Tornadoes and hurricanes make most of the headlines for weather-related disasters.
But here’s the shocking news: The deadliest weather event is lightning.
Summer arrived this week along with reports from the U.S. Weather Service that at least four people have died this year from lightning strikes in the United States. The annual average is 54.
Hundreds more are permanently injured each year after being hit by lightning or from near-misses.
Lightning occurs year-round, but it’s more frequent during summer, when anglers, hikers, campers, bikers, climbers and other outdoor recreationists are in their peak season.
The safest places in a lightning storm are indoors or in a hard-topped vehicle.
Most people can easily reach those sanctuaries for the short duration of a thunderstorm.
But those options aren’t available during many backcountry adventures.
Climbers are perhaps the most exposed to danger when a thunderstorm moves, putting increased emphasis on the timing of their ascents. Climbing is ripe with good reasons to get up early and get down early.
Incidentally, metal climbing gear and wet ropes are excellent conductors. Get away from them in a storm.
People also are vulnerable in the lowlands, in a boat on a lake or walking on a golf course – especially when they make the mistake of taking shelter under a tall tree.
Weather reports are useful for avoiding danger any time of year. Involve them in your daily route planning whenever possible. If thunderstorms are predicted for the afternoon, get up earlier so you can be within easy reach of safety when thunderheads develop.
But don’t turn on a radio outdoors DURING a thunderstorm.
In the field, your own resources and knowledge must be used to minimize risk.
First thing to remember: If you hear thunder, you’re within striking distance.
Waste no time getting off summits or exposed ridges and away from water.
Take shelter, but not under big trees or rock ledges.
The taller an object is relative to its immediate surroundings, the more likely it is to be struck by lightning.
Any tree can be a conductor, although hunkering in a grove of small trees or under a blowdown would be a bit safer than being around taller trees in the area.
Similarly, campsites should not be in an open field, on the top of a hill or ridge or under or near tall, isolated trees.
Keep this in mind: Rain will not kill you, but lightning can.
If caught out in an electrical storm, seek the lowest point in the area, crouch down making minimal contact with the ground and wait for the boomer to pass. Remove metal framed packs and ditch the trekking poles.
A foam sleeping pad will NOT insulate you from lightning that strikes the ground, Weather Service experts say.
I’ve sat out numerous thunderstorms in the lee of a blowdown or something like that wrapped in my tent rain fly for protection from the wind and rain.
Spread at least 15 feet apart from other members of your group so a lightning strike to the area won’t travel between you. Even at that distance, you can still communicate and keep your spirits up during the storm.
Dip into your repertoire of weather jokes:
How do you describe camper sex during a thunderstorm? Intents.
Experts emphasize that sitting or crouching on the ground reduces exposure to lighting, but it’s NOT safe and should be a last resort if an enclosed building or vehicle is not available.
Given all that, every outdoorsman I know has memorable “flashbacks” of being somewhere remote and almost but not quite safe during a thunderstorm.
I recall a backpacking trek in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Montana on which I could almost set my watch by the daily 4 p.m. thunderstorm.
My hiking partner and I would climb high from base camp in the cool mornings, scout a different basin of lakes each day while fishing for cutthroat trout.
By 3 p.m., when the daily thunderheads were billowing into the Big Sky, we were beginning our descent. Our pockets were filled with threadbare flies ravaged by trout. But as the clouds transitioned from plumes of white to dark curtains of doom, we picked up the pace and trotted into camp with the first claps of thunder.
Our campsite was among a scattering of large rocks and small trees away from the taller trees and ledges.
As the rain scratched at the tent, my friend and I watched gape-jawed while the storm rumbled in.
Rifle shots of thunder ricocheted off the surrounding cliffs. Lightning scorched the rock and streaked through the sky in shades ranging from blue and white to pink and orange.
A good book wasn’t necessary for those storm-bound evenings.
We had a hot seat close to the action, like sitting inside a light bulb while a little kid fiddled with the switch.