Survive This!: When Lightning Strikes

Follow these simple steps to keep your guys safe during a thunderstorm.

EMERGENCY SITUATION: You’re camping in the woods, and you hear ominous rumbles of thunder in the distance. Then you see flashes of lightning. What should you do?

SOLUTION: First, for a number of reasons, forget the old trick about counting the seconds between rumbles. Lightning can occur on both the leading and trailing edges of a thunderstorm, so even a storm that’s passed or seems far away may present a danger. Instead, follow this accurate rule of thumb: If you can hear thunder, lightning is a danger. Second, lightning can occur when the skies directly above are clear, so your distance from the actual thundercloud may not provide protection.

Next, understand the dangers you face. Thunderstorms present three separate but related hazards to campers. The first is obvious: The danger of being struck by lightning. Electrocution by lightning strike, though uncommon, does happen, and deaths do occur. The other two dangers, however, may not be as apparent: flash floods and wind.

Each year in the United States, more deaths occur from flash floods than from any other hazard related to a thunderstorm, including lightning strikes. This doesn’t mean that lightning isn’t deadly. But it does mean you need to be acutely aware of your location during a storm—and not simply to avoid being struck by lightning.

Here’s what to do:

1. Survey your surroundings. The safest location is a nearby building or vehicle. Remember: “When thunder roars, go indoors.” If you can get to shelter, do so quickly. The building must have four sides and a roof. Don’t consider a carport, lean-to, or dugout a safe shelter. The car should not be a convertible or golf cart.

2. Act fast if no shelter is nearby. Because campsites are typically in the woods, get out of your tent immediately. It offers zero protection, and you never want to be near tall trees in a thunderstorm. If your tent is pitched in a depression, gully, wash, dry creek, or riverbed, you risk being swept away by floodwaters. Further, strong winds may bring down tree limbs.

3. Move away from others. Separation should be at least 15 feet. This decreases the chance that a charge will jump between people.

4. Run to a safer area. If you are in a forest and getting out isn’t possible, move to a stand of lower trees. If you can make it to open ground, seek a hilly area, but avoid the uppermost elevations. Instead, choose the base of a lower hill, while still avoiding a wash or riverbed.

5. Avoid standing up. Should you crouch down, hands and balls of feet on the ground—the so-called “safe” position during a lightning storm? Recent research indicates that a “safe” position during a thunderstorm doesn’t exist. Also, it’s best to avoid holding up an umbrella, golf club, or lightning rod. Wait 30 minutes after you hear the last rumble of thunder before heading back to camp.


  • The majority of people killed by lightning were outside.
  • Have a storm plan. Since most storms occur in warmer months and thus coincide with outdoor activities, there’s no excuse not to have a clear evacuation plan.
  • Make sure at least one adult on each trip has taken the BSA’s online “Weather Smart” training. Not only is it a good idea—it’s required.

Josh Piven is the co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Handbook series. Visit his Web site

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