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Climate Change Increases Lightning Threat to Hikers

By Craig & Kathy Copeland, originally published in "Don't Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies, the Opinionated Hiking Guide"

Our planet's weather is getting weirder. Storms are increasingly unpredictable, frequent and violent. Lightning has always been a greater threat than most hikers realize. Now that threat is growing.

In all our mountain-range hiking guidebooks, our opinionated advice points you toward ridges, meadows and summits where, during a storm, you could be exposed to lightning.

Even if you start under a cloudless, blue sky, you might see ominous, black thunderheads marching toward you a few hours later. Upon reaching a high, airy vantage, you might be forced by an approaching storm to decide if and when you should retreat to safer ground.

Hoping to avoid rain and lightning, which typically develops in afternoon, you can try to cross alpine passes early in the day, but that's just not always possible.

You hike to embrace nature, the power of which can threaten your safety. If you're a dedicated hiker, you won't always evade lightning: it's too common. Inevitably, the sky will darken and lightning will approach while you’re unprotected by trees or terrain.

You can, however, avoid being struck by lightning. And you can -- even if you are struck -- prevent it from being fatal. Here's what you need to know:

If your hair is standing on end, there's electricity in the air around you. A lightning strike could be imminent. Get outa there! That's usually down the mountain, but if there's too much open expanse to traverse, look for closer protection.

A direct lightning strike can kill you. It can cause brain damage, heart failure or third-degree burns. Ground current, from a nearby strike, can severely injure you, causing deep burns and tissue damage. Direct strikes are worse, but ground-current contact is far more common.

Avoid a direct strike by getting off exposed ridges and peaks. Even a few meters (yards) off a ridge is better than on top. Avoid isolated, tall trees. A clump of small trees or an opening in the trees is safer.

Avoid ground current by getting out of stream gullies and away from crevices, lichen patches, or wet, solid-rock surfaces. Loose rock, like talus, is safer.

Look for a low-risk area, near a highpoint at least 10 m/yd higher than you. Crouch near its base, at least 1.5 m/yd from cliffs or walls.

Once you choose a place to wait it out, your goal is to prevent brain or heart damage by stopping an electrical charge from flowing through your whole body. Squat with your boots touching one another. If you have a sleeping pad, put it beneath your boots for insulation. Keep your hands away from rocks. Fold your arms across your chest. Stay at least 10 m/yd from your companions, so if one is hit, another can give cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Deep caves offer protection. Crouch away from the mouth, at least 1.5 m/yd from the walls. But avoid rock overhangs and shallow depressions, because ground current can jump across them. Lacking a deep cave, you're safer in the low-risk area below a highpoint.