Weathering a storm: how to survive when lightning strikes

Posted by Hanna Lindon on 23/07/2015
Lightning strikes are common on high summits and ridges. Photo by Trapella Mattia/ Shutterstock.

It isn’t just winter that brings threatening weather to the British hills. Summer storms can be fatal – so what should you do to stay safe?

Earlier this month, lightning strikes in the Brecon Beacons claimed the lives of two walkers and left two more seriously injured. Tragedies like this are rare – but they do happen, and it’s important to know how to protect yourself. We asked mountain instructor and BMC member Mike Margeson, vice chairman of Mountain Rescue England & Wales, to share his know-how.

Check the forecast

The first step towards staying safe, of course, is to plan in advance. Even in high summer, you should never hit the hills without having a garners at a specialist forecast.

“It is a vital part in any mountain day to have obtained a good weather forecast – for a whole number of reasons, not least to guard against the hazards and dangers of lightning storms,” says Mike. “There are a number of specialist weather forecasting services and good services from the Met Office.”

The Mountain Weather Information Service is, of course, another reliable walker’s standby. Look out for warnings of thundery showers, storm force upland winds and torrential rain – and be prepared to change your plans if necessary.

Keep an eye on the clouds

Local weather forecasts, while generally accurate, can’t always predict when lightning is going to strike. Alongside checking the forecast, it’s important to keep an eye on what the weather is doing while you’re on the hill.

“It is difficult for forecasters to be 100% accurate over timings and storms can be very hard to predict in terms of severity and exact location,” Mike warns. “That’s why being weather wise and observant while you were out is vital.

He advises considering humidity and warmth, as well as what the clouds are doing. “When clouds are seen to becoming towering cumulonimbus and quite obviously menacing, it is a warming indicator and time to review your location and plans. During a period of hot weather, it is wise to consider starting early as the danger will increase during the day as the heat builds up. Your plan for the day should take this into consideration.”

Lose height fast

If you do get caught in a storm then the general advice is to descend as quickly as is safely possible. The higher and more exposed you are, the greater the danger. It may seem counter intuitive, but don’t seek shelter under cliffs, caves, mine entrances or trees – all of which could put you at greater risk if they are struck by lightning. Instead, aim to ensure that there is higher ground above you.

“It is recommended that you find the lowest open ground space and sit on your rucksack,” says Mike. He advises separating yourself from metal kit, such as tent poles, ice axes or climbing hardware, and avoiding metal fence lines.

Of course, you might find yourself stranded partway up a climb. In that case, it might be wisest to stay put. “If you are actually scrambling or on a climb it is a difficult situation, but the advice is not to start abseiling as a wet rope might act as a conductor to dissipate a lightning strike,” explains Mike. 

If the worst happens…

Warnings of an imminent lightning strike can include your skin tingling or hair standing on end. If you experience either of these symptoms then crouch down on the balls of your feet to minimise contact with the ground, but don’t lie down. It’s a myth that you can put yourself in danger by assisting somebody who has been struck by lightning as no electric charge remains after the event. Attempt CPR on a companion with no pulse or breath and seek help straight away, even if they seem to be fine.

“If you come across somebody or somebody in your party is struck by lightning and seems to be alright you should still seek Mountain Rescue assistance urgently,” says Mike. “Anybody that has been affected by electrical charge should still be medically checked and potentially considered at risk, as the heart relies on the correct electrical rhythm and there could be post incident complications. 

Don’t panic!

While lightning strikes on high summits and ridges are fairly common, fatalities in the UK are actually rare. There were none recorded in the MREW statistics for 2014, and the recent tragedy in the Brecon Beacons was the most serious event of its kind for some time. Don’t let sultry weather keep you out of the hills – just remember that planning and mountain awareness are the most important defences against trouble. 

READ MORE: Get into hill walking with these BMC resources

  • Hill Walking Essentials DVD: Follow Fredelina and Ben as they learn essential skills and techniques for the British mountains. Buy it now in the BMC shop.
  • Safety on Mountains: Your essential guide to safe hill walking. Available to buy in the BMC shop.

GO ON A COURSE: Learn from professionals

  • BMC Active Outdoors: Want to learn all the skills you need to be a confident hill walker at a bargain price? The BMC's Active Outdoor courses include 'Head for the Hills' courses, affordable hill walking weekends for beginners at the famous Plas y Brenin mountain centre in Snowdonia.
  • Hill and Mountain Skills: The BMC's partner organisation Mountain Training has just launched its new Hill and Mountain Skills Courses. They aim to equip you with the basic knowledge and safety skills required to participate in hill and mountain walking in your own time and are run by providers all over the UK.

GET COVERED: Get covered with BMC Travel Insurance

BMC Travel Insurance is designed by climbers and mountaineers, for climbing, walking and mountaineering. 

  • 24-hour emergency assistance is just a phone call away. Specialty Assist (+44 20 7902 7405) is the first port of call in an emergency. The number will be on your BMC Travel Insurance policy card.

WATCH: Life of a Mountain: extended teaser

Watch: Hill Walking Essentials DVD trailer on BMC TV

Watch more inspirational and skills videos on BMC TV



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