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Thunderstorm Safety While on the Trail

Categories: Hiking Tips & Tutorials, Safety


What would you do if you were caught in a thunderstorm while out on the Trail? Last week, thunderstorms rolled through the northern portion of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula wreaking havoc on forests and trails. A couple of our hikers were making their way back to their vehicle in the Fife Lake area and were caught in 3 separate storms:

On Sunday we hiked back to the Jeep through 3 thunderstorms, all included heavy rain and lightning. It cleared up in between the first two storms, but the last kept going beyond when we finished. The wind was extreme, and we were pelted with hail the size of peas and marbles. We huddled under the biggest, strongest tree we could find, a huge white pine. The pine stood tall during the storm while all the other trees bent over from the strong winds.
–Hiker, in Michigan

We were so glad to hear they made it out safely!

You know to always to check the weather before heading out on a hike, but as all who live in the Great Lakes region know, “If you don’t like the weather, check back in five minutes; it will change!” Storms can unleash their fury seemingly out of nowhere.

Knowing what to do when a storm strikes can be life-saving.

Follow these tips on thunderstorm safety:

photo courtesy of Peter Zelinka
photo courtesy of Peter Zelinka

Become familiar with signs of a developing storm.

  • Large buildups of Cumulonimbus clouds (“cotton ball” clouds, especially those with dark coloration, and flattened or “anvil” shaped tops) are signs of a potential thunderstorm.
  • A sudden reversal in wind direction, a noticeable rise in wind speed, and a sharp drop in temperature may note the mature stage of a storm.

Heavy rain, hail and lightning can occur in the mature stage of a thunderstorm. During a storm, use the following guidelines:

  • Do not lie down
  • The best position is sitting on a day pack (only those without metal frames or components) or crouching with feet close together

Avoid sitting directly on the ground, if possible; but, if necessary, keep feet and buttocks close together.

Avoid grouping together—keep a minimum of 15 feet between people when possible.

Cell phones or hand held radios (with short rubber antennas) are safe to use. Do not use phones or radios with elevated antennas.

Wide, open spaces are better places to shelter than trees or near clumps of trees.

Ridge tops or other high places should be avoided.

If you feel the hair on your arms or head “stand up,” there is a high probability of a lightning strike in the vicinity. Crouch or sit on a day-pack (without metal frame).

Put down all tools, and distance yourself from them if possible.

Take shelter in vehicles whenever possible.

Information provided by the National Park Service Tailgate safety series.

*Special thanks to Peter Zelinka for the photos in this post. Be sure to check out his site and blog for more beautiful nature photography, often taken on or near the North Country Trail.

Have you ever been caught in a storm while on the trail? What did you do? Share your story in the comments below.