How Do I Stay Safe from Lightning at High Elevations?

Lightening storm in the mountains
Deposit Photos

Thunderstorms in the park have caused injury and even death. In July 2014, two lightning strikes on two consecutive days, killed two people and injured more than a dozen. All were at elevations of over 10,000 feet in the afternoon. In Colorado, an average of three to four people die each year from lightning strikes.

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.

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.

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.