In-Hand Harmony

Lightning And Trail Riders

Have you ever heard of, or known someone who was out on the trail and got struck by lightning?

I was planning to ride at Dawson Butte last Friday and — even though it was a sunny, clear morning — I was concerned about possible thunder storms moving in due to the spring weather forecast for the day. We timed our ride so that we would be off the trail by noon which worked out just fine. Afterwards, I found an excerpt of this article in Margi Evans’ latest book, Riding Colorado III, and thought it was an excellent resource. I contacted the author and was given permission to publish it here. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read it, and be prepared.

Cloud-to-ground lightning bolts striking the front range foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains in Boulder County. Photo from Shutterstock

Cloud-to-ground lightning bolts striking the front range foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains in Boulder County. Photo from Shutterstock

By Steve Deitemeyer, Consulting Forester, Wildland Resources

The data show if you want to minimize your exposure to being struck by lightning and becoming a casualty you ought to live in Alaska and stay indoors. If you want the best chance of becoming a statistic, live in Florida and take up golf or flagpole maintenance, while avoiding lightning warnings and safety precautions.  We have chosen horseback riding in the western, dry mountainous outdoors in many states, and need to understand and accept the responsibility for the safety of friends, livestock and ourselves.

There are about 20 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the United States every year.  Colorado ranks No. 3 on the list of States with the most deaths due to lightning.  During the reporting period 1990-2003, Colorado had 39 deaths. There were 71 fatalities between 1980 and 2003.    That is about three deaths every year just in Colorado. There were also 317 people injured by lightning from 1980 to 2003.   Other western states including Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Utah, and Arizona also rate in the Top 10 list of lightning deaths weighted by populations.

Data from recent years by the U.S. National Lightning Detection Center Network results in a rough estimate of one death for about every 345,000 flashes and an injury for about every 114,000 flashes.  On average then, lightning causes more storm related casualties in the US, except floods. Lightning also causes more than 26,000 fires annually, with damage to property in excess of $5-6 billion dollars.

Many people are injured or killed due to misinformation and inappropriate behavior during thunderstorms.  In 1992, near Vail, 14 people and horses were struck by lighting injuring 6 of the riders and killing 2 of the horses.  Many lightning caused injuries and deaths have occurred with people thinking they were safe in seeking shelter under a tree that then got hit by a bolt of lightning.

How does lightning happen?  Storm clouds have huge pools of electrical charges. Ice crystals at the top attract positive charges…raindrops in the bottom half of the cloud are mostly negative; the ground below the cloud becomes mostly positively charged. The separation of the charged particles occurs when strong updrafts interact with downward moving precipitation within the cloud. The stronger the updrafts, the greater the electrical potential will develop.  Lightning flashes when the attraction between the positive and negative charges overcomes the air’s high resistance to electrical flow. It takes less than a second for this to happen. Downward “leaders” from the thundercloud pulse towards earth seeking upward tending electric “streamers” from ground sources like fences, buildings, people or animals. Lightning is visible when leaders and streamers find each other and the “switch is closed” causing current to flow.

The National Lightning Safety Institute says, “lightning is a capricious, random and unpredictable event”, and lightning “prevention” or “protection” (in an absolute sense) is impossible.  However, risk can be minimized with good planning, training, education and being aggressively proactive in managing events and outdoor activities.

Horseback groups, large or small, or individual horsemen need to understand and anticipate the risks of thunderstorms and lightning and have some practiced and predetermined plan of action.

Mountain weather records in the west provide us a clear understanding about the high risk and predictability of afternoon thunderstorms with lightning. People and stock need to be down off of high mountains and ridges by noon or before to help avoid risk of death or injury by lightning.  Proper planning and preparation is paramount to protecting people, property and prosperity.

So, here is a set of recommendations:
  1. Plan and layout the timing of the trip and selection of trails to avoid high peaks, mountains and ridges in the afternoon. Think about having an alternate route available. Organized rides should have a formally established “Lightning Safety Policy” as a part of the overall “Safety Plan”.
  1. Pay attention to the weather.  Mature storms generate lightning and typically include a sudden reversal of wind direction, a noticeable rise in wind speed, and a sharp drop in temperature.  Buy a weather radio and/or a lightning detector and assign a person to monitor NOAA weather radio broadcasts, which are updated hourly.  Adjust the ride as necessary based on morning reports and predictions, but monitor the reports hourly for any changes.
  1. Be prepared to make some conservative decisions and suspend activities and riding when you hear thunder.  Measuring lightning’s distance is easy.  The “flash/bang” (F/B) monitoring technique is that for every five second count after you see the lightning and then hear the thunder, the storm is one mile away.  For example, an F/B count of 10 equals 2 miles, a F/B of 20 equals 4 miles, etc.  Do not resume outdoor activities until about 30 minutes have past from the last observable thunder or lightning.
  1. Do not use electrical equipment. Stay away from fences, railroad tracks and any tall equipment or structures.
  1. Get away from water tanks, ponds, streams, lakes, and avoid damp or wet ground.
  1. Get off of your horse, tie up (but not under the tallest trees), get away from stock and avoid grouping people together.  Think about getting at least 15 feet apart and staying twice the height of the tree away from the tree.
  1. Use your slicker to stay dry, and do not stand under the branches of tall trees.  Avoid tall objects like lone trees. Find a ditch, trench or other low ground. Shelter may be found in clumps of shrubs of trees of shorter more uniform height. Avoid open country, but if in open country, make yourself as small a target as possible.
  1. Advise your group members that if they feel an electrical charge, if their hair stands on end, or their skin tingles, a lightning strike may be imminent. Squat in a baseball catcher’s stance, kneeling, on your toes with heels off the ground, feet as close together as possible, arms crossed and resting on top of thighs. This technique lowers your profile and minimizes contact with the ground. Cover your ears with your hands to avoid damage and potential hearing loss.   This is opposed to sitting high on a wet horse and saddle with four widely placed steel-shod hoofs on wet ground that would maximize the opportunity to “close the switch” and complete the circuit.

First Aid is extremely important in lightning strike cases as injuries include electrical shock and burns, including entry and exit wounds.  These individuals carry no electrical charge after exposure to lightning and can be touched safely.  Victims of a lightning strike may suffer respiratory and/or cardiac arrest.  Therefore, administer CPR immediately if needed and first aid, as required.

An individual in full-cardiac arrest is a medical emergency and must be transported to an advanced life-support medical facility as quickly as possible.  If there are multiple strike victims, render emergency medical treatment first to individuals who are unresponsive, and then next to those with vital signs who exhibit the most life threatening injuries.

In summary, you are ultimately responsible for your own safety, even when riding with an organized group. Take responsibility and educate yourself about lightning risks, prevention, and protection techniques whether you’re at home, on the golf course, on the ranch or on the trail. Trip timing and trail selection, especially during the summer months, is critical in reducing exposure to lightning risks. You need to routinely monitor the weather, and not be hesitant to change plans, schedules or routes.   Be aggressive in taking precautions early in a developing thunderstorm situation. Be alert to rapid drops in temperature and wind direction. Know how to keep a low profile and avoid being a lightning rod.  Do not get in a hurry to resume riding right after the storm passes. Give it a chance to move away.  Keep your first aid and CPR skills up-to-date and be prepared to help your friends and stock if necessary.

  1. NOAA Tech Memo NWS SR-193.
  2. National Lightning Safety Institute,
  3. Lightning Safety, NF 266, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
  4. Health and Safety Code Handbook, FSH 6709.11, USDA, Forest Service, 1999.

Leave a Reply