Lightning Safety Tips for Outdoor Sports

Thunderstorm Safety at Outdoor Sporting Events

Thunder is that sound in the sky that is all too familiar. While spring is here and summer is approaching, it is necessary to ask yourself: Do I know how to protect myself from that pesky lightning? More than 400 people are struck by lightning each year. The good news is that most occurrences can be avoided with a few simple precautions.

Lightning awareness

Lightning awareness should be heightened at the first flash of lightning or clap of thunder, no matter how far away. Seeking a safe structure or location at the first sign of lightning or thunder activity is highly recommended. The existence of blue sky and the absence of rain are not protected from lightning. It does not have to be raining for lightning to strike. 

Flash-to-bang

The flash-to-bang method is the easiest and most convenient way to estimate how far lightning is occurring. Thunder always accompanies lightning, even though its audible range can be diminished due to background noise in the immediate environment, and its distance from the observer. To use the flash-to-bang method, count in seconds from the time the lightning is sighted to when the clap of thunder is heard. Divide this number by five to obtain how far away (in miles) the lightning is occurring. For example, if an individual counts 15 seconds between seeing the flash and hearing the bang, 15 divided by five equals three; therefore, the lightning is approximately three miles away.

Athletic events

Lightning safety experts suggest that if you hear thunder, begin preparation for evacuation, and if you see lightning, consider suspending activities and heading for your designated safe locations. As a minimum, by the time the flash to bang is 30 seconds, all individuals should have left the athletic site and reached a safe location.

Prior to any practice or event, the person in charge should check the weather for that area. Be aware of whether or not the National Weather Service (NWS) has issued a thunderstorm “watch” or “warning,” and the signs of developing thunderstorms in the area, such as high winds or darkening skies. A “watch” means conditions are favorable for severe weather to develop in an area; a “warning” means severe weather has been reported in the area and for everyone to take proper precautions.

Also, a specific, safe location from lightning should be identified. A designated adult should be established as the weather watcher and look for signs of threatening weather.

Criteria for a safe return to the practice/game area

Personnel should not return to the practice/game area until at least 30 minutes have passed since the last lightning flash or sound of thunder. Each time lightning is observed and/or thunder is heard, the “30-minute clock” is to be reset.

Safe structures/locations

Safe locations are fully enclosed, substantial buildings. Avoid using the shower or plumbing facilities and contact with electrical appliances during a thunderstorm. If a substantial building is not available, a vehicle with a metal roof and closed windows is a reasonable alternative.

Unsafe locations

  • Small covered shelters
  • Dugouts
  • Rain shelters, golf shelters and picnic shelters
  • Locations connected to or near light poles
  • Towers
  • Fences

ALWAYS avoid being at the highest point in the area.

What to do if you are caught in a thunderstorm while hiking/camping

If you are far from a safe structure or vehicle, find the lowest point and move there quickly. Avoid open fields, the top of a hill or a ridgetop. Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other high objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees. Make sure the place you pick is not subject to flooding and no water is running through it. On open ground, squat low on something dry (non-metal), keep your feet close together, and make yourself the smallest possible object with the least contact with the ground. Do not lie down!

If a person is struck by lightning, perform prompt cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and activate the local emergency management system.

Other resources:

For further information on lightning safety precautions, please reference NWS for the Colorado Lightning Resource and Lightening Safety pages.

Written by: Gregg Brueck, M.S., ATC, Athletic Trainer, Real Colorado Soccer Club, Children’s Hospital Colorado. To find out more about general safety tips, read our archived injury prevention posts, or schedule an appointment at 720-777-6600. We are happy to consult with parents or referring providers before a patient is seen at Children’s Colorado.

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