One of the most powerful forces of nature is lightning. Lightning strikes are common in Rocky Mountain National Park from June through September. Lightning strikes occur in the United States approximately 25 million times a year.
Before your next backcountry trip, make sure you know what to do when recreating during a thunderstorm.
How to Manage Lightning Risk in the Backcountry
There are no fully safe options that will protect you from lightning when in the backcountry. Be aware of your surroundings and know the most high risk places to be compared to the safest as possible locations in the outdoors.
On a scale of 0 (highest risk - avoid) to 10 (safest as possible), places to be aware of when a thunderstorm and lightning rolls in while you are recreating in the outdoors. Refer to the graphic above labeled "Backcountry Lightning Risk Management."
0: At the top of the tallest mountain above treeline
1: At the top of a mountain lower above treeline, located below other nearby peaks.
1: On a wide-open slope of a mountain above treeline
1: In a cave or rock shelter on the side of a mountain
1: On the windward side of a mountain where a storm is coming from
1: On open water in a boat, canoe or kayak, or sheltered near trees close to open water.
2: While descending a mountain in a gully or lower-elevation area of the mountain. (Gullies are better than ridges and open areas).
3: In ditches and lower-elevation places on a route, below treeline.
3: Below treeline and sheltered at the base of a cluster of low elevation trees, not on an exposed slope.
10 (safest option): Shelter inside a vehicle or a building. If you are near a vehicle or a building and you hear the roar of thunder, head indoors! The safest place you can be is inside a building or a metal-topped vehicle with tires.
When Backcountry Tent Camping
When tent camping in the backcountry, keep in mind that a tent has metal poles and could attract lightning.
If camping in an exposed area, get out and away from your tent and try to relocate to a grove of trees and assume the lightning position. If camping near a body of water, try to relocate to a grove of trees away from the body of water.
What to do if you cannot get to a safer location?
If you are caught outside and cannot get to a safer location, the following steps can help reduce your risk of lighting strike:
Immediately get off of elevated areas, light the tops of mountains and hills.
Never lie flat on the ground.
Reduce the surface area that is exposed by crouching down, sit or crouch on top of a backpack to reduce your direct contact with the ground. Put your hands behind your head and bend forward. This is the lightning position.
Look for and stay away from any objects that could conduct electrictiy, like fences, powerlines, windmills, poles, etc.
Never use a cliff, cave or rock overhang to shelter from the storm. Lighting can travel through the rock and strike you.
Shelter for at least 30 minutes after you hear the last sound of thunder.
Last updated: August 7, 2023
1000 US Hwy 36
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