning is one of the greatest dangers associated with surviving storms in the middle of the woods. While rain mostly causes you to feel uncomfortable, being struck by lightning can have catastrophic effects.
Every year in the United States an average of 62 people are killed by lightning. In 2008, 27 people died due to lightning strikes, and in 2007, 45 people were killed by lightning in the United States. Ninety-eight percent of those victims were outside when they were struck, and 25 percent were standing under a tree. Twenty-five percent of victims were on or near the water when struck [source: NOAA]. Being struck by lightning can cause some serious injuries. Because the victim receives an electrical shock, his or her body may be burned where it was struck and where the electrical shock left the body. Other possible injuries include nervous system damage, broken bones, blindness and deafness.
Surviving Lightning Storms
Although you can take a lot of precautions to stay safe during a thunderstorm, there's really no foolproof way to avoid lightning, especially if you're camping in the mountains. The 30/30 rule provides some helpful guidelines if you see lightning. Stay in shelter if you see lightning and can't count to 30 before hearing thunder. Stay in your shelter for 30 minutes after hearing the last clap of thunder [source: FEMA]. If you have time, seek shelter immediately.
If you don't have access to a car or other form of shelter, remember that heavily wooded areas will leave you less exposed to lightning, and you'll be less likely to be struck there. However, if you're on an exposed trail, you should ditch your backpack and get as low as possible. Whenever lightning is likely, be sure to take off your backpack if it has a metal frame.
While you might feel like staying in your tent to get out of the rain, lying down in your tent will increase the risk that you'll be struck by ground current from lightning. Even if you're camping in a heavily wooded area, where you're less likely to be struck, you'll still run the risk of getting hit by a ground current or secondary strike. So, even though it might be uncomfortable, in the middle of a thunderstorm, it's best to abandon your tent.
If you're camping with a group, don't huddle together. If you're touching each other, and one person is struck, you'll all be struck. However, if one member of the group is struck, the rest of the crew can provide assistance. First and foremost, remember that a person who's been struck by lightning carries no electrical charge and can be handled safely. If you have access to a phone, call 911 immediately to get medical assistance. If breathing has stopped, begin rescue breathing, and if the heart has stopped beating, administer CPR. If the victim is breathing and has a pulse, look for other possible injuries.
On the next page, we'll take a look at what you can do to protect yourself against tornadoes or flash floods that may develop as a result of storms.
Surviving Tornadoes and Flash Floods
Making it through a thunderstorm can be pretty tricky in the great outdoors, but more extreme weather phenomena can complicate things further. Tornadoes occur during thunderstorms, and with wind gusts exceeding 200 miles per hour (322 kph), they can destroy everything in their paths. Keep an eye out for these tornado warning signs:
- Still air with little wind
- Clouds of debris in the sky
- Greenish sky with funnel descending from clouds
- Loud sound, similar to a freight train
Campsites in tornado-prone areas usually have a tornado shelter. These underground bunkers are free of windows and designed to protect the population of the campsite. However, if you're camping by yourself in the middle of the woods where there are no tornado shelters, you can still take some precautions be safe. First of all, remove dead branches from trees (if you can reach them) and secure loose items around your camp or bring them into your tent. Seek the closest ditch or depression in the ground, lie facedown and cover your face with your hands.
Flash flooding can also be a dangerous part of the aftermath of a storm. In fact, flash floods and flooding claim more lives than any other weather-related disaster [source: Lobe]. Flash floods that sweep away campers frequently make international headlines. For example, in France, flash flooding near an alpine campsite in an isolated village near Geneva killed 19 people [source: Netter].
Before you set out on your camping excursion, make sure to investigate whether the area you're camping in is prone to flash flooding. If it is, make sure that the campsite you've chosen has sandbags and shovels.
Flooding usually occurs in three different situations: prolonged rainfall over a few days, heavy rainfall over a short period of time or when debris or ice gets in the way of stream or river flow. If you're camping in the woods, you should note that flash floods usually occur within 6 hours of a heavy rain event. Fields and woods that have been developed are more prone to flash flood than areas with natural terrain -- which is good news for the hiker [source: NOAA]. But the American Southwest, because of its claylike dry terrain, which is ill-suited to absorb water, is particularly prone to flash flooding.
Most flash flooding develops as a result of slow-moving thunderstorms or repeated thunderstorms in the same area. If you find yourself in flash flood conditions after a storm, you should immediately get to higher ground. Be aware of the topography of the area in which you're camping and know which direction to go in case of flooding. Don't try to walk through water more than ankle-deep. One foot of water can move up to 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms), and you don't want to be carried away. Lastly, look out for snakes or other animals that might have been relocated during the storm.
In some cases, fleeing an emergency situation may actually make it worse. Here are 10 threats you should never try to outrun from HowStuffWorks.
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More Great Links
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