Hiking the Appalachian Trail When a Lightning Storm Approaches: Tips on keeping safe – or at least sane.

As I prepare myself mentally for my upcoming section hike with Silver Fox and Twinkle Toes, I glance at the weather forecast in Franklin.  Oh great, thunderstorms are expected every single day, along with rain of course.  In the Army, they told us, “If it ain’t raining, we ain’t training.”  I guess that works for other times in life as well.  I believe in my one full year of section hiking that darned AT, only one time we didn’t get rained on.

This time, I really thought mid-May was going to be a nice time weather wise, but so far I have been proven wrong 95% of my trips.  So, what do I know?

I’ve learned so far that weather is not to be predicted, assumed, counted on, expected — yadda yadda.  It will be what it will be, and all one can do is be prepared mentally as much as they are prepared with their gear.

First, let’s look at statistics.

According to the NOAA, 2 or 3 people have died from lightening strikes each year since 2015 (that’s as far back as I looked) in North Carolina.  All but one were in open outdoor areas.  While that makes me feel a little better statistic wise, I still hate not knowing how severe a storm may get, so the anticipation is something I must cope with on my own.  There are choices:  Worry now and deal with it at that time, or Don’t worry now and deal with it at that time.  Ok, I choose A.  Just kidding, B.

While doing research on this, every single site had the same information regarding lightning safety.  There were a few variations on whether or not your sleep pad would keep you safer from currents running along the ground, but when your options become limited, use as many as you can.

1.  Get off the trail if possible.  This is the best thing you can do if you see/hear a lightning storm approaching.  Find a shuttle driver, or park restroom, or all you can eat buffet
Unfortunately, this is not an option for all hikers so below are some “other” options to use if you are deep in the mountains and get caught in lightning.  Remember, whatever is going to happen is going to happen and you don’t have control over where lightning is going to hit or how bad the storm gets.  Do what you can, and stay calm.  Stress and worry are not only painful to the psyche, they can cause one to panic and make poor decisions on the trail and since you really don’t have control over the weather, worry about what you can control.  Mental preparedness will help you handle just about any situation you find yourself in out there.
2.  Get to lower elevations and areas where trees are shorter.  You don’t want to set up tent in an open area, but you also don’t want to be under the tallest trees in the area.
3.  Avoid rock overhangs or cave entrances.  Rocks are good lightning conductors.
4.  Put your hiking poles in your pack or 100 ft away from you.  While your tent is not exactly the safety zone, most of us take our chances inside our tent and out of the storm.
5.  Don’t hide under a picnic table.  I hate this rule because that’s the first thing I’d want to do if I happen to be near one in a lightening storm.  I’m guessing there is a lot of metal in the structure and the bolts, etc.
6.  Don’t go running naked across an open field, waving your trekking poles in the air.  Bummer.
7.  Whether you are inside or outside your tent, don’t count on your sleep pad for safety, just comfort.  It’s best to squat down into a ball and sit on the balls of your feet (keep them inside your shoes).  This minimizes the amount of contact you have with the ground.  Also, keeping your arms and legs close reduces burn and damage if you are struck.
8.  While I always insist on parking my tent right up next to my hiking buddies when I am scared on the trail (night time still gets to me), it is smarter for everyone to distance themselves from each other so that if it does strike one person, the others in the group have a chance for less of an impact.  This is beneficial to increase the chances that one person is able to help others and get to help.  Lightning strike doesn’t mean death, but not getting the medical attention one needs does.
9.  Keep an eye out for areas that might attract flash flooding.  If you are heading down a mountain, try to find your shelter in a level part, and stay alert.  Rocky paths at an incline become river beds of rapidly moving water.  During my first lightening storm ever (on the A.T.), I camped at the bottom of a slope.  So much water rushed down that slope I could not keep it from coming inside.  Talk about a mess!
10.  You can touch someone after they’ve been struck.  You won’t get shocked.  Check for burns.
Click here to get more information from the NOAA
or copy/paste –>  https://www.weather.gov/safety/lightning

I hope this offered something useful as you plan your next AT (or other) hike.   Storms can cause stress while hiking, so plan ahead mentally.  You are already in a surrounding outside of your normal lifestyle, where you are constantly having to watch your footing, while avoiding things that can eat, strike, or sting you — and cause Lyme disease.  Not to mention you are probably hungry.  Plan to be at your shelter spot before 2pm, as storms tend to roll in in the afternoons.    Some resources I read said to avoid the lean-to’s on the trail, while others said get inside them.  Do your own research, and make your plan ahead of time so that you at least reduce some bit of stress and anxiety if possible.  We can’t control everything and everything I plan on the trail usually takes a different turn when I get there, but being prepared to not be in control has always worked for me.
Stay stinky!!

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