When lightning strikes – how to stay safe during a storm

When lightning strikes – how to stay safe during a storm post thumbnail image

Never take the signs of lightning lightly. You know why? Statistics show that in America alone, only 10% of people struck by lightning die. The rest have to live with a disability. There are always plenty of warnings and words of advice when it comes to lightning safety. One is that it is never advisable to be outside when there is a lightning storm. Why? Because there are not many safe spots outside during a lightning event.

I have landed in situations like this where I unwillingly tested this theory, and I don’t think I was ever as scared in my life. It was not on purpose and there was no advance warning, just showing how unpredictable Mother Nature can be. The second case is a different story.

The first story takes place in the Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Taryn, the editor of the SANParks Times at the time, and I was on a work trip. It was a partly cloudy afternoon. We decided to go for a leisurely hike on the Black Eagle Trail in the rest camp. This 2.5km trail meanders to the top of a rocky outcrop with spectacular views of the park. Our goal was to try and take some sunset photos, and someone suggested this viewpoint as a good vantage point.

Views from the hiking trail in the Mountain Zebra National Park.
Views from the hiking trail in the Mountain Zebra National Park.

Everything was going according to plan. We captured some beautiful images from what we thought was the highest point of the trail. Then we heard a rumble far in the distance. We initially thought it was an airplane as it was so far away. It was cloudy, but we did not think there was a danger of a lightning strike. But the situation changed as we continued walking. In fact, everything changed in a matter of minutes. We had to get off the koppie, fast! It was not just a vague grumble in the distance anymore, but an immediate and loud bolt of lightning. It was in close proximity too! We honestly did not even see it coming.

I always wondered how trail runners just run at speed in rocky environments without getting injured. To me, it doesn’t make sense to run in such conditions. I always walk slower than I have to and take the utmost care while walking down mountains, especially as I have hurt my ankle on a few occasions before. However, with the adrenalin pumping and lightning around us at this high vantage point, there weren’t many options but to run down the mountain back to the rest camp as fast as we could. Being so high up on a rocky outcrop made us the perfect targets for a lightning strike.

We ran downhill as fast as we could and probably used more foul language in that short period than we did in an entire year as the lightning intensified. Thoughts flashed through my head, from the love of my life to all the things I still wanted to do with my life. I wanted to survive.

Hiking in the Mountain Zebra National Park
Hiking in the Mountain Zebra National Park

We were extremely lucky. We made it into our chalet as another loud bolt struck, and hit something in close proximity. The rain started falling and we were just happy to be alive. Nature is not always predictable, but it is important to be safe when lightning is about.

On another occasion, I found myself on a wilderness hike in the Kruger National Park. We camped in tents in the middle of the park and a storm was approaching from afar. Early that morning, during the storm, we had to move camp due to an unsuitable location for the camp, and heavy rain causing flooding. We had to move to a higher point while lightning was striking around us. Thinking back to this, what we did was actually extremely dangerous, My adrenalin was pumping with every lightning strike. Luckily no harm was done and we were okay, but it is always better to be safe and not partake in risky activity.

Lightning should not be taken lightly. Photo by Micah Tindell Micah Tindell on Unsplash.
Lightning should not be taken lightly. Photo by Micah Tindell Micah Tindell on Unsplash.

Lightning safety tips

Knowing how to act when lightning strikes, or when a storm is approaching, can save a life. Here are a few tips that might save your life in the case of lightning or a thunderstorm, whether outside or at home.

  • When you see lightning, count to 30. If you hear the roar of thunder before you get to 30, go inside immediately. It is not safe to hide under an open tent or a tree. It is not safe to be on top of a mountain either, so move to a lower vantage point immediately.
  • If there is no shelter, crouch down as low as possible, with as little of your body touching the ground as possible. Never lie down. Lightning can travel on the ground and does not have to hit you directly to cause damage.
  • Avoid any tall structures when there is lightning. No lone trees, telephone poles, fences, antennas, or flagpoles. All of these can act as a lightning rod. If possible, also avoid concrete floors and walls. Steel often enforces concrete.
  • There are always suggestions to stay away from windows during lightning. There isn’t an increased chance of lightning hitting you, but the glass can shatter and send pieces in all directions.
  • Try to avoid using electronic equipment during thunderstorms and avoid taking a bath or shower during a lightning storm. Water is a great conductor of electricity and could shock you if a bolt of lightning were to hit your house.
  • Stay inside at least 30 minutes after you hear the last sound.

Read a few myths and facts about lightning here. Also, find out why you need to visit Mountain Zebra National Park.

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