5 Lightning Safety Tips in Case You’re Caught in a Storm | The Survival Doctorby James Hubbard, MD, MPH

You’re out on a hike or doing yard work, and you hear thunder. No rain yet, not even any lightning seen. What do you do?

In this post I give some lightning safety tips I’ve learned over the years—some I’ll bet you didn’t know. (For example, did you know you can get struck by lightning even if the skies are clear?)

I’ve seen several patients who have been struck by lightning, and all have survived. They usually didn’t have large burns and didn’t remember the flash—just an odd smell that usually began immediately before the strike.

And most people struck by do lightning survive. Each year several hundred get struck across the United States and many thousand worldwide. Only about 10 percent die.

But many survivors develop long-term problems such as loss of short-term memory, trouble thinking or concentrating, dizziness, headaches, irritability, depression, chronic pain, 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.

How Close Is It?

If you want to know the distance of miles you are from a lightning strike, count the number of seconds between lightning and thunder and divide by 5.

The reasoning is that light travels at 386,000 miles per second, so for all intents and purposes, we see the light instantaneously—as soon as it strikes. Sound, on the other hand, travels much slower—around one-fifth of a mile per second.

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“[Seconds between lightning & thunder] ÷ 5 = how far away lightning is”

Now, here are the lightning safety tips I promised.

  1. You can get struck even if your skies are blue. Lightning can do more than travel just up and down. Some travels sideways for up to 10, even 20 miles or more before it comes down and strikes—essentially appearing as if it’s striking out of the clear blue sky. Since 10 miles is about maximum distance you can hear thunder, you can do the math.
  2. But there is a formula. The 30/30 rule can keep you away from about 80 percent of strikes. The rule reminds you to go inside when the time between the lightning and thunder is 30 seconds or less (that calculates out to about 6 miles away) and stay in for 30 minutes after the cloud passes.
  3. Now’s not the time for a phone chat. By far, the safest place to be in a lightning storm is inside a house, with the usual plumbing and wiring fixtures that will help with grounding. But stay away from those fixtures, and large windows. Even a being on landline telephone is not safe.
  4. In the car, keep your hands to yourself. The rubber tires on a car along with the surrounding metal (you need a metal roof) make it a relatively safe place from the lightning. Keep the windows rolled up, and don’t touch any of the metal interior.
  5. CPR is more likely to work on lightning-strike victims than heart-attack victims. About 10 percent of people struck by lightning die, but some of those can be saved. The lightning strike stops their heart. If you see someone get struck and then have no signs of life, immediately start chest compressions. If you’re in a public area that has an automatic external debrillator (AED) nearby, get it right away.
So What If You’re Caught Outside?

If you’re not sure of the safest place to be when you’re caught outside during a thunderstorm, you’re not alone. The experts don’t know where that is either. In fact, other than inside a car or house, there’s really no safe place.

We do know that you don’t want to be:

      • Near a metal pole or metal structure.
      • On a boat or in a clearing. Lightning likes to strike the tallest thing around.
      • Near the tallest tree. If lightning strikes a tree, it travels down it and tends to come out sideways, right where you’ll be standing.

Even under a rock ledge or a lean-to shack is not safe.

That only leaves crouching in a thicket of smaller trees, but many have even doubted the value or wisdom of doing that. Some advise just continuing to walk, hoping if you get struck you’ll only have one foot on the ground and that will ease the damage from the strike. Also, if you’re in a group, consider spreading out so if there’s a strike, some of you will likely be unaffected and can tend to the injured.

I know, none of this is reassuring, but they’re the facts.


What about you? Have you ever had any close calls?


Photo: Flickr/RPatts