Thinking back, I remember the tingling feeling of hair rising on the back of my neck, like when you are really scared. Yes, that was it – then the brightest flash ever.
On a one-week solo section hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT), I hopped on near Fontana Dam in North Carolina. It was mid-August and the weather forecast for the week was for scattered thunderstorms with highs in the 80’s. Most of my experience has been hiking the PCT and in the mountains of southern California. While we do get thunderstorms, they are infrequent and not as intense as the ones I remember while living back east.
My ride dropped me off on Hwy 28 near Fontana Village where I picked up some last minute supplies. I walked to the trailhead and stopped to take in the view at the dam. It brought back memories from my honeymoon 33 years ago. That was a glorious week spent exploring the Smokies and hanging out on Fontana Lake.
Today would be a short day and I would only knock out about 7 miles. Hoping to make Mollies Ridge shelter, I extended my hiking poles, took a deep breath and started walking. Fontana Lake was to my right and had plenty of water in it. Man, I was jealous because California has been in an awful drought and our lakes and reservoirs were almost empty.
Making good time, I thought about going for Double Spring Gap. It is a couple of miles west of Klingman’s Dome, the highest peak in NC/TN. At 6,643 ft. it provides awesome views of the surrounding landscape. It was no Mt. Whitney, but the trail wasn’t any easier. The SUDS (senseless-ups-downs) were just as tough as the switchbacks in the Sierras.
As I passed over a ridge, I took a snack break and noticed the cumulus clouds gathering to the west/northwest. A cool breeze picked up and it felt like the swamp-coolers we have in the desert. The pine trees started waving their spindly branches as the wind made a waterfall like sound. I caught the first whiff of rain, a refreshing smell. About 10 minutes later, I heard the first rumblings of thunder. Passing a fellow hiker who was getting out his rain gear, I thought to do the same and stopped a few minutes later. The hiker walked past me and I asked where he was stopping for the day. He mentioned that he was trying to make the Mount Collins shelter about 7 miles away.
Decent waterproof hat: Columbia Men’s Eminent Storm Bucket Hat
I dug out the rain cover for my pack and rain jacket. Back west, I used the jacket more as a windbreaker and only remember using my pack cover one other time on the AT up in the Maine wilderness. Back on the trail, the thunder became more frequent and I saw the first flashes of lightning. Hmm, those clouds became fully developed thunderheads now, nice and dark with flat tops. I started looking for a place where I could ride out the storm when a lightning strike hit too close for comfort. A flash and almost immediate boom made me speed up my search for shelter. Of course, this part of the trail had no shelter, just plenty of pine and oak trees. The rain came next, almost immediately a downpour. Well, this sucks. I know, if you hike the AT long enough, this is fairly common. For this California acclimated dude, this was going to be interesting.
What followed happened quickly. I remember feeling the hair rise on the back of my neck, a tingly feeling- like when you are really scared. My training kicked in and I dropped my pack on the side of the trail and began to sit on it. The flash came and occurred at the same time as the crack.
I woke up with the rain pelting me, the sound of it bouncing off my jacket. My vision was blurred and I was looking at a tree trunk sideways. Disoriented and dizzy, my ears were ringing. I laid there on the ground for a bit and got on my hands and knees and moved over to my pack. I had one hiking pole still strapped to my hand. My fingers were a bit numb, but no other damage. The storm continued as I sat on my pack to minimize contact with the ground. I looked around and saw an oak tree that was smoking about 30-40 ft away. The lightning had struck it about halfway up and split a large part of the trunk. Hoping that lightning wouldn’t strike twice in the same place, I sat for another 10-15 minutes and made sure I was ok.
As the thunderstorm passed to the east, I put my pack on and got back on the trail, thanking the Lord that it wasn’t a direct hit. My ears were still ringing when I strolled into the Double Spring Gap shelter. I met about three other hikers there and shared my tale of woe. They stared at me with wide eyes and said they were pelted with hail about an hour ago. I rested well that night but remember waking once to the sound of distant thunder.
Well folks, for the 10 or so people that follow my blog, you knew this was another one of my tall tales. I have hiked around thunderstorms and know about precautions to take. If there is a chance of lightning where you hike, consider the following:
– If you are with people, spread out. One lightning strike can take out an entire group if they are close to each other.
– If you ever do feel the hair rising on your neck or arms, immediately drop to the ground into a crouching position. Try not to touch the ground and drop those poles.
– If you have time, sit on your pack to minimize contact with the ground.
– Don’t seek shelter under a tall tree. If you can, seek a medium sized grove of trees, head there.
– Don’t go into caves or sit on rocks. They conduct electricity very well.
– If someone does get struck, they will quite possibly go into shock. Check for pulse and treat for shock by keeping them warm and covered. Seek immediate help.
Bottom line, there is no sure way to prevent lightning strikes. A strike can occur 30 miles or so from a thunderstorm. Tents provide little protection from lightning but may get you out of that pelting rain. If you do go into your tent, sit on a pad or your pack to minimize contact with the ground.
This is an awesome rain jacket and has never leaked: Marmot Mens Precip Jacket
We actually do get nasty thunderstorms in the Sierras and hikers have died from lightning on Half-Dome in Yosemite. Thunderstorms in the Sierra Nevada are generally mild compared to the ones on the Appalachian Trail. Enjoy the trail, you will be talking about that hail and stinging rain for years to come. 🙂
Inexpensive pack cover for occasional hiking: KLOUD City ® Black nylon backpack rain cover for hiking / camping / traveling (Size: L)