Spring has sprung, finally, after what felt like years of continuous winter. Time to dust off your walking boots, waterproof your jackets and find out which cupboard has swallowed up your backpack because the hills are calling out to be explored again. The hostile and unpredictable winter weather that renders some trails inaccessible other than to fools and their rescuers, become much more friendly and welcoming in milder weather conditions. Until you are halfway through a long mountain trek and the fog rolls in, or worse still, you realise that a thunderstorm is heading your way.
Even seemingly perfect summer days in the UK can quickly change into violent thunderstorms, with their unpredictable nature meaning that they are often not picked up by the weather reports. In July 2015, two walkers in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, were killed by sudden, unpredicted lightning strikes that were not preceded by thunder. Unusually, the two men were not standing together, but were standing on different peaks opposite each other.
Around 50 people a year in the UK get struck by lightning, with approximately 3 of those killed. Most deaths occur in people who are participating in outdoor activities; hiking, fishing and camping. Getting caught out in the open when the lightning starts striking is extremely dangerous and part of your hiking preparation should be to have a plan in place if this situation occurs.
Beware, Storm Approaching:
Know the signs of a storm forming and approaching. Waiting until the thunder and lightning is almost above you before you do anything leaves you a sitting duck. You should be checking the sky and clouds regularly as you walk. Suddenly darkening clouds gathering height, increasing wind and changes in the air temperature may signify a gathering storm. Hearing thunder is a sure sign, by this point you really should already be sheltering, even if it still sounds distant.
Seek Immediate Shelter…
The safest place to be in a storm is indoors or in a car. But if you have hiked several miles into remote mountain tracks you probably don’t have a building or vehicle handy. When you plan your route and as you travel, make sure you look around for anything that can offer protection; valleys, walls, depressions in the ground. If possible, move down from high ground, especially peaks, and get away from flat, open land like beaches. You do not want to be the tallest thing around. But definitely do not head for the tallest thing around either.
…But Don’t Shelter Under the Tallest Thing.
You really should know by now not to try and shelter under that lone tree. The reason is because lightning can travel down and jump across to something nearby or it can travel down and radiate out when it hits the ground. Either way, it’s a big risk and not just for trees – for the same reasons you don’t want to be near the tallest rock/landmark/wall. If lightning starts when you are in a wooded area, try and move away from the taller trees into areas with much shorter growth.
Crouch, but don’t lie down, you could potentially put yourself more at risk of currents passing through the ground. Keep your feet together, hands low and head tucked in to make yourself as small a target as possible. If travelling in a group, spread out enough so that if someone did get hit by lightning, the rest would be unaffected and able to help.
Wait for the Storm to Pass.
Most thunderstorms will last between 30 minutes and 90 minutes. Stay sheltered until at least 30 minutes have passed since the last thunderclap and lightning flash. By which point the torrential rain and hail should have subsided as well.