Storms and Thunderstorms: Preparation, Safety and Action

At the beginning of July, my cousin and I took a hiking and biking trip into the Howgills; I cannot ride a bike and, right now, his knee means he cannot hike, so instead we arranged a site to meet at and camp each evening and arranged our own, different routes there. It worked awesome…except that the weekend was fraught with thunderstorm warnings.

This lead to me, on the first day, after climbing up to The Calf, smugly snapping the trig point and continuing along the ridge, having an uncomfortable realisation. Unusually, for a five foot one mini person, I was now the highest object in the whole damn area and if those storms rolled in prematurely, height would not be a good look on me. After about half an hour of, falsely, feeling that fizz in the air that occurs pre-storm I realised I was going to continue having the yips until I got down from my lofty perch and down into the valley. Which is what I did. No thunderstorms occurred that day, though the next day and night was a very different story.

Lightning hits on people in the British outdoors are relatively rare; an analysis by Derek M Elsom and Jonathon D.C. Webb found that in the last thirty years there have been 58 lightning related deaths with 72% of those occurring to those engaging in outdoor sports, recreation and leisure. Non-fatal injuries relating to lightning strikes were around 14 times higher.

For perspective, 21 people died getting out of the bath in the UK in 2017.

These numbers are substantially lower than the number of callouts and deaths Mountain Rescue has for accidents and exposure each year; so why are lightning storms just so much scarier a concept to us that breaking a leg, or freezing to our core?

It could simply be that accidents and exposure feels a lot more within our control – we are ultimately to a great extent responsible for those situations and can plan our attire and first aid accordingly. They also have an allusion of ‘time’ attached to them – there is time, when realising that you are hurt or beyond your resources, to summon help or to make ourselves less vulnerable – meanwhile our idea of lightning is a sudden strike out of nowhere we are helpless to avoid.

Whilst we are not helpless to avoid it, the regularly changing advice on what to do in a thunderstorm has not helped inspire us with confidence that it is a situation that can be planned for and managed. When I was first learning about thunderstorm safety way, way back in my Brownie pack sometime in the mid nineties, we were told to avoid trees in case they were hit and fell on us, whilst a First Aid course I took perhaps ten years later strongly emphasised keeping to the trees, since being exposed made you more of a target yourself. The latest First Aid course I took said to get in the treeline if higher ground was exposed to prevent being the bullseye. And speaking of making yourself a target, what about your trekking pole? Do you chuck it or keep it? Or if you’re sleeping in your metal framed tent? What then? Collapse it and faux-bivvy in your sleeping bag and loose rainfly whilst scattering the poles far away? Oh God, what if you’re in an actual bivvy? What then?

Before You Head Out

From MWIS

Forecast

The vast majority of thunderstorm related incidents occur in the four months between May and August but, whatever the time of year, it is better to be prepared.

Check the forecast; myself and many hikers I know use the Dark Skies app. If heading to the hills, the Mountain Weather Information Service will give you much more location specific and detailed forecasts. Their meteorological information is obtained separately from the Met office with the intention for it to be viewed by those adventuring outside. Their site also offers an avalanche forecast for Scotland.

If you hike, climb or backpack a lot throughout the year in the more elevated or exposed areas of the UK, you might want to consider one of their Weather Training Days (currently on hold – thanks Covid!)

MWIS is available as an app, they also have a social media presence (though the app is infinitely more useful than twitter)

MWIS does not declare a point at which you should or should not venture out; it is up to you to determine your own ability, knowledge, experience and what risk you are willing to take.

Schmerber ratings from Absolute Snow

Clothing and Shelter

It is important to make sure your clothing can withstand the rain; not all waterproof jackets are created equal and there’s few things more absolutely miserable (and, in winter, frankly dangerous) than being wet through on an entirely wet weekend with no opportunity to dry out.

Waterproofing in clothes is measured in millimetres using a hydrostatic head test. This test measures how much water the tautly pulled fabric can withstand over 24 hours when added in a sealed column. A 1500mm rating therefore will have had a metre and a half of water added to the column before it soaks through. Now, this does not translate directly to the outdoors; rain does not fall in nice measurably columns, but it does give an indication of not only how much water, but how much forceful water the fabric can take before it leaks.

For intentionally or regularly going out in moderate to heavy rain, you’re really wanting a jacket that measures at 5,000-10,000mm. This lovely, dry, warm, probably not the cheapish jacket will be half arsed without overtrousers (oh those sexy things) or trousers that are insanely waterproof to begin with. I don’t know about you, but if my overtrousers are not a kind that can be pulled on over my boots, I’m probably not wearing them; get them with added glamourous velcro sides or wide elasticated ankles. Just to complete the look, throw in some gaiters because wet socks and wet shoes are the worst and if its a winter storm, those soggy shoes are just going to freeze on the inside overnight.

Protect your backpack both with a raincover; one is usually provided with the bag found in a tiny, hidden pocket underneath but you can buy some absolutely hench ones if storms are just your jam. For added protection, the contents can be placed in one of those heavy duty bin liners on the inside.

The same logic is not necessarily applicable to tents. It isn’t all that common to be able to buy a lightweight or ultralight backpacking tent that measures waterproofing above 2000mm on the fly and 3000mm on the ground and, for the most part, this is fine. The quality of the rest of the design and your pitch will see you through the occasional heavy storms (no pop up tent you last used at Glasto 2016 please). Your clothing is constantly rubbing against your body and being moved around and therefore more susceptible to aggravating a leak than a static tent, requiring a higher rating (this is why groundsheets tend to be double that of flys as well – they have to withstand more abrasion).

There is also the situation where there is more desire for quality ultralight and lightweight designs and if the manufacturers were to add more waterproofing the structure would become heavier, more rigid and more susceptible to tearing. However, if storms are just your thing (or you’re regularly unlucky), you might have to be prepared to have the waterproofing reapplied more regularly, or be prepared to invest in a heavier tent.

Where tents see less abrasion than clothes, tarps see even less abrasion than tents as they do not have a floor or all those multiple layers and numerous seams to contend with. Therefore the rating on tarps can be even lower, regularly being extremely durable at 650mm. Tarpers and hammockers that use tarps should feel secure under heavy rain at even this seemingly low measurement.

Bivvies, meanwhile, are subject to pretty much the same abrasion as a groundsheet and clothes combined. Unless you are a hardcore mountain climber, I don’t think most people are choosing a bivvy for potentially stormy excursions but nonetheless, it seems to be recommended that the waterproofing on a bivvy should really not be below 10,000mm with attention on the zips and around the head. Good luck little sausages.

Recognise The Weather

Early cumulonimbus structures

It’s all very well being warned of a storm, but it helps if you can recognise when one is building.

Gathering cumulonimbus clouds are a classic sign of a brewing storm. These are the clouds that appear flatter on the bottom that gather height into an anvil, or mushroom, shape. Requiring both heat and moisture to form, they appear closer to the earth than other clouds, and lightning is formed in their centre from ionised particles.

As they start to gain height, do not be reassured by any nearby classically fluffy cumulo clouds – it is normal for these to appear near storms. Do not wait for the clouds to tower, ensure your safety before then.

Imminent storms can be sensed by a raising of the hair on your arms or your neck and a fizz in the air. Act immediately and get to lower ground. If your metal poles or crampons are already starting to buzz or even glow, a strike is imminent. Chuck ’em and run.

Thunderstorms Whilst Hiking (advice as of July 2021)

By far and away, for obvious reasons, the mountains and hills are the most vulnerable places for hikers to be in a thunderstorm. It comes as no surprise then that the information I quote is from the British Mountaineering Council and Mountaineering Scotland.

Whilst the classic mathematics for working out the distance of a storm from yourself is useful for assessing whether it is moving towards or away from you, be aware that once you hear thunder, you are already in the strike zone. Even when you stop hearing the thunder, it will be at least thirty minutes before your coast is completely clear. So whilst the advice is typically for when a storm is pretty much overhead, don’t be too laid back about it.

  • Lightning takes the shortest route to earth, do not be part of that route; get down off high ground immediately at the earliest safe opportunity.
  • Once at a lower level, make yourself small and round; sit on your backpack with your knees pulled to your chest. Ideally squat on top of your water bladder/hydration pack or sleeping pad (to insulate from ground shock), with your head between your legs – though this may be difficult to maintain. If taking the former position and start to feel your hair rising, adopt the squat position immediately. You want to have as little contact with the ground as possible – do NOT lie down.
  • Yes, you absolutely want to throw your trekking poles far, far away from you. Along with any crampons or climbing hardware. Especially if they start to ‘buzz’ or glow. Just chuck your whole backpack, uncrampon your shoes, and discard everything but yourself, your pad and the clothes you are wearing to a safe distance (seriously, wear clothes, don’t give yourself hypothermia as well).
  • Do not: Shelter in a cave, under an overhang, or beneath a tree. Lightning can and will bridge the gap between your shelter and yourself. (This is in contrast to US recommendations that advise sheltering in a cave or beneath trees; see I told you it was a debated subject)
  • Do not: Position yourself next to marsh, bog, peat or any body of water. Water conducts electricity.
  • If hiking with others, assume the small, round position at a distance from each other. This is both to ensure that if one is hit there is help available, it is also to lessen the chance that a hit on on person jumps to another.

Thunderstorms Whilst Camping (advice as of July 2021)

Ideally, especially if you are aware that thunderstorms are a possibility, your shelter will be already be set up appropriately.

This means low ground, but away from areas that are close to water or at risk of flooding. In regards to tents, as AlpineTrek states; it is the pitch and not the tent that will protect you. It will be pretty much impossible to start moving your tent when a storm arrives.

  • Avoid pitching in exposed areas or places close to small groups of trees; ironically camping in a forest is safer than camping in the vicinity of a tree cluster though there will always be a risk of broken branches and uprooting in extreme winds. Also avoid any dips or hollows in the ground that might become waterlogged during the course of the storm. Make sure your tent pegs are securely in, and your guy lines are taut; you may have to be prepared and bring a few extra pegs with you in high summer if, like me, you get a bit laissez faire with the benefits of a fully or semi freestanding tent.
  • If you find yourself awakened by a nearby storm, it is recommended to put your boots back on and assume an aforementioned small, round position on top of your sleeping pad. If you are in a formal campsite rather than wildcamping, shelter in the shower or kitchen block.
  • If a storm has caught you unawares and you are camped on exposed ground or ground at risk of gathering water, get out, your tent with all its poles is no longer safe. Do not try to move the tent; get away to appropriate ground and assume the safety instructions for hiking in a thunderstorm whilst the storm is passing overhead. Hopefully you have some hot chocolate to heat up afterwards because this is, for sure, a miserable interruption to your night.

You are absolutely not going to want to do any of this. I feel you, I’ve been there, but I’d be irresponsible to write this article and not give the recommended advice. I don’t think I’ve ever met a camper that chose to leave their shelter in a storm unless the storm had already ripped their shelter away. If you are going to stay in your tent, make sure you and your pad are not touching the poles, get all of yourself on top of your pad, assume the foetal position and wait it out. Earplugs are nice right now.

  • If you are in a hammock, you probably don’t need me to point out that a shelter strung between two trees is not going to be the best place to be when lightning is around. Get out, get to safer ground, assume the hiking safety instructions.
  • If you are in a bivvy well, it’s debated. On one hand you’re lying pretty directly on the ground, on the other you’re not surrounded by poles or attached to trees. There does not seem to be any formal guidance for bivvies (which is odd considering their popularity amongst mountain climbers) but there seems to be a general consensus amongst bivviers that you, once again, assume the foetal position and wait for it all to blow over.

First Aid for Lightning Strikes

From The British Heart Foundation

If the victim is someone else

So the worst has happened and lightning has struck someone, what now?

If you are hiking in a group, remember no charge remains after the strike – someone struck by lightning is not going to electrify you if you touch them.

A direct hit would carry 100 million plus volts and be hotter than the surface of the sun. It is highly likely that if your friend has been hit they are now unconscious.

  • Check for breathing, pulse and response, and administer CPR if unconscious and not breathing. If you are not confident in administering CPR, stick to chest compressions only. If you have absolutely no clue how to do CPR right now then learn before a situation arises in which you need it. If the victim is a child, then the CPR is slightly different; only one hand is used for chest compressions, and the amount of rescue breaths is halved.
  • If you are on your own with the victim, contact emergency services, If they are unconscious, do so after one round of CPR (if there are more people, someone else should already have done so). An ambulance is not going to be able to get all the way up to Pen Y Fan, so you’ll probably be ringing Mountain Rescue. You get through to Mountain Rescue (an entirely voluntary emergency service) by first calling the police on either 999 or 112, and then asking for Mountain Rescue.

999 calls will utilise any available phone network so there’s a decent chance that even if your phone says ‘no signal’ you will still get through. If the signal is intermittent, you can still contact the emergency services through text as long as you register to do so. You do this easily by sending a text saying ‘register’ to 999 and reply to the text you receive.

If you are not currently able to give Mountain Rescue a grid reference from your map, you can use the OS Locate app to get your grid reference and lat/long. what3words is also an option that can be used. Be wary with both OS Locate and what3words that your phone might be struggling to read your location if you are quite remote, and give a different one so it is best to take a few readings and make sure they are consistent. If they aren’t, read off your map.

  • It will take Mountain Rescue a while to get to you, depending on how remote your position is. Listen to their instructions and understand that if you continue CPR you could be at it for quite some time. Hopefully there is someone to switch with, or the victim becomes responsive.
  • If the victim becomes responsive, or never lost consciousness, treat for shock. Lay them down and raise their legs. Keep them warm and keep talking to them. In normal situations it is advised not to give them food or water, but you might be stuck in this situation a while and a bit of Kendal mint cake or a sweet, hot tea might work wonders. The concern is that they will choke or vomit in their state of confusion or weakness brought on by shock. If you feel that some food or liquid might be beneficial, assess for yourself whether or not the victim will be able to hold it.
  • Do not treat any burns that are covered. If you start taking off clothing, not only are you increasing any exposure risk, but you might also aggravate the burn area by tearing it. You should be able to treat any exposed burns through what you have available in your first aid kit. The victim will likely not feel any pain at this early point due to both shock and adrenaline, but nonetheless keep any painkillers on hand for if they do.

If you are alone

Sorry chaps, there doesn’t seem to be much official direction for what to do if you are alone and are the victim of the strike. I guess we hope that you are so well versed in the first aid for others by the point that happens that, should you be conscious, you can carry out those instructions on yourself. Treat yourself for shock and for any exposed burns, contact help, if you have one of those fancy GPS thingamies that send out an alert signal use it. Keep yourself awake and warm. Even if you feel fine and somehow manage to walk out, get medical attention as soon as possible.

Mountain Rescue is an entirely volunteer based service. If you ever require their services, the decent thing to do is to give a donation to the branch that has helped you. It doesn’t have to be a lot, and it doesn’t have to be immediate – perhaps have your next trail be one that is sponsored, and raise money that way. After all, you’re not going to let one pesky lightning strike put you off hiking are you?

Resources

Alpine Trek

British Mountaineering Council

Learn This: Laws of Lightning by Julie Ellison

Lightning deaths in the UK; A 30 year analysis of the factors contributing to people being struck and killed

Mountaineering Scotland

Mountain Weather Information Service

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