Hiking at night is very different from hiking during the day. While it goes against the grain, night hiking can present a whole new spin on your hiking adventures. If you’re interested in hiking at night, here’s some insight on why to do it plus tips on night hiking basics to keep you safe as you enjoy the wonders of the dark.
Why Hike at Night?
Hiking in the daytime provides you with only one spectrum of experience in the outdoors – what it’s like to be out in the light. Here are some reasons behind the rationale of why it’s groovy to night hike.
Change It Up
If we do the same things in life the same way all the time, we’re always going to feel the same. That’s a little too much of the same, isn’t it? If you want to shake up your hiking routine, night hiking affords you the opportunity to have a contrasting, varied experience. Taking a hike in an open valley on a full moon night, climbing up a hilltop in the dark to catch a brilliant sunrise, stargazing in the desert as you walk – these are all beautiful, enriching experiences you can have if you try night hiking. Some say that a downside to night hiking is that you see less; however, I’d say you just see different things.
Hiking at night asks you to let go of your attachment to seeing everything; you need to tune into other ways of navigating. Here presents an opportunity to develop a new relationship with both your inner and outer environments.
- Inner: You can develop a new relationship between your hearing and other senses of perception. Night hiking may give you the chance to feel you’re more in the present moment since you have to pay more attention to your footing and body awareness.
- Outer: With your senses keen, you can create a strong connection to the environment and surroundings. You may find you notice things at night you wouldn’t normally in the daytime, and you’re more conscious of wildlife. Nocturnal wildlife viewing is also possible, which can be a real treat.
Popular trails and parks can get busy with crowds, and some hikers find this disrupts their connection to nature. Hiking at night presents an occasion to be quiet and away from the masses, which can be a respite if you normally live a busy, social life. And if you’re an introvert, hiking at night is the way to go.
Depending on where you’re hiking, the blazing sun can feel scorching when you hike in the prime heat of the day. Hiking at night grants relief from this scenario, which may maximize enjoyment and reduce the risk of dehydration or heat exhaustion.
Thru-hikers and other long-distance hikers often use these tactics. It can be unbearable to hike in midday in the southern section of the Pacific Crest Trail or in the thick of a hot, humid summer day on the Appalachian Trail. So, they’ll get up before dawn to get some early miles in while it’s still dark and cooler, take a break and siesta midday, and then bang out more miles as the sun lowers and darkness creeps in. Some hikers even opt to flip their schedule completely and do all of their hiking at night, just to avoid the heat. (Keep reading for more notes and tips on the logistics and safety of this approach).
No, you’re never going to be absolutely forced to hike at night. However, there are a few particular circumstances where it may seem like it’s a necessity.
- You Need the Miles – If you’re on a long-distance hike and feel pressed for time, you may have to factor in some extended days of hiking to get the miles done you need to reach your goal. Therefore, hiking at night may become a part of this equation.
- Firmer Snow – Once the warm sun hits snow, it becomes tacky and mushy, making it tough to hike without post-holing. Some hikers feel they need to hike when it’s still dark to cover the distance over the snow. In a big snow year in the Sierra Nevada section of the Pacific Crest Trail, this is a common approach.
- Weather Considerations – Both times I hiked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, we started hiking at 3:00 am in order to get over the Thorong La Pass before noon. We needed to do this because it was typical that the winds would gust and blow starting midday, making it unsafe to go over the pass at 17,769 feet.
Is Hiking at Night Safe?
Before getting into the basics of night hiking and tips, it’s important to address the question of whether it’s safe…or dangerous. It’s worth noting that even day hiking can be unsafe if someone isn’t prepared. The same goes with night hiking – if you don’t know what you’re getting into, problems may arise. Yes, there are more skills required of night hiking, but once you’ve got those covered, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t give it a try.
Accidents can happen in the backcountry anytime, yet they are less likely if you’re savvy and prepared. Being overly confident and not taking it seriously, underestimating terrain and weather, plus poor navigation skills (which can lead to getting lost) are all things you want to stamp out before you start night hiking.
Night Hiking Basics
In order to keep safe and to enjoy yourself while night hiking, here are some valuable tips so you can give it a go.
Even if it’s a full moon night and you think you’ll be able to see everything, you still need a lighting device to keep with you. Headlamps are recommended because they’re hands-free, meaning you won’t possibly drop it if you were handling a flashlight. Choose a headlamp that has multiple settings (low and high), plus a red-light feature. Your eyes are less sensitive to the wavelengths of red light, meaning your night vision will be less impacted by it.
- Turn your light away if another hiker is approaching; you don’t want to be responsible for having him start at zero again in attaining night vision because you shined a bright light in his eyes. A red-light setting is also helpful at camp or when with friends for this reason.
- Be sure you know how to use the headlamp with its various settings before you set out for your adventure.
- Take extra batteries, or even an extra lighting device, as a back-up.
- Having a headlamp with you is essential, yet you don’t always have to use it. It’s a good idea to not turn your headlamp on as soon as it begins to get dark because you want to give your eyes time to adjust to night vision. As your eyes adapt to the darkness, your night vision improves so you can best witness the landscape, wildlife, and stars in the sky. Think of it as developing a new superpower.
- There are many headlamps on the market with a range of features, lumens, and costs.
I’ve had a trusty Black Diamond headlamp for years, which leads me to recommend these three:
The Buddy System
It’s highly advisable to not night hike solo, just in case. Hiking with a friend or group is a solid plan, especially in situations mentioned before like hiking on snow when it’s firmer at night. You’re also less likely to feel jumpy or nervous when hiking with other people because those night sounds can definitely play with your head sometimes.
I discussed earlier how some thru-hikers elect to flip their schedule in the heat and hike mostly at night, and it’s worth saying the safety of this revolves around doing it with others. The buddy system also entails letting someone know your itinerary and plans before you go. Having a person know what you’re up to ensures that if something does go awry, you’re accounted for and someone’s got your back.
Know the Trail
Being familiar with a trail you’ve hiked before is a great way to start out with night hiking if it’s new for you. Some would say it’s not a good idea to hike any trail at night unless you’ve walked it before, yet as a thru-hiker who has hiked on new sections of trail for the first time at night, I can’t say that. What I can say though is that we need to be smart about it. Knowing what type of trail is coming ahead would determine whether I felt safe hiking it at night or not. For example, hiking at night on a narrow trail above steep cliffs is something I’d avoid.
Below are some other factors to consider.
- Make sure the trail is marked – The Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails are very well blazed with trail markers, so I felt safe having a sense of where I was going without it being a familiar trail. When night hiking, be sure the trail/route is obvious and stay observant to not miss a turn.
- Terrain – What type of terrain does the trail have? Is it rocky, sketchy, or narrow, so perhaps not suited to night hiking?
- Check that the trail is open at night – Some parks and parking lots close at sunset, meaning if you get back to your car at 11:00 pm, your car may be gated in the lot for the night…eeek. Do your research beforehand to avoid this bummer of a scenario.
- Slow down – Hiking at night somewhat forces you to go slower, so take this in stride, be patient and relish in a slower pace to notice your surroundings.
Navigation and Maps
Preparedness with knowing the trail goes hand in hand with having a map (and knowing how to read it) and/or a navigation device with maps on it. It’s way easier to get lost while night hiking if you lose the sense of where you’re going or make a wrong turn. Phones can die or lose battery, so have a back-up charger if you rely on navigation that way. It’s always wise to have a paper map with you in case technology fails, or you just happen to drop your phone in a river. Hey, you never know.
We all know there are no guarantees when it comes to Mother Nature, however, checking the weather report before your night hike is smart and proactive. Weather can make any kind of hiking dicey, and that amplifies when it’s dark out due to limited vision. Icy conditions are especially treacherous, and who needs to be hiking in a thunder and lightning storm at night or day?
If the weather does unexpectedly change during your night hike, always have rain gear and extra layers with you. There’s also nothing wrong with turning back or setting up camp if you’re backpacking; being able to adapt to ever-changing situations is invariably the winning card.
‘Know Thy Gear’ is an excellent mantra, because it’s no fun to be out in the backcountry, especially in the dark, clueless about how to use some fancy new tent. Whether you’re out for a few hours at night or backpacking, know how to use your gear.
Besides a headlamp, here are a few gear and packing tips for a night excursion:
- Trekking Poles – I swear by trekking poles in most all hikes, but especially for night hiking. They help with your footing placement and stability while giving you that added feeling of security, in particular going downhill. I’m a fan of Leki Cressida Poles.
- Snacks, Food & Water – Take extra of all these things with you. Be aware of the water situation where you’re hiking, in case you need to carry a water filter or if you have to bring more if there are no water sources. You can still get dehydrated at night even if temperatures are cooler.
- Clothing & Layering – Hiking up a sweat means you want quick-drying, breathable clothing. Layers are important since you will inevitably heat up and cool off, so have options in your pack. Remember that temperatures drop at night so it’s essential to be prepared with extra clothing.
- Footwear – Feel comfortable with your shoes and how you handle walking in them. A new night hiking trip may not be the best time to break in a new pair.
- Stay Organized – Keep your backpack organized so you can find things easily with less lighting.
The Wildlife Situation
As with all hiking, know what the wildlife and animal situation is in the area you’re night hiking. There are different precautions and levels of awareness needed if you’re hiking in grizzly bear territory or snake country than on a coastal walk, for example. Here are some considerations:
- First, remember that you’re in their house. Be respectful and aware so you all can be safe and in harmony.
- Try to make some noise as you walk to announce your presence gently, to avoid catching any unaware predators on your merry way.
- Make note that many wild animals are most active early morning and late evening. This can be great if your aim is to do some wildlife viewing on your night hike, yet it also raises the stakes of encountering them.
- If you’re in bear country, carry bear spray. If in snake territory, wear socks and high boots because snakes rarely bite above the ankle and this minimizes the chances of being bitten. Walking in the cooler night air is sublime in the desert, yet it’s not the way to avoid snakes.
- With all of that said, encounters with wildlife can happen any time of day, so be conscious while night hiking and do your research to know what’s possibly on the trail with you.
Hiking at night can be a rewarding and enlivening experience that can offer another dimension to hiking life. It can also give you a new connection with yourself and with the environment, in addition to the many other reasons people hike at night. By taking some time to familiarize yourself with the basics and tips of night hiking, you can feel prepared and safe for relishing starry nights, forest wanderings, and moonlit horizons.
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