National park safety during lightning, rain, heat and fire
Don’t rely on “It could never happen to me”
As we rode horseback into the canyon with our outfitter, my family looked happy. The national parks and their beauty make us smile.
After an hour ride, at the bottom of the canyon, the storm clouds moved in. Then came rain, lightning and hail. I’ve only been terrified for my family twice in the outdoors – this was one of those times.
At Wandering Rose Travels, we like to write about the thrills of vacations. The fun. The goosebump moments. But with all the travel we’ve experienced, the inevitable occurs, sometimes to us, more often to those around us. By sharing these moments, we hope to infuse a little caution into your trips. We believe that’s healthy.
National park weather conditions: Park ranger or weather app?
I use our phone apps and favorite weather sites to plan our daily vacation activities, but I never solely rely upon them. Especially when we’re hiking in national parks. We place our trust in the visitor center staff and park rangers, who know their weather intimately and what dangers it might pose to visitors.
In the case of the canyon incident described above, the visitor center forecasted a possible storm. But the sky looked okay. Plus, we had reservations for the horseback trip on our last day and the outfitter said the weather was fine. That mistake was ours. And we benefitted from luck as we watched lightning strike all around us.
Have you ever had your hair stand straight up? I mean perfectly straight? Without using hair gel? My entire family experienced that phenomenon during a sudden storm along a barrier island Atlantic beach. I later Googled the cause. The answer frightened me: it’s nature’s warning that you’re about to be struck by lightning.
We were lucky – only soaked and afraid. But the revelation made us count our blessings.
Here are a few outdoor safety tips during lightning storms:
- Get away from water and high ground.
- Find shelter, but not under a tree, because lightning splashes from tall objects.
- If you’re in a forest, seek out the smallest trees.
- Never lie on the ground; instead, crouch on the balls of your feet to decrease your height.
- If you can’t get indoors, an auto is a good safe haven.
Rain and flash floods
Rain produces incredible beauty in our national parks: wildflower super blooms in Death Valley, powerful waterfalls in Yosemite and double rainbows in the Smoky Mountains. But rainfall can produce dangerous situations – every year people die in our parks and recreational areas during storms. Consider the following three warnings.
- Slot canyons. They’re dream-like places, but some of our nation’s worst vacation tragedies occur when storms produce rains that quickly turn narrow canyons into nightmares. In some situations, as little as a half-inch of rain can fill a canyon with floodwaters, rocks and trees, even when the rain occurs miles away. My advice is simple: Never enter a slot canyon against the advice of rangers and park staff.
- Waterfalls. Common sense. That’s all you need. And remember that people who think they have common sense get swept over falls every month. They eyeball the current and conclude it’s safe. Here’s the perfect rule: never enter or cross a river or stream ABOVE a waterfall. Ever!
- Rocky trails. Rain turns rocky trails into hazards. My family invests in hiking shoes with great traction, although caution is always needed on wet trails. We’re always surprised at the number of people walking trails while wearing sneakers or flip-flops. We sometimes hike in the rain but not on trails known for rocky surfaces. And we use trekking poles for better balance.
After my daughter and I finished a fantastic Utah hike, we heard the tragic news about a couple that died on the same day and on the same trail we had trekked. The couple perished from heat exhaustion. I’ll share what we did differently, based upon the media reports.
The high temperature that day was 108. We started our hike at 7 a.m. and finished by noon. We carried a lot of water including sports drinks. And while the extra weight was cumbersome, we drank it all by the end of our hike. And most importantly, the popular bucket-list trail we chose was unmarked and very remote, so we hired a guide who was worth every cent.
The couple that perished hiked in peak afternoon temperatures, without enough fluids, by themselves, on a rocky trail that’s known for confusing turns. My family doesn’t avoid the heat on vacations, but we’re very deliberate when planning our day. When you read about someone else’s peril, please ask yourself what you might do differently. It’s not disrespectful to learn from others’ mistakes.
During a recent trip to Yosemite, we hiked for seven days while the park was battling fires. The following advice may seem like common sense, but I think it’s still worth sharing.
Each morning, we chose to forego our early start and waited until the visitors center opened. We wanted the most recent update on fire and smoke. The staff provided great advice on where to hike with the clearest views. And even though one of our planned destinations was still open to visitors, we decided against the hike after the ranger told us that the smoky conditions would inflict the equivalent of inhaling two packs of cigarettes.
How to survive a forest fire is complex based upon many factors. This discussion would require another article, plus there’s a lot advice online since the recent tragedies out West. The best couple of national park fire safety tips? Find a stream or pond, or a rocky surface. Look high in the sky, not along the ground, to determine smoke direction. Head downhill. But staying informed before you hike is still the best advice.