True North Blog

Lightning & Water Safety

The Summer is a particularly wonderful time to head out on to the water in a kayak or canoe, but it brings up a safety issue that confuses many … What do I do if I hear thunder, or, worse, see lighting?

To start, get off of the water at the first sound of thunder or lightning.  Even if the storm looks to be far away, lightening can still be a real life threat.  After all, by the simple nature of your activity, you are most likely going to be the highest point around and as the National Weather Service reports the “vast majority of lightning injuries and deaths” that occur on boats involve small ones “with NO cabin.”  Also, while I’ve read studies that indicate that most lightning strikes occur within a 3-5 mile range, I’ve also read others that indicate that it is not unusual for lightning  to travel 10-20 miles to its human target.

Once on land, it is still important to move away from the water’s edge as soon as possible.  This is because, while statistics show low risk of lightning injury in a canyon (probably because the high ridge lines provide some degree of shelter from lightning), your risk likely hasn’t abated as you are probably still out in the open, like along the open shoreline of a lake, river, or ocean.

So, where then do I go?  The usual options, like heading into a building or jumping into your car, may not be a practical one since the goal of your paddle was, after all, likely to be as remote as possible.  In such a situation, the Wilderness Medical Society recommends:

seeking a sheltered area inside a deep cave, far into a dense forest, or in a deep ravine; these features represent a safer alternative than remaining in an open, exposed area. Shallow caves, solitary trees, or open shelters (such as a picnic shelter, dugout, canopy, or lean-to) should be avoided because of the risk of side splash and ground current. Tents do not provide adequate protection from lightning. When possible, the safest shelters are a building followed by a hard-top vehicle.

But even if you do find a fairly safe location to weather the storm, your work is not yet done.  First, you may likely need to deal with the rain and wind that usually accompanies a storm which puts you at risk for hypothermia … Yes, hypothermia is a danger even in the Summer.  Hopefully, then, you came prepared with appropriate clothing and a way to erect within minutes an emergency shelter that is waterproof and windproof.  Trust me, from my experience I can tell you that just keeping the rain off of you will go a long way as it may surprise you how fast a rain shower can chill you to the bone.  In as much, consider wearing your life vest as that may help to insulate your body’s core. Also, you may need to assume the “lightning safety stance.”  If you don’t know what this is, or you would like a refresher, then check out this good video from Backpacker.

How long before I can resume my paddle?  The generally accepted  practice is to wait at least 30 minutes after the last incidence of thunder or lightning.

Of course, none of this will completely eliminate your risk of getting hit by lightning, but it will certainly help to manage your risk.  After all, wilderness survival is mostly about good risk assessment and risk management.


Do you know how to quickly build a windproof and waterproof emergency shelter?  Do you know how to treat someone who has been struck by lightning?  If the answer is “No,” then consider taking a Basic Wilderness Survival or Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course with True North.

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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