Thunderstorms, at least in my opinion, are awesome. The sheer power and intensity of the rain, wind, and massive bolts of electricity that materialize in the air is one of the greatest spectacles that this planet is capable of. It’s incredible to watch.
One of the questions that comes up in most discussions I’ve had with friends and family regarding the Appalachian Trail is thunderstorms. When a storm hits in every day life and you find yourself outside, you run for shelter. Usually in a semi-panicked manner. Sometimes with a newspaper or other equally-inadequate object over your head to stave off the rain. On the trail, as with any multi-day hike, this isn’t usually an option. Instead, there are a number of things you can do to help protect yourself if you’re caught in a storm, which is going to happen if you’re hiking for six to eight months straight.
The first thing, which is pretty standard knowledge, is to stay away from anything metal. Lightning isn’t particularly attracted to metal, at least no more so than anything else, but metal is a really great conductor of electricity. This means that if a bolt of lightning hits a metal fence, and that fence goes on for miles, that bolt will travel the entire length of that fence. Think guardrails. Stay away from them if you can even hear thunder.
Another important thing to understand is that lightning tends to be attracted to the tallest object (again, pretty standard knowledge). So fields are bad. In addition, and something that is important when hiking a mountain range, trees at the summit of a tall mountain tend to be either stumpy or non-existent. This means not only are you the tallest thing on top of a mountain, but you’re also on top of mountain, putting you pretty high up in terms of tallest thing in the area. Your best option, if you can, is to descend as rapidly and as safely as you can, looking for rolling hills.
The best cover is actually rolling hills, not a wooded area as many people think. In the woods you are less likely to be directly struck, as the trees are much taller than you. However, the electricity from the bolt has been known to travel down the trunk and through the roots, spreading the strike out. This can be hazardous to anyone hiding under the trees. It’s recommended, if you find yourself in such a woods, to avoid standing right under or near the trunks of the trees.
If you do find yourself in a field or an open area of some kind, with no safe way of getting to cover, the “lightning position” is to squat down on top of a sleeping bag or mat, standing on your toes with your hands over your ears and your head between your legs. This minimizes the contact area with the ground and makes you a less appealing target. Lying flat on the ground, as may be the intuitive reflex, increases your contact surface and can make it more likely you’ll be hit when the sky dumps its electrical waste on the earth.
There is a wealth of knowledge on lightning and what to do if you find yourself in the midst of an electrical spectacle (besides standing in awe). Check out NOAA’s website on severe weather here: http://www.noaawatch.gov/themes/severe.php. Good information to have in general, but also really good information to have if your moving into the woods.
The most important thing to remember about lightning, is that is makes absurdly amazing photographs.