Not a lot scares me about bike touring any more.
I’ve come to terms with heavy traffic, sounds in the night while wild camping and the agony of leaving the security of home behind for life on the road. But there’s still one thing that turns me from an adventurous cyclist into a trembling toddler within seconds.
I hate them. At the first sign of darkening skies I start to fret. The stress shows up in the wrinkles on my forehead as I clench my teeth. If we’re in our tent when lightning bolts start flashing, my whole body goes tense as I run through the options.
Should I get out and crouch in a ditch? That’s never appealing when it’s raining. The rest of the traditional safety advice never seems to be much help either. “Find a building to shelter in,” they say. A good idea in theory, but when storms appear we always seem to be somewhere like this.
What’s the stranded bike tourist supposed to do in such a situation? The bad news is that the 100% safe option – getting inside a building – isn’t always going to be an option. If you go on a bike tour, you just have to accept that there is a chance you are stuck outside during a storm and that comes with a degree risk.
That said, here are some tips to minimize your chances of being hit.
- Do Your Research – Check the weather before you set out and know the local weather patterns. In the rainy season in Asia, storms tend to roll in late in the afternoon. If you know this, you can arrange to be near a town so you have a restaurant to shelter in when the weather is at its worst.
- Ask For Help – If you do see a house, don’t be afraid to ask for shelter inside. You might also be able to flag down a car and ask to sit inside.
- Avoid Danger Spots – If there are any enclosed areas like buildings or cars, go there. Stay away from things like trees, fences and poles. In a forest or wooded area, place yourself near the shortest tree or an area of low-lying brush. “Such a spot may take a bit of finding so it is wise to monitor an approaching storm using the three seconds per kilometer rule. If you begin when the lightning is still 10km away, there should be ample time to locate a good place to sit out the storm,” says Tony Stephens, Cycling Development Officer for Western Australia.
- Separate Yourself – If you’re cycling with a friend, stay several meters apart from one another and from your bicycle. That way if lightning strikes, both people won’t be hurt because the distance will stop the lightning from traveling between two people. We also normally put combustible things like the fuel bottle for our stove outside the tent, if we’re waiting out the storm inside.
The League of American Bicyclists also suggests:
- Looking for safe shelter as soon as you can hear thunder.
- Lowering your elevation as much as possible. If you are on a hill with exposure to the sky, head downhill or seek out an overhanging bluff or a valley or ravine where you can lower your exposure. The exception is if you are in a place at risk of flash flooding like a creek bed – then you should go to higher ground.
- Moving to a sturdy building or shelter if there is one within reach. Options might include underpasses, large barns, stores or railway stations. Do not take shelter in small sheds or under isolated trees.
- Getting off your bike quickly if you feel your skin tingle or your hair stand on end. Squat low to the ground on the balls of your feet. Place your hands on your knees with your head between them. Make yourself the smallest target possible, and minimize your contact with the ground.
If you’re like me and naturally nervous during a storm, none of this is likely to alleviate your fears entirely. It will just help you deal better with the situation. Once you’ve found a safe place, the best advice I can offer is to find something to take your mind off the storm until it passes. Think about what you’re going to make for dinner or your route for the coming days. Sing a silly song. Write in your journal. If you get absorbed in another activity, the storm will be over before you know it.
Above all, keep the storm in perspective. Yes, people are killed by lightning but in the grand scheme of things it’s a minor risk. Despite the fear when that lightning bolt comes out of the sky, chances are you’ll be just fine.