Lightning Strikes

There are lots of myths and misconceptions about lightning strikes on outings. However, one thing to always remember is that there is no place that is absolutely safe for Scouts during an electrical storm. Scouts and leaders have been hit by lightening (and killed) in shelters as well as open spaces. In fact, during one especially terrible storm at the Griswold Scout Reservation in New Hampshire, 23 Scouts who had taken shelter under a canopy were hospitalized after a lightning strike that hit close to them. The problem is serious enough that BSA has studied it and revamped the lightning safe procedures in the Guide to Safe Scouting, even mandating that leaders complete a Hazardous Weather course before going on outings. The result has been a decline in lightning related injuries and fatalities at Scout activities.

A lightning strike is an electric discharge between the atmosphere and an earth-bound object. According to the NOAA, over the last 20 years, the United States averaged 51 annual lightning strike fatalities per year, placing it just behind floods for weather-related deaths. In addition, lightning strikes hundreds of people every year that survive, and (depending upon the source) up to 80% of survivors sustain long-term injuries. Metal objects in the victim’s pockets (like smart phones) can concentrate the charge and make the injury even worse. Contrary to popular belief, however, a direct hit by a lightning bolt coming down from the sky is actually pretty rare and not a common way that Scouts are injured by lightning during a storm.

Lightening strikes are common - and dangerous

Lightning strikes are common – and dangerous

More than half of all lightning injuries and fatalities occur when lighting hits the ground near where Scouts are standing (or sheltering). The electrical current runs through the ground to nearby objects (like Scouts) that act as conductors to receive the charge. The result is burns on the body, and in extreme cases – death. If there is a nearby strike, touching your feet together at the heels can reduce the pathway of the electrical charge and minimize risk. In other words, if your feet are touching, the electricity will go up one foot and down the other. If your feet are not together, the electrical current will travel up through your body and have no easy exit point.

The second most dangerous lightning strike is called a “side flash.” The lightning hits a tall object (like a tree or tall pioneering project) and arcs sideways to objects of less resistance – like people standing nearby. (The lightning does not follow the tall object to the ground.) This kind of strike represents about a third of injuries and fatalities. A very similar danger is called “Upward Leader strikes” and accounts for about 10% of human injuries. In this case, the lightning is attracted to a taller object and then moves to something nearby. That is one reason why safety procedures stress having everyone crouch to get them into approximately the same height.

Lightning will often strike the tallest object in the area.  Do not stand next to a single tall tree during a thunderstorm.

Lightning will often strike the tallest object in the area. Do not stand next to a single tall tree during a thunderstorm.

The least common causes of lightning injuries or fatalities (5-10%) are direct strikes and coming into contact with an object that is transmitting high voltage like a metal fence or electrical wire. (Philmont call this a “touch-volt” strike.) The best way to protect yourself from both is to move to a safer area – preferably before the storm envelops your crew.

You can estimate the distance to a lightning strike by counting the seconds between the lightning flash and the thunder that follows. (One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, etc.) Divide the number of seconds by five (5) and this will be the approximate distance to the actual lightning strikes. Studies have shown that a second strike can occur 6 to 8 miles away from the first strike. Therefore, when the time between the strike and the thunder is less than 40 seconds you could be in danger if the storm is moving towards you. So, if you can hear thunder you might need need to take action quickly. There is no absolutely safe place outside in a thunderstorm, but here are some reasonable safety procedures.

• Separate and, if possible, find cover under clumps of shrubs or trees of uniform height.
• If there is no cover, crouch down with feet and knees together, chest on knees, and hands covering ears. Keep your feet together and touching.
• Always, spread out 25′ to 30′ from each other, but maintain voice contact.
• Stay off ridges and exposed passes. You are typically better off at lower elevations.
• Stay out of broad open areas like meadows or lakes.
• Caves are not safe.
• Avoid single high trees. (Do not set up your tents near them either!)

If you happen to be in a tent when a storm approaches, sit on your foam pad and pull your knees into your chest to create the smallest contact with the ground. If the lightning strikes are very close, cover your ears and close your eyes to reduce potential injury.

It goes without saying, that Scout leaders should be checking the weather forecast to understand the risk of potential thunderstorms in the area they plan to visit. However, it a thunderstorm does come up, play it safe.


Are Down Bags Really So Dangerous?

Any Tenderfoot knows that down sleeping bags are really good. They are light, warm, and and can be crammed down really well into a small stuff sack. However, down sleeping bags have always had one really big flaw. When they get wet, they lose their ability to insulate and if you try and pass the night in a wet down bag – you can get really cold, really fast. Synthetic sleeping bags, on the other hand, are made from petroleum-based products and are naturally more water resistant.

Down sleeping bags are discouraged, despite their benefits.

Down sleeping bags are discouraged in Scouting, despite their many benefits.

The danger does not come from dropping a down bag into a river while attempting a risky crossing. Moreover, the bag does not have to be completely soaked to cause problems. Down sleeping bags absorb moisture out of the air. So at 80-90% humidity, a 20 degree down sleeping bag can lose 30% of its loft overnight, effectively turning it into a 40 degree bag. A sweaty Scout, a leaking Camelbak, or contact with snow and rain can also seriously degrade the insulation of a down bag, with potentially serious consequences. That is why many Adult Leaders do not allow their Scouts to take them on high adventure outings.

However, recently the outdoor industry has introduced a new line of down sleeping bags (and jackets) that minimize or eliminate the “wet down” problem. As a result, down products are going to become a lot more acceptable on Scout backpacking trips.

Most sleeping bags sold over the past decade have been made from goose down. However, goose down is being replaced by duck down as the feather of choice because duck down is cheaper and more sustainable. Unfortunately, duck down sometimes smells funny, especially when it gets wet. So vendors like REI, Mountain Hardware and Sierra Designs have been looking for a way to clean the duck down and eliminate the odor.

At the same time, chemical engineers at these companies have long been thinking about ways to reduce the problems associated with wet down. Recent advances have led to a cleaning process that produces duck down products that are much more water resistant than common goose down bags. This treatment is done on the molecular level and leaves a polymer coating on each duck feather that resists moisture and inhibits the “feather clumping” that reduces loft and insulation. These new down bags also dry much faster if they do get wet. Amazingly, the process works without adding cost or weight to a typical down sleeping bag.

Since these new down sleeping bags are being manufactured by some of the most environmentally conscious companies on the planet, they hopefully have tested everything to make sure there are no chemical hazards to users. Given the many benefits, virtually all of the other outdoor product suppliers have already introduced their own “Dry Down” products in coming months.

DriDown resists water and does not clump up like regular duck down

DriDown resists water and does not clump up like regular down

There are a few different labels today. Kelty and Sierra Designs use a process called DriDown. Big Agnes calls theirs DownTek. According to the DriDown website, a down sleeping bag that uses their “hydrophobic” treatments will stay dry 10 times longer than normal down, retain 2.7 times as much loft when it gets wet, and dry 33% faster than untreated down.

This makes DriDown comparable to synthetic sleeping bags in terms of their ability to deal with moisture. Consequently, there are going to be a lot of Scouts and their parents who will want to purchase them to get the inherent benefits of a down bag – despite the higher cost of down versus synthetic sleeping bags.

Many Scouters are set in their ways, and in the mistaken belief that they are protecting their boys, they often resist new backpacking products and techniques. Some Scoutmasters will doubt that DriDown is about as safe as the synthetic sleeping they have been using for years. So the question is, “How long will it take Scout leaders to allow their boys to use the new treated down products.” It’s just a matter of time until they start showing up at summer camp – or on a 50 mile backpacking trip.