Kevin Callan
Credit: Kevin Callan

Getting hit by lightning is one of the number-one hazards while roaming around the wilderness; and out of the total amount of campers killed by lightening, more than half were on or near open water.

I guess it’s kind of obvious that water and lightning are a natural combination. A lake represents a flat base and you and your kayak or canoe are most likely the only thing out there that extends above that flat surface.

Doing something to protect yourself isn’t that easy though.

Getting to shore the moment you spot the buildup of cumulonimbus clouds that signals thunderstorms is the obvious choice. In fact, you’re more vulnerable as the storm approaches and departs (if you can hear thunder, you are in striking distance).

But most storms are combined with high wind and waves, so making a quick paddle to shore more difficult than it sounds. And even when you do reach land, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe. Many victims have been injured or killed right at their campsite. Some were hit while they stood on shore, watching the storm.

The majority of victims, however, were struck by a corresponding ground charge while lying asleep in their tents. Lightning is formed as a negative charge from the base of a stormcloud passing over, inducing a positive charge where a negative charge usually is. The positive charge is pulled up and lightning is produced where there’s an arc. If you’re anywhere near the path of the lightning discharge, you can get zapped.

Weathering the electrical storm on land, however, is still far better than being out on the water. Just make sure you pitch your shelter far away from any mound of high rock or tall tree. Also, the deeper you go into the woods the more chances there are of the lightning hitting another object. Keep as low as possible, but don’t lie flat out. Sit on top of a pack or, if you happen to be in the tent when the storm hits, squat on top of your sleeping pad with both feet close together.

Make sure to stay put for at least 20 minutes after the storm is over. Lightning can touch-down from over two kilometres away. Some deaths or injuries have been caused when campers headed to the lakeshore to watch the retreating storm—and then get struck by lightning.

To calculate the distance of the storm, count the number of seconds (one Mississippi…two Mississippi…three Mississippi…) between the flash of lightning and the thunder. Then divide by five. You now have the distance in miles.

The reasoning behind this calculation is that sound travels approximately a fifth-of-a-mile per second. For example, in five seconds the strike is one mile away (three seconds per kilometre); 10 seconds it is two miles away; at 25 seconds it’s five miles away; and so on.

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