How to Survive a Lightning Strike? Stay Out of Its Way. (2023)

  • Adventure

Hundreds of people are struck by lightning each year while camping, hiking, and boating. Here’s how to stay safe when you’re savoring summer in the great outdoors.

Adam Campbell was 1,312 feet (400 meters) from the summit of a peak in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains when the weather shifted. The experienced mountain ultrarunner was competing in the 2014 Hardrock One Hundred Endurance Run, one of the world’s toughest trail races, and he knew what to expect when he ran in the high country in the heat of a July afternoon. But even he was caught off guard when the spectacular sunset gave way to darkening skies, a sudden drop in temperature, and kicked-up winds.

“Off in the distance, I could see lightning, but it seemed a long way off,” Campbell recalls. Above the tree line at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters), he and his pacer, Aaron Heidt, saw no natural cover from the coming storm. Then they watched a lightning bolt strike the summit ahead of them.

“I was fully exposed, and about three miles from real shelter at that point. I knew my best bet was to get up and over the peak to a boulder field on the other side,” Campbell says. “Normally I’d try to get down the mountain, but I was 60 miles into the race, and I didn’t have many options. I took a calculated risk.”

Suddenly, another bolt hit the ground near them. “It sounded like a mortar shell going off. There was an electrical, burning, ozone-like smell in the air. My headlamp exploded—the current went through me,” Campbell says.

(Video) How to Avoid a Lightning Strike, According to Science

The shock threw Campbell and Heidt to the ground, but they were not physically hurt. Campbell, having run more than half of the race and now exposed to cold and rain in addition to the jolt of electricity, talked himself down from a flood of panicky emotions. After reaching a sheltered location farther down the mountain and checking himself for signs of injury, he was able to finish the race in third place—with no lasting side effects.

They were both extremely lucky. Campbell was one of the hundreds of people who are struck by lightning in the United States every year, but fortunately, not among the approximately 30 annual lightning fatalities.

According to the National Weather Service, almost two-thirds of lightning fatalities occur as people enjoy leisure activities in the outdoors—and deaths are concentrated in the summer months. Of 313 deaths between 2006 and 2015, 33 happened as the victims were fishing, 17 while camping, and 14 while boating. Eighteen fatalities took place on beaches.

An analysis by the weather service found that many victims were either headed to safety or “just steps away” from shelter when they were hit—so planning for the possibility of a lightning event is essential if you’re on an outdoor adventure, says John Jensenius, a meteorologist and the agency’s lightning safety expert.

“There is no safe place outdoors,” Jensenius says. He offered adventurers these tips for staying safe—and alive—this summer.

(Video) How to Stay Safe in a Lightning Storm

Keep an eye on the sky.

Checking the weather forecast is the first and simplest thing people should do to avoid encounters with lightning. In most regions of the United States, thunderstorms usually occur in the afternoon or evening. Start your hike or kayak expedition in the morning, and finish up by noon if the forecast indicates bad weather ahead. If the forecast calls for periodic storms throughout the day, “make a smart choice and consider canceling the trip,” Jensenius says.

Form a safety plan.

Before you head out, check maps to locate visitors centers, campground buildings, or rest areas along your route. As you’re hiking or paddling, watch continually for the nearest shelter. Car campers can take cover in their metal-topped vehicles if no other shelter is available (do not wait out the storm in a tent). Make sure you know the location of the closest refuge and how long it will take you to reach it if a storm arises. Most importantly, don’t wait to use your safety plan if you hear thunder, see lightning, or sense that a storm is approaching. “If thunder roars, get indoors” is Jensenius’ easy-to-remember tip.

Know the storm’s distance.

It can be difficult to see coming storms in mountainous areas, he says, but it’s possible to gauge a storm’s distance when you see the first flash of lightning. Count the seconds between the flash and the ensuing rumble of thunder. (When the electrical current from lightning superheats the air around it, the air molecules expand explosively, creating a sonic shock wave—that is, thunder.) Divide the number of seconds by five to calculate the number of miles between you and the storm. To calculate kilometers, divide by three. If the number of seconds is 30 or fewer, equaling six miles or 10 kilometers, find shelter immediately. As a general rule, “You can hear thunder at a distance of 10 miles, and if you hear it, get indoors as soon as possible,” Jensenius says.

Don’t be the tallest object.

Lightning tends to strike the tallest object in an area, whether it’s a tree, a mountain, or you. In 1985, lightning killed two and injured three people on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, and in 2014, two hikers died on high-altitude trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you’re climbing and a storm is brewing, descend to a lower elevation quickly (avoid touching metal guardrails or steps, which conduct electricity) and find shelter right away. If you’re on the water, get to shore fast. When there’s no place to take cover, crouch on the balls of your feet to lessen your contact with the ground, with your head down and hands over your ears. “The position lowers you from the size of an adult to a child,” Jensenius says. “You can’t eliminate the risk, but you can help minimize it.”

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Don’t be next to the tallest object.

Many lightning victims are struck when standing too close to isolated tall objects, such as lone trees. In a phenomenon called a “side splash,” lightning strikes the tree directly, and as the current travels downward, it jumps to nearby structures or people. The current can also radiate from the point where the tree meets the ground, zapping things many feet away. For those reasons, you should never huddle under a tall tree in a storm. If you’re caught in a forest or wooded area, seek out a clump of smaller trees and get away from the bigger specimens. Alternately, find a dry ravine or valley and crouch down (don’t lie flat, which increases your contact with a potential ground current).

(Video) What Happens When You're Struck By Lightning? | The Human Body

Spread out from the pack.

If you’re hiking or climbing in a group, Jensenius recommends staggering your positions to avoid traveling in a tight company. That way, if lightning strikes a nearby tree or rock and travels across the ground, there’s a chance that fewer people will get shocked. They, in turn, will be available to help the injured.

Wait 30 minutes to venture out.

Storms can last from around 30 minutes to an hour and a half, Jensenius says. Even if you’re caught in the early part of the storm, you should still head for safety to wait out the rest of it. He also recommends staying put until 30 minutes after the lightning, thunder, and rain has subsided.

FAQs

What's the best way to survive a lightning strike? ›

“Simply go to a large, substantial building or a fully enclosed metal-topped vehicle.” A lightning-safe structure is one that has grounded wiring and plumbing, like most homes and buildings in the U.S. Places like tents, sheds, dugouts and picnic shelters are not safe from lightning strikes, according to experts.

Can you survive a direct hit from lightning? ›

But the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are less than one in a million, and almost 90% of all lightning strike victims survive.

What is the 30 second rule for lightning? ›

When You See Lightning, Count The Time Until You Hear Thunder. If That Is 30 Seconds Or Less, The Thunderstorm Is Close Enough To Be Dangerous – Seek Shelter (if you can't see the lightning, just hearing the thunder is a good back-up rule). Wait 30 Minutes Or More After The Lightning Flash Before Leaving Shelter.

Where is the safest place to be during a lightning storm? ›

While no place is 100% safe from lightning, some places are much safer than others. The safest location during a thunderstorm is inside a large enclosed structure with plumbing and electrical wiring. These include shopping centers, schools, office buildings, and private residences.

What should one not do during lightning? ›

Avoid windows, doors, porches, and concrete.

Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches. Do NOT lie on concrete floors or lean on concrete walls during a thunderstorm. Lightning can travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring.

Can a rubber suit protect you from lightning? ›

If you're thinking of making a suit of rubber, forget it. It won't work. There is nothing lightning won't come near.

How painful is it to get struck by lightning? ›

A jolting, excruciating pain. “My whole body was just stopped—I couldn't move any more,” Justin recalls. “The pain was … I can't explain the pain except to say if you've ever put your finger in a light socket as a kid, multiply that feeling by a gazillion throughout your entire body.

What state has the most lightning? ›

The state with the highest count of lightning in the United States in 2021 was Texas, amounting to a sum of 41,914,516 lightning events recorded. Texas always has higher lightning count than any other state, partly due to its size and location.

Why do people survive lightning strike? ›

Surviving a lightning strike

People who have been struck by lightning don't carry an electrical charge, according to the CDC -- so it's safe to touch and move them.

What is the golden rule of lightning safety? ›

The golden rule of lightning safety is if you hear thunder, you should seek shelter inside of a substantial building or an enclosed, metal-topped vehicle. Thus, always plan to photograph lightning from inside a safe shelter or from inside a car.

What signs will tell you that a lightning is close enough to harm you? ›

Here's what you need to know.
  • You See Tall, Bright White Clouds. ...
  • You Can Hear the Thunder Approaching. ...
  • You See Your Hair Standing on End or Feel Tingling. ...
  • You Taste Something Metallic. ...
  • You Smell the Scent of Ozone in the Air. ...
  • You Start to Get Dizzy or Sweat. ...
  • You Can Hear Vibrating, Buzzing, or Crackling.
29 Aug 2018

How Close Can lightning be to shake a house? ›

Each lightning bolt has the potential to produce a shock wave within the first 10 yards of the weather event.

Why are cars safe in lightning? ›

Like trees, houses, and people, anything outside is at risk of being struck by lightning when thunderstorms are in the area, including cars. The good news though is that the outer metal shell of hard-topped metal vehicles does provide protection to those inside a vehicle with the windows closed.

Why is it safe to stay in a car during a lightning storm? ›

That's why it is safer to be inside the car as the metal surface of the car acts as a shield for the person and so prevents the person fron lightening.

Where does lightning strike the most? ›

Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela is the place on Earth that receives the most lightning strikes. Massive thunderstorms occur on 140-160 nights per year with an average of 28 lightning strikes per minute lasting up to 10 hours at a time. That's as many as 40,000 lightning strikes in one night!

Where should you avoid lightning? ›

Indoor Lightning Safety

Stay off corded phones, computers and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity. Avoid plumbing, including sinks, baths and faucets. Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.

Are houses lightning proof? ›

Myth: If you are in a house, you are 100% safe from lightning. Fact: A house is a safe place to be during a thunderstorm as long as you avoid anything that conducts electricity. This means staying off corded phones, electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, metal doors and windows.

What strikes lightning most likely? ›

Never say always! Lightning usually strikes the tallest object. It makes sense that the tallest object is most likely to produce upward streamers to connect with the downward lightning leader.

Can lightning burn clothes? ›

2) The heat associated with the lightning strike can cause clothing to catch on fire. In addition, clothes can be shredded by the explosive force of air being superheated by the lightning bolt. 3) The force of lightning exiting a person's foot can easily blow off shoes.

What happens if lightning hits a car? ›

What happens when lightning strikes a car? According to the National Weather Service, a bolt of lightning may strike either the antenna or somewhere along the roofline. From there, it may enter the vehicle's electrical system, damaging important components and making the vehicle impossible to drive.

What does getting hit by lightning feel like? ›

"It felt like you'd actually been walloped by something, or you were inside a bass speaker." As the bolt struck, there was a millisecond flash of intense, burning heat, that had already dissipated by the time his brain could even register it.

Can I pee during a thunderstorm? ›

Very hard, perhaps impossible, to kill yourself by peeing on high-voltage things. A toilet is probably as safe a place as any in a lightning storm, if you're not touching metal. Porcelain is a great insulator. In a lightning storm, don't stand in the shower clutching onto the shower head.

What does a person look like after being struck by lightning? ›

Blood vessels bursting from the electric discharge and heat might create something called a Lichtenberg figure on your skin. This is a pattern of scars that branches out across your body like the limbs of a tree, likely tracing the path the electricity took as it travelled through you.

What state has fewest lightning strikes? ›

On the other hand, the West continues to be best for avoiding lightning as the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean keeps thunderstorms at bay. Alaska ranked as the fewest lightning strikes per square mile at 0.52.

What is the lightning capital of America? ›

Florida sees so much lightning annually that the National Weather Service has given it the distinction of “lightning capital of the US.” In the past month alone, there have been numerous lightning-produced house fires, one in Tampa and another one in Valrico, to name a few.

How far is lightning if there is no thunder? ›

Sometimes lightning may be seen but there is no thunder heard. This is either because thunder is rarely heard more than 20 km away or because the atmospheric conditions lead to sound bending upwards and away from the surface.

Should you go inside if you hear thunder? ›

The safest thing you can do during a thunderstorm is quickly find shelter inside when you first hear thunder and remain indoors for 30 minutes after the last sounds of thunder. While inside, it is important to avoid corded telephones, desktop computers, or other electrical equipment.

What is the lightning thunder rule? ›

If you count the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder, and then divide by 5, you'll get the distance in miles to the lightning: 5 seconds = 1 mile, 15 seconds = 3 miles, 0 seconds = very close. Keep in mind that you should be in a safe place while counting.

Can thunder wake you up? ›

The loud thunder can jolt you right out of bed! Bright lightning striking at night is enough to wake you up, too. For those with Sleep Apnea, the danger is even more severe.

What lightning smells like? ›

“It smelled like something inorganic burning, like wires or plastic.” Others have compared the odor to chlorine, cleaning supplies or, unsurprisingly, electrical sparks. Odds are, you've smelled lightning-produced ozone before.

Can you use umbrella in lightning? ›

Thunderstorms are electrically charged. Umbrellas mostly contain metal parts which are good conductors of electricity. The electric charge form thunderstorm can move into the umbrella and cause harm to the person carrying it. Therefore, it is nor safe carrying an umbrella during a thunderstorm.

Should you take a bath during a lightning storm? ›

No. Lightning can travel through plumbing. It is best to avoid all water during a thunderstorm. Do not shower, bathe, wash dishes, or wash your hands.

How do I make my house lightning proof? ›

4 Ways To Protect Your Home From Lightning
  1. Use a home lightning protection system‍ ...
  2. Unplug electronics and appliance. ...
  3. Install transient voltage surge suppressors‍ ...
  4. Check your homeowners and renters insurance coverage‍

Is a car the safest place to be during lightning? ›

Cars are safe from lightning because of the metal cage surrounding the people inside the vehicle. This may sound counter-intuitive because metal is a good conductor of electricity, but the metal cage of a car directs the lightning charge around the vehicle occupants and safely into the ground.

What happens if lightning hits your house? ›

Reaching up to 50,000° F, lightning bolts are so hot that they can heat your home's roof, shingles, and attic enough to cause a major fire. A direct hit can even punch right through your shingles and into the attic beneath, causing damage to the electrical systems, insulation, and more.

What happens when lightning hits a plane? ›

If a plane is struck by lightning, the pilots check all the systems to ensure everything is functioning. If a serious issue is detected, the aircraft will divert to land at the nearest airport. A less severe strike may see the plane returning to its origin or continuing onto its destination, depending on the severity.

Can lightning go through walls? ›

Once in a structure, lightning can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio/television reception systems. Lightning can also travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring..

What did ancient people think of lightning? ›

Since lightning was a manifestation of the gods, any spot struck by lightning was regarded as sacred. Greek and Roman temples often were erected at these sites, where the gods were worshipped in an attempt to appease them. The Moslems also attributed lightning and thunder to their god.

What is the first rule of lightning safety? ›

Seek shelter immediately. Stay away from tall structures, such as telephone poles and trees; lightning tends to strike the tallest object around.

How far away can lightning hit you? ›

Lightning can travel 10 to 12 miles from a thunderstorm. This is often farther than the sound of thunder travels. That means that if you can hear thunder you are close enough to a storm to be in danger of being struck by lightning.

How do you avoid getting struck by lightning? ›

Thunderstorms: How to protect yourself from lightning
  1. Find a sturdy building or get inside a car or truck. ...
  2. Avoid utility poles, barbed wire fences, convertibles, tractors, and motorcycles.
  3. Look for a thick patch of small trees. ...
  4. Don't lie flat. ...
  5. If you're swimming or boating, get to dry land and find a shelter fast.
31 Mar 2022

Why is it safe to be inside a bus than standing under a tree during lightning? ›

A car or a bus is safe during lightning because the lightning will travel around the surface of the vehicle and then go to ground. The metallic frame of the car, being a good conductor, would direct the current around the objects and discharge it safely to the ground while shielding the objects inside the car.

Is a car like a Faraday cage? ›

In fact, your car is an everyday example of a Faraday cage, which is why, despite what you may have heard about rubber tires, it's actually the closed, metal chassis surrounding you that keeps you safe. It channels lightning round rather than through you.

Should you sit in a car in a thunderstorm? ›

If you are caught out in thunder and lightning it is advised that you wind up the windows and stay inside your car. This is because in the vast majority of cars with a metal roof and frame, the frame will act as a conductive Faraday cage, passing the current around the passengers inside and on to the ground.

Has anyone survived a lightning strike? ›

Of every 10 people struck, nine will survive. But they could suffer a variety of short- and long-term effects: cardiac arrest, confusion, seizures, dizziness, muscle aches, deafness, headaches, memory deficits, distractibility, personality changes and chronic pain, among others.

Can you survive a lightning strike in a car? ›

Like trees, houses, and people, anything outside is at risk of being struck by lightning when thunderstorms are in the area, including cars. The good news though is that the outer metal shell of hard-topped metal vehicles does provide protection to those inside a vehicle with the windows closed.

What does getting hit by lightning feel like? ›

"It felt like you'd actually been walloped by something, or you were inside a bass speaker." As the bolt struck, there was a millisecond flash of intense, burning heat, that had already dissipated by the time his brain could even register it.

How close can lightning strike without hurting you? ›

WHAT WE FOUND. Greg Schoor with the National Weather Service says in some instances lightning can strike even 60 miles away from the storm, and if it hits just 100 feet away, you can still feel the effects from it.

Is lightning strike painful? ›

A jolting, excruciating pain. “My whole body was just stopped—I couldn't move any more,” Justin recalls. “The pain was … I can't explain the pain except to say if you've ever put your finger in a light socket as a kid, multiply that feeling by a gazillion throughout your entire body.

Who gets struck by lightning the most? ›

Roy Cleveland Sullivan (February 7, 1912 – September 28, 1983) was an American park ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Between 1942 and 1977, Sullivan was claimed to have been hit by lightning on seven occasions, surviving all of them.

What state has the most lightning? ›

The state with the highest count of lightning in the United States in 2021 was Texas, amounting to a sum of 41,914,516 lightning events recorded. Texas always has higher lightning count than any other state, partly due to its size and location.

Are planes safe from lightning? ›

Modern aircraft are designed to be able to withstand lightning strikes. So a plane in a thunderstorm can get hit by lightning without suffering any serious damage.

Are houses lightning proof? ›

It's not possible to prevent homes from being struck by lighting. Also, it's important to understand that lightning rods are one component of a more complete lightning protection system.

Can I use the toilet during a thunderstorm? ›

No. Lightning can travel through plumbing. It is best to avoid all water during a thunderstorm.

How do you know if you're about to be struck by lightning? ›

Here's what you need to know.
  • You See Tall, Bright White Clouds. ...
  • You Can Hear the Thunder Approaching. ...
  • You See Your Hair Standing on End or Feel Tingling. ...
  • You Taste Something Metallic. ...
  • You Smell the Scent of Ozone in the Air. ...
  • You Start to Get Dizzy or Sweat. ...
  • You Can Hear Vibrating, Buzzing, or Crackling.
29 Aug 2018

How likely is it to survive a lightning strike? ›

Only about 10% of people who are struck by lightning are killed, leaving 90% with various degrees of disability. More recently, in the last 10 years (2009-2018), the U.S. has averaged 27 lightning fatalities.

What people look like after they get struck by lightning? ›

Blood vessels bursting from the electric discharge and heat might create something called a Lichtenberg figure on your skin. This is a pattern of scars that branches out across your body like the limbs of a tree, likely tracing the path the electricity took as it travelled through you.

Do umbrellas attract lightning? ›

John Farley. The answer: No. Lightning occurs when the difference in charge between the cloud and the ground becomes so great that a conductive channel of air develops.

What happens if lightning hits the ocean? ›

Lightning doesn't strike the ocean as much as land, but when it does,it spreads out over the water, which acts as a conductor. It can hit boats that are nearby, and electrocute fish that are near the surface. If you're at the beach and hear thunder or see lightning, get out of the water.

How do you escape from lightning? ›

Protect Yourself from Lightning Strikes
  1. Immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges, or peaks.
  2. Never lie flat on the ground. ...
  3. Never shelter under an isolated tree.
  4. Never use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter.
  5. Immediately get out of and away from ponds, lakes, and other bodies of water.

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