This column appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette. To syndicate the national version, contact DrHubbard [at] TheSurvivalDoctor [dot] com.
You’re hiking in the woods when a thunderstorm crops up. As a knowledgeable outdoorsy person, you recognize it’s time to seek shelter from possible lightning. But there are all those trees. OK, get away from them. Wait … but then you’ll be exposed. What to do?
There’s got to be a better option than “hope for the best.” And in Colorado Springs, we’d better know what it is. Colorado has the dubious distinction of being a top state for lightning strikes to people. But the news gets worse: Colorado Springs has the most strikes to people in our state.
According to the National Weather Service, 10 people have died and 59 have been injured by lightning in the Colorado Springs metro area since 1980. The strikes usually happen in the summer—prime time for hiking.
How Much Danger Am I In?
If you want to approximate how many miles a storm is from you, count the number of seconds between seeing lightning and hearing thunder. Divide by five.
But do that from inside a house or car if you can. Stay there until you haven’t heard any thunder for a good 30 minutes. Lightning can strike from a storm that’s 10 miles away—even further. And you can only hear thunder if a storm is within about 10 miles. Do the math.
By a large margin, lightning strikes people who are outside. But if you’re inside, that doesn’t mean it’s OK to stand near big windows, plumbing fixtures or electrical appliances during a storm.
What If You Can’t Get Inside?
If you can’t get inside, remember lightning likes to hit the tallest thing around. You don’t want to be that thing, and you don’t want to be near that thing. So your best bet is to find a clump of shorter trees that’s close to taller ones. And if you have a choice, hunker down in a valley—never on a hill.
If you feel your hair standing on end; hear hissing, high-pitched or crackling sounds; or see a blue halo around metal objects, electrical activity is building up, and lightning is imminent. Quickly leave the area if you can. Otherwise, crouch down on the balls of your feet, and keep your head down and your hands off the ground (so, if you’re struck, the electrical current won’t be as likely to pass through your whole body).
Here are some facts you might consider while you’re waiting:
- Even if the heart stops, CPR works more often after lightning strikes than after many other causes of heart stoppage, such as heart attacks. So if you’re administering CPR, don’t give up early.
- Lightning strikes kill people about 10 percent of the time, but of those who survive, many develop long-term disabilities.
- Possible long-term problems include loss of short-term memory, trouble thinking or concentrating, dizziness, headaches, irritability, depression and more. No one person will develop all these problems, but even having one or two can be quite debilitating—especially if they linger, as they tend to do.
It’s surprising, but many people struck by lightning never go to the doctor. Not a good idea. The symptoms can be delayed. Get a good check-up and follow-up to treat anything treatable. To otherwise cope with the symptoms, there are good support groups.
It’s great to be outdoors in Colorado. But heed the warnings. Don’t take foolish risks. And have a safe, lightning strike-free summer.
Colorado Springs family doctor James Hubbard teaches how to survive when you can’t get to a doctor at TheSurvivalDoctor.com, one of the most popular survival websites. Dr. Hubbard is the author of the best-selling e-books The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Wounds and The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Burns.