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Hiking in the Season of Thunderstorms

In the Smokies, Pisgah, and all throughout the mountainous region known as the Blue Ridge Province, summer is the season of the thunderstorm. It’s not unusual for a pattern to set in: at about 3 pm on an otherwise bright and sunny day, for the sky to quickly darken as the air fills with a rumble of thunder, followed by a heavy shower lasting 10 to 30 minutes. In a temperate rainforest such as ours this regular deluge of rain keeps the landscape lush.

But for hikers, thundershowers can pose a safety issue. In his Backpacking Overnights: NC Mountains & SC Upstate, Jim Parham has this guidance when it comes to thunder and lightning.

Many of the trails in the mountains of the Southeast travel along the spines of high ridges. Some are quite exposed with little or no tree cover. These places become especially dangerous in thunderstorms, which are frequent during the hot summer months. You never want to be caught on a high spine in such a storm, but in case you are it’s good to know how to minimize the chance of a lightning strike.

If you observe a storm is approaching, get as far off the ridgetop as you can as quickly as possible. Once the storm hits, though, it’s time to really take action. That means getting into “lightning position.” If you’re in a group, spread out, but not so far that you can’t make visual and verbal contact. Be careful not to place yourself near the tallest object around, and especially steer clear of rock or cliff overhangs. They may look safe and dry, but the potential for “ground lightning” here is high. Get in the habit of carrying a small, closed-cell foam pad in an accessible spot on the outside of your pack. This could be your sleeping pad, a soft camp chair, or just a small piece of foam for this exact purpose. Remove your pack, take the pad out, and get on it immediately. You can squat or sit. You want to reduce the amount of direct contact with the ground as much as you comfortably can. Be prepared to stay put for however long it takes the storm to pass.

Parham’s forthcoming guide, Backpacking Overnights: North Georgia Mountains & Southeast Tennessee, will be available in the spring of 2019.

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