July and August are prime hiking seasons in the San Juan Mountains, but along with the summer monsoon weather pattern, lightning becomes the major objective hazard in the backcountry. Like avalanches in winter, avoiding summer lightning takes long term and constant awareness in order to stay safe.
Lightning does tend to hit the shortest distance between the charged cloud and the ground. So, as most people know, it more often hits sharp terrain features like mountain tops and tall trees in open areas. It can still hit flat ground or lower areas, but much more randomly than isolated elevated points. Long electrical conductors, such as wire fences or wet climbing ropes, can have more contact points and can concentrate current over long distances.
A lightning strike seems like a straightforward event, but really there are a variety of ways it can hurt you. Direct strikes, streamer currents, ground currents, and surface arcs can all carry enough electricity to injure or kill a person. Of course, the flash and bang of a close lightning strike can also damage a persons eyes and eardrums significantly.
So, how do we minimize the risk? First, we have to realize that there is no perfectly safe location in the backcountry during a lightning storm. All we can do is reduce the risk as much and as quickly as possible.
The best way to avoid lightning is to avoid it completely. Schedule your backcountry activities around the weather patterns. Preview the weather reports and watch the sky for storms. If you can adjust your activities around safe times, then there is no danger.
When you first hear thunder, the storm is ten miles or less from your location. That is the time to turn around or start heading toward safer terrain. The longer you wait, the worse your odds become. Stay away from peaks, ridges and high ground as you descend away from the direction of the storm. Being in the trees is generally safer, with better odds among hundreds of trees, but always avoid isolated trees and the tallest trees in the area. Without becoming isolated yourself, avoid the tree trunks which can radiate surface arcs and ground currents. Keep all of these factors in mind when placing your tent on a stormy night.
If you are caught in a very exposed location and a storm is right on top of you (1-3 seconds between flash and bang), there is always the lightning position. If you hear, smell or feel the electricity, immediately get into the lightning position. Consider this less of an option and more of a way to minimize the damage that the electricity can do to you. The lightning position is squatting down and hugging your knees with your feet close together. The theory is that this position makes you a shorter target, leaves a better path for the electricity to pass over the outside of your body, and decreases the distance a ground current passes through from one foot to another. Also spread out your group so that, hopefully, everyone is not struck by the same bolt.
If your group is unlucky enough to be struck by lightning, quick first aid is essential. Cardiac and respiratory arrest is common, but immediate CPR, especially the help with breathing, is often successful. Check carefully for burns or other trauma before evacuating a victim to a hospital.
The bottom line during lightning season is to keep an eye to the sky and always think to minimize your risks long before the odds start building against you.
Mark Winkworth is an SJMA Visitor Information Specialist. SJMA is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) dedicated to public land stewardship and education. SJMA partners with the San Juan National Forest, BLM Tres Rios Field Office and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, BLM, in addition to other organizations in SW Colorado.