Dark, menacing sky. A lightning bolt with spider-like tentacles strikes the top of grassy, shrub-covered hilltop.

Lightning Facts and Tips That Can Make a Difference

Part 2 of the thunder and lightning safety series includes important facts and tips to stay safe during thunder and lightning storms.
Most people have a good (or frightening lightning story). Many of us have sat on the porch during a thunderstorm, and marveled at Mother Nature’s natural light show. (Pro tip: Watching a thunderstorm from an open porch is not recommended). We’ve all heard the sizzle, felt the jolts, covered our ears, and comforted children that the furious crash, flash and boom will be over soon. But anecdotal information really doesn’t keep us safe. We spoke with meteorologist/lightning specialist John Jensenius to find out exactly what are the risks of thunderstorms, and how we can put that knowledge toward being safer while still enjoying the activities we love. 
Big river with arched bridge; the evening sky is dark, with an evening lightning storm brewing in the distance. There’s a boat floating on the river the remaining rays of sun are reflecting off the water.

Q. Can you give us some insight into where and when lightning strikes the most?

A. Florida has the highest number of lightning fatalities since 2006 (88), with Texas (39) and Colorado (24) second and third. Seventy-three percent of lightning deaths occur in June, July and August as that’s when most thunderstorms happen, with July being the most dangerous month for thunderstorms. Men make up the vast majority of lightning strike fatalities (80 percent) and about 90 percent of the fatalities related to fishing, sports and work-related activities. 

Q. I've heard that being in a car (rubber tires) is much better than being outdoors (if you can't get into a house). Is this true?

A. Rubber tires do nothing to prevent a vehicle from being struck.  However, the metal shell of a hard-topped metal vehicle does provide good protection.  If the vehicle is struck, the lightning will pass through the metal shell around you and into the ground.

Q. How fast can storms move? 

A. It depends on terrain, proximity to other features, and mid- and upper-level atmospheric winds.  Most thunderstorms move at 20 to 30 mph although some lines of storms can move at 60 mph.  Where mid- and upper-level winds are light, thunderstorms can persist over the same area for hours. 
Alpine landscape with sharp vertical relief. A small village with streetlights clings to a mountain on one side of a deep valley. On the other side, there’s a green grassy field. Rain is spilling out of dark clouds and a jagged bolt of lightning is striking the hillside above the village.

Q. Is it possible for there to be lightning without thunder?

A. A lightning discharge will always cause thunder.  However, if the lightning is more than 10 miles away, you may not be able to hear the thunder.  This is commonly referred to as “heat lighting” but it really just a distant thunderstorm. 

Q. Is crouching down still a recommended last resort?

A. Crouching is a last desperate measure (perhaps it makes sense if you are inside a tent at night when other safer options are not available). If it is the middle of the night during a storm, you are probably not going out looking for a low spot, so anything you can put between you and the ground (like your sleeping pad) is a good idea. 

In general, we don’t recommend the crouch as safer options are usually a better option (such as running toward a safer place). When you run, you only have one foot on the ground at a time, so there’s less chance of injury from a ground current. Anything you do to limit your contact with the ground lessens the chance of death or injury the ground current of a nearby lightning strike.  But the overall goal is to reach a safe place as fast as you can.

Q. Is it true that if you’re caught out in the wild, you should avoid contact with all metal (like golf clubs, fishing, hunting, hiking or climbing gear? 

A. Metal does not attract lightning and does not increase the chance of being struck.  However, if any of the objects you mentioned increases your height, that can slightly increase the chance of being struck.  But the main concern is that many of the objects you mentioned could slow you down from getting to a safe place. Height, isolation, and pointy shapes are the dominant factors when lightning strikes.

Q. Is it true that water and metal attract lightning? We were always told to not take baths during thunderstorms.

A. Neither water nor metal attract lightning, however, water and/or the metal pipes will conduct lightning.  Your parents gave you wise advice.  If a house is struck, the lightning will often follow either the electrical wiring or the plumbing to ground.  That makes anything that is plugged into an electrical outlet or connected to plumbing dangerous. 
Vast desert landscape with saguaro cactus and creosote in foreground and ragged mountains behind. The skies are black with angry clouds and the scene is illuminated with a brilliant bolt of lightning striking the earth. 

Q. Are some lightning bolts more powerful than others?

A. Yes, some lightning strikes are stronger than others.  However, all lightning flashes are potentially deadly.  The average lightning flash is about 30,000 amps and about 300 million volts.  In comparison, household current is 15 to 20 amps and 120 volts. 

Q. If someone is struck by lightning, and you are nearby, how quickly can you move to get to them?

A. Immediately. The current from a lightning strike just passes through.  The energy is not retained.  Lightning can strike the same place more than once so if you can very quickly move the victim to a safer place, do so.

Q. Is there a 101 outdoor lightning first aid policy?

A. Follow these guidelines
  • Call for help.
  • Check the victim for breathing and a pulse 
  • Begin CPR, if necessary.  Use an AED if available and needed. 
  • Continue to monitor the victim until professional medical help arrives.   

Q. How can people make a difference when it comes to lightning safety and education?

A. If you are participating in an outdoor activity, whether it is a group sport, like soccer, softball, or a picnic or hike, the National Lightning Safety Council offers this advice.

Anyone planning outdoor activities should understand and follow some basic lightning safety guidelines. In addition to the general guidelines for all outdoor activities, organized outdoor activities should have a lightning safety plan.

Also, participate as an individual, business, or organization with the National Lightning Safety Awareness Week.. It’s always the last week in June, because it precedes both July 4th (when many people are outdoors) and the month of July, which is the most dangerous month of the year for lightning strikes. 

For more on staying safe in the outdoors during thunder and lightning storms, check out the other installments in Columbia's 4-part series on storm safety in the outdoors.
  • Part 1: What to Know About Thunder and Lightning
  • Part 3: Thunder and Lightning Safety for Camping and Hiking
  • Part 4: Lightning Safety Tips for Boaters, Anglers and Swimmers
  • Prepare for summer rain showers and storms with rainwear from Columbia Sportswear.