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Outdoors in a Thunderstorm: What do you do, or not do?

It’s the summer storm season in Nebraska. And, today, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, looks very stormy! That stated, here are some key tips for being outdoors or camping when a storm is on the horizon. This information was compiled from Omaha’s NBC/WOWT 6 News Weather Authority Chief Meteorologist Mike LaPoint, The Weather Channel and survival/outdoor expert Kirk Brown of Trails.com

Step 1 Avoid the storm in the first place. While enjoying the great outdoors, you need to always pay attention to  changing weather. Look at the forecast before going fishing, boating, biking, hiking or camping and know the weather patterns of the area. Weather can change very quickly in Nebraska, so always be mindful of the clouds, especially those to the west and south. Dark underbellies, changing winds, and a scent of rain all indicate bad weather. Many storms hit in the evening and at night. The most obvious sign of a lightning storm, however, is thunder. Even if there is blue sky above, lightning can travel up to 10 miles horizontally before striking the ground. Lightning is 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit!  That’s five times hotter than the surface of the sun!  Use your wireless mobile device or a weather radio for weather forecasts, advisories, watches, warnings, etc., know your location from the nearest town, plus what county and what portion of that county where you’re located.

Mobile Alert.

Step 2 Avoid exposed areas in summer. Hilltops, summits, ridges and large meadows should be avoided when choosing a summer campsite or picnic spot. Also stay away from tall or isolated trees. Low-lying settings that are prone to flooding also are less than ideal.

Step 3 Be sure to seek a safe, sturdy shelter, right when you hear the first rumbles of thunder. If you can, head to your vehicle (windows up) or an enclosed building. Don’t come back outside until 30 minutes after you stop hearing thunderclaps. In some Nebraska state parks and recreation areas, shower houses in modern campgrounds are sought for quick shelter.

Step 4 In the event you are caught in a thunderstorm in a state park land or wildlife management area, take shelter in a ravine or valley but be alert for flash floods. If you are in a forested area, find shelter in a lower area under a thick growth of small trees, if possible. If you are on open water, get to land immediately and seek shelter until the storm passes.

Storm on the horizon at Merritt Reservoir near Valentine, NE.

Step 5 If you see lightning, stay away from water bodies, anything made of metal (fishing rod-and-reel combos, bicycles, camp cookware, golf clubs, ATVs, etc.) and from natural lightning rods, such as a tall tree in an open field. Remember, avoid the hilltops, as well as beaches or boats on open water.

Thunderstorm over Elkhorn River near Waterloo, NE.
Thunderstorm over Elkhorn River near Waterloo, NE.

Step 6 If you are outdoors and feel your hair stand on end (an indication that lightning is about to strike), do not lie flat on the ground, as your fully extended body will provide a larger surface to conduct electricity. Instead, squat low to the ground and place your hands over your ears and your head between your knees. The goal is to make you the smallest target possible and minimize contact with the ground. When camping, kneel or squat on a dry rubber sleeping pad with your feet close together if a lightning strike appears imminent and there is no time to seek safe shelter. Each member of your camping party should maintain a distance of at least 15 feet from one another to prevent lightning from traveling between persons.

Dry, rubber-based sleeping bag pad.

Things you’ll need:

– Wireless Mobile Device

– Weather radio

– Dry rubber sleeping pad

Things to note:

– In an average year, lightning claims more lives than tornadoes and hurricanes combined! 

– According to the National Weather Service, there is NO safe place to be outside in a thunderstorm. The best way to stay safe is to avoid the threat of lightning.

See you out there, never ‘pushing the edge of the envelope’ and always playing it safe during a storm!

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media sites, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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