Summer High-Altitude Hiking Safety Tips

Date: Jul. 25th, 2010
Contact: Allie Gardner

It’s summertime and, in the mountains at least, that means afternoon thunderstorms. As awe-inspiring as they can be, if you’re outside, they can also be extremely dangerous.

All it takes is one horrific story to remind us of this fact. Like the tragedy in Grand Teton this past week, when 16 climbers had to be rescued off the summit and, sadly, one man lost his life.

Storms have a way of sneaking up on you in the mountains and can roll in out of nowhere. That’s why it’s important to be off any summits before noon in most places. Always check the forecast before you leave, but know that things can quickly change at altitude. And have a plan in case you become stranded during a lightning storm. We wrote about this last year at this time and feel it’s worth repeating. Below, safety tips on hiking high altitudes.

Here are some things to remember when hiking high altitudes:

1. This may seem obvious, and it is, but always check the weather. Some mountain storms happen out of the blue, but a good many of them are predictable. Don’t take unnecessary risks just because you’ve been planning a hike for days, weeks, or even months. You’ll get another chance.

2. Start early in the day (3:00 or 4:00 a.m. is ideal for a high-altitude summer day hike) and be headed down the mountain before noon. Storms have a tendency to roll in during the afternoon. In the Rocky Mountains, for example, thunder and lightning are common after 1 pm.

2. Dress in layers warmer than you think you might need and always bring a waterproof or water-resistant shell. If you layer correctly, you can minimize weight and maximize efficiency. Carry lightweight, but warm, gloves and a hat in your day pack.

3. Wear a good pair of hiking boots or shoes. If you’re hiking rocky, high-altitude terrain, you need the stability and protection of boots, especially if you’re carrying a pack. If you’re not carrying much weight and the trail is relatively flat, hiking shoes may be more comfortable. Either way, look for waterproof uppers with a Gore-Tex lining.

4. Wear a hat, long sleeves, and pants to protect your skin from the sun. Sunblock is an absolute must at high elevations, where UV exposure is brutal.

5. If you find yourself in the middle of a snow or rain storm, seek shelter.

Lightning storms are more common in the summer than blizzards. If you get caught in a lightning storm (according to the National Weather Service):

1. Descend immediately, and look for cover under a stand of short trees or low-lying bushes. Stay away from tall, isolated trees. Remember you don’t want to be near, or under, the tallest thing around.

2. If you can’t risk heading to lower ground, squat low with something (jacket, blanket, sleeping pad) between you and the ground for insulation – don’t sit or lay down as ground currents can electrocute you from below.

3. If you’re climbing, remove wet ropes and climbing equipment and step away from them. Remove your metal frame backpack and drop your trekking poles. Stay away from anything metal, including fences.

4. Do not seek shelter under partially enclosed areas like rock overhangs or rain shelters. These places do not provide protection from lightning.

5. Keep an eye out for dark, towering, or cauliflower shaped thunderhead clouds and early warning signs of a storm, like the feeling of electricity in the air and sudden humidity. Some people say you can smell ozone just before a storm, others say your hair stands on end. If you have a feeling a storm is coming, it probably is. Begin your descent immediately.

6. If you’re hiking with a group, don’t huddle together during the storm. Spread out at least 15 feet from one another to decrease your chances of being hit or becoming human conductors.

High-altitude hiking is so rewarding, but can also be dangerous. Always be prepared and aware of your surroundings while enjoying them