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ThunderstormsWhen a Safe Location Is Not Nearby

NOAA and the lightning safety community reminds you that there is no safe place to be outside in a thunderstorm. If you absolutely can not get to safety, this section is designed to help you lessen the threat of being struck by lightning while outside. Do not kid yourself--you are not safe outside.

Being stranded outdoors when lightning is striking nearby is a harrowing experience. Your first and only truly safe choice is to get to a safe building or vehicle. If you are camping, climbing, on a motorcycle or bicycle, boating or enjoying other outdoor activities and can not get to a safe vehicle or shelter, follow these last resort tips. These will not prevent you from being hit, but they will slightly lessen the odds of it happening.

  • Do not seek shelter under tall, isolated trees. The trees may help you stay dry, but they will significantly increase your risk of being struck by lightning. Rain will not kill you, but the lightning can.
  • Do not seek shelter under partially enclosed buildings.
  • Stay away from tall, isolated objects because lightning typically strikes the tallest object. And that may be you if you are in an open field or clearing.
  • Know the weather forecast. If there is a high chance of thunderstorms, curtail or cancel your outdoor activities.
  • Do not place your campsite in an open field or on top of a hill or on a ridge. Keep your site away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees. If you are camping in an open area, set up camp in a valley, ravine, or other low area. A tent offers no protection from lighting.
  • Stay away from metal objects, such as fences, poles, and backpacks. Metal is an excellent conductor of lightning. Current from a lightning flash will easily travel long distances.

When a Safe Location is Nearby

Seek safe shelter when you first hear thunder or see dark threatening clouds developing overhead or streaks of lightning. Count the seconds between the time you see lightning and hear the thunder. You should already be in a safe location if that time is less than 30 seconds. However, there is such a thing as a 'bolt from the blue.'

Bolts from the Blue

There are times when a lightning flash can travel horizontally many miles away from the thunderstorm cloud itself and then strike the ground. These types of lightning flashes are called bolts from the blue because they seem to come out of a clear blue sky. Although these flashes are rare, they have been known to cause fatalities. Stay inside until 30 minutes after you last hear thunder.

Safe Buildings

A safe building is one that is fully enclosed with a roof, walls, and floor, such as a home, school, office building or a shopping center. Even inside, you should take precautions. Picnic shelters, dugouts, sheds, and other partially open or small structures are not safe.

Enclosed buildings are safe because of wiring and plumbing. If lightning strikes these types of buildings, or an outside telephone pole, the electrical current from the flash will typically travel through the wiring or the plumbing into the ground. This is why you should stay away from showers, sinks, and hot tubs, as well as electronic equipment such as TVs, radios, and computers.

Lightning can damage or destroy electronics so it is important to have a proper lightning protection system connected to your equipment. The American Meteorological Society has tips for protecting your electronics from lightning.

Unsafe Buildings

Examples of buildings that are unsafe include car ports, covered but open garages, covered patios, picnic shelters, beach shacks/pavilions, golf shelters, camping tents, large outdoor tents, baseball dugouts, and other small buildings such as sheds and greenhouses that do not have electricity or plumbing.

Is Your Car Safe? 

Safe vehicles include hard-topped cars, SUVs, minivans, buses, truck cabins, and tractors. Soft-topped convertibles are not safe. If you seek shelter in your vehicle, make sure all doors are closed and windows rolled up. Do not touch any metal surfaces.

If you are driving when a thunderstorm starts, pull off the roadway. If you don't, a lightning flash hitting the vehicle could startle you and cause temporary blindness, especially at night.

Do not use electronic devices such as HAM radios during a thunderstorm. Lightning striking the vehicle, especially the antennas, could cause serious injury if you are talking on the radio or holding the microphone at the time of the flash. Emergency officials such as police officers, firefighters, and security officers should use extreme caution when operating radio equipment during lightning.

For more information, visit NOAA's Lightning Safety and the National Lightning Safety Institute.


Last updated: 5/6/2011 4:09:56 AM