Weather in the wilderness: 4 scary real-life situations

October 16, 2013

Whether you’re on a hike or overnight camping trip, awareness of possible weather threats can be the difference between life and death.  Conditions can change abruptly and catch you off-guard if not readily prepared to take action.


Let’s look back at four situations from the summer and current fall and see what we can learn from them.

Sudden thunderstorms and lightning

This past July a group of three hikers was struck by lightning on a hiking trail in Glacier National Park while running to their vehicles according to the Missoulian.  Another group of nearby hikers found them unconscious and immediately performed CPR to save their lives while a last hiker went to notify park rangers.

Thunderstorms can develop with little notice, especially near mountainous terrain.  Tall steep slopes force air currents upward at high vertical velocities in a process of orographic lifting.  Strong updrafts can develop into storm clouds that produce frequent lightning.  Actions should be taken as soon as any lightning is seen or thunder is heard.


Seek shelter immediately. This doesn’t mean running under a park pavilion, but instead find a fully enclosed building.

If no shelter is available, avoid high peaks, waterways, open fields, and large trees

In a wooded forest, NOAA advises to move near low standing trees if no alternative options are available, but also cautions that no outdoor location is ever safe from lightning.  Your vehicle is the next best option if no buildings are nearby.

Flash flooding, rock slides and mudslides

Recent record flooding in Colorado offers a prime example of the threat of heavy rain near mountain slopes.  Moist terrain that easily flows downhill threatens low-lying areas with an increased risk of rock slides after flooding events.

A tragic event unfolded two weeks ago when a rock slide in Colorado killed five hikers and injured a 13-year old girl, as reported by the Denver Post.  Flooding in preceding weeks may have played a role.

The Colorado Office of Emergency Management has an excellent Web site which lists the warning signs of rock slides, areas to avoid, and what to do during and after.

Snowstorms and bitter cold

Two hikers in Washington State went missing in Washington State from an early season snowstorm two weeks ago, one was found.

Hiking in snow can be dangerous.  Heavy snow and low visibilities can strand hikers and/or cause them to lose track of the trail.  In addition, hikers may not realize what lies beneath snow.  For example, snow could cover weak ice laying atop water.  It’s best, if possible, to familiarize yourself with a trail before the snow season and/or avoid hiking during major storms.