If you are like me, you love being out in the woods during a storm. I've even done the John Muir/Tom Brown, Jr. thing and climbed high in a big oak tree just as a massive thunderstorm hit. Maybe not the brightest move (speaking of lightning), but quite an experience.
The raw forces of nature are humbling, to say the least. And if you camp, you’ve certainly had a similar experience huddled in your tent or under a tarp.
Knowledge always tempers fear, and it can also greatly cut your risk of injury. Knowing a little about lightning is a good thing for any outdoor enthusiast.
Lightning is caused by static electric build-up in the clouds and atmosphere. It is the exact same thing as the spark you see when you reach for the door knob after shuffling across the carpet. It’s just a bit bigger.
A lightning bolt, roughly one inch in diameter, travels around 1000 miles per second, and carries 25,000 amps of current. An average household circuit breaker trips at 20 amps, and less than one amp can kill you.
The lightning bolt heats the air in contact to 55,000 degrees F. That air instantly expands to a near vacuum. Then, in an instant, when the bolt is gone, it comes crashing back together, creating powerful sound waves called thunder.
Noise travels about a mile every 5 seconds, allowing us to judge the distance of approaching storms. After about fifteen miles the air muffles out the sound, although the flashes are still very visible. Thus the “silent” lightning we watch from a distance.
Contrary to what we hear, lightning can strike in the same place twice. There is usually a reason. The Empire State Building averages 23 strikes per year. In a city of tall buildings, it is very tall.
That is what’s important--how tall an object is relative to its surroundings. Out on a lake a person in a boat or canoe, especially waving a fishing pole, is far and away the tallest thing in the area. The same is true when you are out on a golf course, or on a hiking trail over open ground.
Taking refuge under a lone tree on a hill, then, wouldn’t make sense. But in a forest full of trees a group of short trees in a low spot would be pretty safe.
It is reported that often just before a strike the static build-up can be felt and heard. If you feel your hair starting to stand up, or hear a faint high-pitched ringing, crouch down low, keep your hands off the ground, and roll up off your heels. The less contact you have with the ground, the less grounded you are electrically. By moving to a low area away from water and tall objects, you shouldn’t ever get to that point.
CPR and basic first aid, especially for burns and shock, could be life savers. Lightning kills an average of 150 Americans a year, more than tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods combined.
Enjoy the spectacle, but keep yourself and your group as safe as possible.