How To Protect Yourself From Pop-Up Storms on a Hike

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When you’re on a backcountry hike or camping trip with minimal connection to society, the scariest beast in the territory is Mother Nature herself. If storms can surprise professional meteorologists, they can surprise you too—especially if you’re outside. Lightning and rain are forces to be reckoned with during a pop-up storm, as they can cause fires, mudslides, and flooding events. Before you disconnect from the grid and lace up your boots, know how to protect yourself from pop-up storms on a hike and keep yourself safe.

Learn the Signs of a Thunderstorm

The best protection from a thunderstorm is to not be in one in the first place. Before you leave, research the weather around the trail. A low-pressure system and hot, humid weather are two indicators of potential sudden storms. Look to see if there was recently rain in the area, along with how hot the temperatures are.

You should also check the forecast and look at the radar to check storm systems that may be in the area. If you know there’s a possibility of rain, take along a completely waterproof jacket—don’t settle for a jacket with a low waterproofing or breathability rating.

Once you’re already out in the wilderness, it may not be possible to check your technology for a storm forecast. Pop-up storms are most likely to occur during the afternoons or evenings after the sun heats up the ground. This is the time you should watch out for sudden thunderstorms the most, especially on hot days. Next, check for the following conditions:

  • Huge, tall, anvil-shaped cumulonimbus clouds in the distance.
  • Sudden cool air.
  • Gusting winds.
  • The smell of rain in the air.
  • Sudden darkness.
  • Thunder.

Find Shelter

If you start sensing any of the above signs, it might be too late for you to head back home or find an enclosed building to wait the storm out in—especially if you hear thunder. Search the area for any grounded shelters to protect you from the wind, rain, and lightning. You’ll know that a shelter is grounded if it has plumbing or wiring in it.

If the shelter isn’t grounded, it won’t protect you from a lightning strike, and could put you in more danger if it collapses on top of you. You’ll be safer sheltering in your car—just don’t touch any of the metal parts.

Sheltering in the Woods

When there are no man-made structures available for you to take shelter in, how to protect yourself from pop-up storms on a hike depends on your ability to be patient, calm, and a little bit lucky. If you’re at a high altitude, move to a lower area if it isn’t too late. Find an area of sturdy trees—not a single or weak tree—and huddle down as low as you can. Avoid touching water. If there’s a dry patch among the growth, use that to keep shelter.

Don’t stay in a tent—the metal parts make it a dangerous place to take shelter in during a storm. Remember, if you hear thunder from any distance, lightning can strike you or the environment around you. Never test a storm, even if it seems weak by your standards. Always take shelter.

How To Protect Yourself From Pop-Up Storms on a Hike

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Written by Kevin O'Neill

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