Here in Arizona, we may not have many seasons, but one of our most anticipated is monsoon season. Named for a weather pattern caused by a shift in wind and increasing precipitation, monsoons bring with them the slow build of massive clouds, often brief and sudden downpours, and a delightful shift in temperatures. That's not to mention the amazing lightning shows they produce. In fact, one centralized storm can produce more than 1,000 strikes per hour.
These storms can occur daily throughout Arizona, and for avid hikers, this is just another cautionary reminder from Mother Nature herself to be aware and play it safe. Now, if hiking is your jam, by all means get out and enjoy the beauty that surrounds. But keep these safety tips in mind during this time of year, and know that sometimes staying home is your best bet.
Check the Weather Reports Before Heading Out
While this may seem somewhat self-explanatory, when it comes to monsoon season, there tends to be something of a patterned behavior in the storms. For example, in areas of higher elevation, which tend to be a hiker’s playground during the heat of summer, storms tend to hit from mid-afternoon into the evening, offering a window of time in the morning to plan a hike. And while this is common, it is not always the case. So checking the weather beforehand should be at the top of your list in terms of safety.
Know Your Trail
With the onset of sudden downpours and the amount of lightning often associated with monsoon season, it is important to know your surroundings. In terms of flash floods, canyons should be avoided. Even storms that are miles away and out of sight can become problematic — and often life threatening — as increased levels of water enter the canyon carrying debris at rapid speeds. Avoid trails near water sources where flooding can occur and thereby impair your ability to get to a safe area. If lightning is involved, the water is the last place you want to be. Also, avoid hiking in high elevations where strikes occur with more frequency. This is due to a drier climate at those elevations, making them some of the most dangerous areas during a monsoon.
This one goes for anytime you are out on the trails, but especially during monsoon season. With the amount of lighting that is often associated with these storms, it is particularly important to stay alert. Lightning can strike up to 10 miles from the center of a storm. This means, if you can hear thunder, you are within striking range. Keep an eye on clouds building in the distance and listen for thunder. It is important to have an escape plan in place if clouds begin to darken and/or carry lightning.
Wear the Right Gear
Avoid cotton, and yes, that means your underwear, too. Instead, opt for synthetic base layers and quick-dry products that provide ease in mobility. In terms of socks, high-cushion wool or wool blend will help in preventing blistering and keeping your feet comfortable and “dry." Here in the desert, light rain gear (in terms of jackets and pants) works great. Additionally, layering when possible will help keep you comfortable. Depending on the area you are hiking, temperatures will fluctuate and the rain will not stop you from sweating. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, there's proper footwear: Waterproof trekking boots are often seen as the most effective. Keeping your feet dry will play an essential role in avoiding painful blisters and protecting your feet.
So, You’re In It. Now What?
First and foremost, check your surroundings and make sure you are not the tallest point or near the tallest point within your setting.
If You Are Below the Tree Line, Then:
Avoid buildings with large openings such as picnic shelters, as they are not safe. This also goes for caves, since they are great for channeling electricity.
Stay clear of water, whether small puddles or larger bodies. Lightning regularly strikes water. And being a great conductor, water can spread the strike long distances and in several directions.
Remove all metal objects from your person, whether a backpack with a metal frame or any kind of jewelry, and move 100 feet away from it. This includes aluminum and carbon fiber trekking poles.
If you are hiking in a group, spread out a good 50 to 100 feet from each other. Do not huddle in a group.
Take shelter under short trees that are among larger/taller trees. Stay away from single trees. Being among a thick forest is safer.
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If You Are Above the Tree Line, Then:
If possible, get below the tree line quickly. If this is not possible, avoid solitary objects, and make sure you are not the tallest object in your surroundings.
If you feel hairs on your arms and head standing on end, this is an indication of immediate danger and you are likely in a high electrical field.
Take lightning crouch position immediately. Note: This does not ensure you will not be struck. It is best to avoid areas above the tree line during monsoon season.