How Many People Get Struck By Lightning Outdoors?

multiple lightning strikes at night
Night hiking, you say?

I’ve always heard about the chances of being struck by lightning being tiny, but after two close calls in the outdoors, a crazy fishing experience, and meeting someone who lived through getting struck by lightning I started wondering just how uncommon it really was. Was it really a long shot to get struck by lightning, or would be an outdoors freak actually raise my chances up to scary levels?

According to the International Lightning Detection Conference, an estimated 240,000 people are injured and 6,000 killed worldwide by lightning every year. In the United States the numbers drop to 400-500 people struck per year and 40-50 of them dying. We dive into lightning strikes further, including why men are more likely than women to get hit.

Yup, statistically according to data from the National Weather Service (NWS), this actually is a real thing. Men tend to be far more likely than women to be struck by lightning for a variety of reasons that we’re going to dive into in the next section.

There are also easily explainable reasons why the injuries and deaths are at  a higher percentage in some countries versus others, which we also go into.

While getting hit by lightning is a long shot, in part because of people being smart enough to look for shelter when a dangerous storm approaches, that doesn’t mean lightning isn’t a valid danger. People still get hit. In the U.S. hundreds get injured and dozens die while across the world hundreds of thousands get hurt and thousands die.

And yes, the chances of getting hit go up DRASTICALLY if you are constantly outside, and get caught in the wild multiple times during a storm.

Read on to learn why lightning seems to prefer one gender over the other, how to keep safe inside and outside during a lightning storm, as well as some strange facts and stories to complete your lightning vs. man education and teach you everything you need to know…as well as a couple random facts because those are always good.

Why Do Men Get Hit More by Lightning?

The statistics don’t lie on this one. According to the National Weather Service, in every single year since 1968 more men have been hit by lightning than men. That is a 50 year streak and counting. This trend isn’t just an average, and it isn’t even relatively close. Based on data in the United States from 2006 to 2016 of the 352 killed by a direct lightning strike, 79% were men.

While definitely a type of impressive, that is a really lop-sided statistic that at first glance seems rather baffling, but there are several good reasons that help explain this disparity.

Job & Lifestyle Factors

Someone once pointed out to me that shark attack numbers are way off and the chances of attack were higher than all published numbers. “If you’re in Iowa, your chances are 0. Throws off the curve.” That doesn’t mean a shark attack is likely in the ocean, they’re still rare, but it made me think about how pure numbers didn’t always tell the story.

Two of the biggest factors that help explain why men are far more likely than women to get hit by lightning: outdoor activity & job.

Sign of man hit by lightningFor many outdoor jobs like park ranger or trail builder (hiking trails & maintenance) or jobs involving climbing towers, in many of these professions the overwhelming number of workers tend to be male. This helps explain why 91% of all work related lightning deaths happen to males.

That puts them in more situations where they are out in the open and in potentially dangerous situations when storms approach.

If a person is outside one time a year when lightning is a danger, that’s a very low chance to get hit. If they’re out hundreds of times a year in those conditions, suddenly the odds of getting hit are going to go way up. 

Outdoor activity is another one. Now there are tons of wonderful ladies who love the outdoors (I believe the proper pronoun for this group is “definite keeper”) and are very active camping, hiking, fishing, and boating, but on average males still spend more sheer amount of time spent out in the outdoors than females.

This means more time outside, where obviously you are much more likely to get hit by lightning (yes it can happen inside, too). However, there’s another reason, not very flattering, as to why male outdoor adventurers tend to get hit much more than even female outdoor adventurers.

Unfortunately some stereotypes are true…

The simple fact is based on multiple interviews with many outdoor enthusiasts: males are very likely to not worry about lightning until they have already been in danger for a long time! This is confirmed that 90% of those fatal lightning strikes occurred when the men were still fishing, golfing, hunting, or otherwise still going about their outdoor activity.

Which meant there had almost certainly been enough warning to get out of the way to a safer spot…but they were too busy fishing, golfing, playing soccer, hunting, or otherwise doing what they were doing to bother doing so.

The stereotype that maybe men are just too stubborn/stupid when it comes to certain things might come into play here. The percentages of lightning fatalities from clearly avoidable situations.

According to the National Weather Service statistics:

  • Men lead death by lightning because of leisure activities 79% to 21%
  • Men lead death by lightning while participating in sports 94% to 6%

On the positive side of things, the direction of overall deaths by lightning is still declining as a 2017 USA Today article reported, noting that lightning deaths were down to record lows. Part of this is due to less open field jobs, but a good chunk of it is education and better awareness, especially considering the outdoors are as popular as ever.

How to Stay Safe Outdoors During a Lightning Storm

The most important first step is education and being prepared. An easy rule of thumb: if you can hear thunder, you’re probably already in danger. Many lightning strike injuries those bolts are actually ahead of the rain and the “shake the building” level of thunder.

The old rule of thumb for figuring out how far away the storm is starts by counting when you see a lightning strike. Then you listen for thunder while counting the seconds. Once you hear thunder take that number of seconds and divide by five. That is how far the main storm is away from you.

And lightning can strike up to 10 miles away.

That means unless your count was over 50 (and it will almost always be far, far less) then you are clearly in the danger zone. While 10 miles might be unusually far away, it is absolutely possible, especially if there is a very attractive target out in the open. Strikes from over 5 miles from the obvious edge of the storm is actually quite common.

Basically if you can hear thunder, you are in range of a lightning strike.

Keep in mind this is up to 10 miles away whether the storm is coming into the area or leaving it, so make sure you’re playing it safe. Even when it seems like the storm has completely passed, experts recommend staying indoors for another 30 minutes to eliminate the chance of an errant lightning strike from the back end of the storm.

Knowing this, and understanding that those 13,000 to 1 or 1 in 3,000 odds of getting hit by lightning you hear about skyrocket when in those conditions, will help people make smarter decisions and get out of the danger early on or ideally, before there is any possibility of a problem.

Staying safe outside when lightning strikes

Unfortunately, avoiding the possibility of a lightning strike is one of the few things that every source agrees on when it comes to what to do if you’re caught in the wild. After that, there are multiple conflicting studies and conflicting pieces of advice. The things most studies agree on are what not to do, so we’ll list those and then get into what your potential follow-up actions are.

If you’re outside and get caught in a storm:

  • Get into a shelter immediately (vehicle, house, cabin, even an open sided park shelter is better than nothing (assuming the floor is not concrete)
  • Do not seek shelter under a tree
  • Do not seek shelter under a cliff or rock outcropping
  • Stay away from bodies of water and soaked ground
  • Stay away from elevated positions
  • Stay away from objects that obviously could conduct electricity 

After that reports differ a bit as to the best course of recommended action for staying safe once the lightning begins to strike. Getting to a lower area is important. 

There is massive argument beyond that. There are some studies that suggest that getting as low as possible is important, with another playing off of that on the idea that laying down flat is the wrong way to do it but going prostrate on the ground is better. 

Many outdoorsman, who are backed up by another study, suggest that’s stupid because you’re exposing more of your body to the ground and you should be squatting with your feet flat on the ground to not only stay small but give lighting a quick way out of you if you get hit, increasing your chances of living.

There are also opinions that the safest course of action period is getting to a safe shelter, and they suggest that means running is still the safest option rather than stopping, and some suggest the moving could possibly make you a harder target to hit though many others disagree with this.

If hiking in a group, make sure not to huddle up. Keep at least twenty or thirty feet between each individual as you squat down (metal and packs at least as far away) that way if one person gets hit the others are less likely to be affected and have a chance to provide first aid and then go for help once the storm has passed.

If more in-depth studies come out we will be sure to continue to update this section. If you know of a new study, please let us know so we can take a look and continue to update – but for now, these are the tips for staying as safe as possible in an unsafe outdoor situation whenever lightning is involved.

How to Stay Safe Indoors During a Lightning Storm

This actually isn’t as cut and dry as you might first think, and this advice can apply to indoors or in shelters. Obviously being indoors is still far better than being outside in the middle of the storm, but there are still some important safety tips that many people don’t know. This might apply to outdoor shelters, or it might apply to actual houses, depending on the tip.

  • Stay away from windows – go down to the next sub-section for more on this one
  • Lighting can travel through pipes and water – stay out of the shower, don’t do dishes, keep away from any water faucet
  • Stay away from concrete walls and floors (yes, lightning can put a LOT of volts through concrete)

As long as you watch out for these issues, chances are you’ll be in good shape.

Can lightning go through windows (glass)?

As crazy as this can seem, the answer is actually yes. Not only does lightning have the ability to strike through glass, including those that make up your average window, but there are actually multiple examples of this happening in real life! Stay away from windows, porches, decks, and the like especially when there is a really major lightning storm hitting you full force.

So stay away from showers, windows, and concrete and you should be fine.

The Strange Story of Ranger Roy Cleveland Sullivan

Roy Cleveland Sullivan is the Guinness Book of World Records holder for the man struck the most times by lightning with seven confirmed instances (Eight total if you count the one unconfirmed from Roy’s childhood). Amazingly, grossly defying all odds (although you could certainly argue that getting hit by lightning that many times is already grossly defying all odds) by surviving every single one of those direct strikes. 

Even more bizarre, because of course Ranger Sullivan’s story gets even weirder, was the vast array of different ways or situations where he was struck by lightning. To the point where he would earn the nickname of “Human Lightning Rod.”

Roy Cleveland Sullivan was a park ranger at Virginia’s famous Shenandoah National Forest from 1936 to 1976. Multiple lightning strikes would hit him during this time, with some afterwards, as well, at other times when he was outside.

To say Ranger Roy Sullivan’s luck was…unique, is an understatement to say the least, as several unlikely strikes happened when the main brunt of lightning hit something close by and deflected to create an indirect lightning strike.

The seven lightning strikes:

  • 1942 – Struck while hiding from a storm in a fire lookout tower. The tower was hit seven or eight times, and the ranger was hit close by when he tried to flee the now thoroughly burning tower that the multiple lightning strikes lit on fire.
  •  1969 – Hit while driving his truck, an incredibly unlikely and unusual result of lightning hitting nearby trees before “deflecting” through the truck window and hitting him.
  • 1970 – Struck while in his front yard, the main strike was on a power transformer before jumping and hitting his shoulder.
  • 1972 – Struck by lightning while actually inside of a ranger station at the park. This would start a severe (and frankly very understandable) paranoia that a higher power was trying to kill him.
  • 1973 – Struck by lightning shortly after leaving his truck.
  • 1976 – Struck by lightning after injuring his ankle running away from a cloud he thought was following him.
  • 1977 – Struck by lightning while fishing in a pond. Still standing, swatted and shooed away a black bear trying to steal his trout.
  • UNOFFICIAL – Roy long claimed the first time he was hit with lightning was as a child while working in the fields with his father.

U.S. Lightning Strike Numbers vs. World Numbers

Aside from the obvious fact that there are far more people in the rest of the world population-wise versus just the United States, there are other factors here, too. Some major ones include far more agricultural field jobs meaning many millions of people working long outside jobs in the open, poorer housing with lightning attractors like sheet metal roofs, and a large lack of knowledge about lightning safety.

These combine to result in much larger numbers of people injured and killed by direct (and indirect) lightning strikes. These are somewhat estimates, but a fairly good prediction puts the numbers at about 240,000 people are injured by lightning strikes each year. One estimate is that the annual global death toll from lightning at 6,000.

Wikipedia’s lightning strike page does a surprisingly good job of really breaking down information on this topic and doing a more detailed deep dive on some of the side-related 

Stay Safe!

Whether you are in a park enjoying a special event, out camping or in the woods, or find yourself in any other situation where a storm is rolling in, make sure to take what you’ve learned here to stay safe during the next storm!

ABC News Story on Lightning Strike Experience