How Do I Stay Safe from Lightning at High Elevations?

Thunderstorms in the park have caused injury and even death.

Photo: Depositphotos

In Colorado, an average of two people die and 12 people are injured each year from lightning strikes ( And high areas in Rocky Mountain National Park are some of Colorado’s lightning hot spots. As an example, two lightning strikes on two consecutive days in July of 2014, killed two people and injured more than a dozen in the national park. Everyone struck or injured was at elevations of over 10,000 feet in the afternoon.

Because lightning activity most often happens in the afternoon in the Rockies, it’s best to explore and hike in the mornings, finishing your hike or outdoor activities before thunderstorms roll in. Plan to be off a mountain summit well before noon. Here’s what you need to know about lightning safety.

Stay Below the Tree Line in the Afternoons

A “tree line” is the elevation at which trees stop growing. This is often a distinct visual border. In Rocky Mountain Park, the tree line is around 10,000 feet. Park elevations range from 8,000 to 14,000 feet. Popular park places above treeline include Trail Ridge Road and Longs Peak.

The main reason that high elevations are dangerous is that, without trees or buildings, you are the tallest thing on the open terrain. To minimize your risk, hike the higher elevations in the morning and head to lower ground in the afternoon when storms are more likely.

Hiking above tree line in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hiking above tree line in Rocky Mountain National Park (Photo: Getty Images)

What to Do if You Get Caught in a Storm

If you see clouds moving in, or you hear thunder, head for lower ground, preferably below the tree line. Safe shelters include a major enclosed building or your car with the windows rolled up.

You don’t want to stay in an open area near an isolated tall object such as a solitary tree, a canopy, a picnic shelter, or even another person. You can crouch on your heals, but do not lie on the ground. Stay low, keep all arms and legs in toward your body and minimize contact with the ground. Do not seek shelter under a cliff, cave entrance, or rocky overhang. The best thing is to run to better shelter.

Stay away from water and wet items. Avoid metal objects, including fences, motors, power tools, and machinery. Water and metal are excellent conductors of electricity. The current from a lightning flash will easily travel for long distances.

Wait 30 minutes until after the last rumble of thunder before leaving shelter.

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