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How to Go on a Night Hike

Learn the Basics of Night Hiking


How to Go on a Night Hike

Night hikes let you experience trails in a whole new light.

Photo © Matt Jaffe, 2011

My introduction to night hikes came in Anza Borrego State Park east of San Diego. It was after sunset by the time I returned to the trailhead, where I spotted a wiry guy loading up his daypack. He was just getting ready to begin his hike.

I made some comment about his late start and he told me that he did almost all of his hiking at night. He loved the quiet and the solitude. And this being the low desert, night hiking also allowed him to get out on the trail even during hot summer months. Sometimes he would hike all night until dawn. And he tried to avoid using any kind of illumination. Instead, he just let his eyes adjust to the darkness.

Granted, this guy was pretty hardcore. But even less experienced hikers, if not necessarily neophytes, can discover the world of night hiking.

Preparation is key, as is a familiarity with the basics of hiking. Because remember, you’re about to break one cardinal rule of hiking: Don’t go out after it’s dark.

Why Go Night Hiking

• Engage your other senses. With your vision reduced, your senses of smell and hearing will take on bigger roles and you’ll experience the outdoors in a different way.

• See the night sky. Dark skies are nearly impossible to find in most urban areas. By getting out into open space, you’ll have a chance to get away from light pollution in cities. And during annual astronomical events, such as August’s Perseid and November’s Leonid meteor showers, dark skies make all of the difference

• Hike all year. Hiking on hot days, especially in desert areas, can be lethal. Then, when days are short during late autumn and winter, it can be tough to go out for a hike after work. Night hikes give you the chance to get out on the trail on days when you might otherwise stay home.

Planning a Night Hike

Start with a group hike. Many local organizations offer group night hikes. These outings are an ideal way to experience hiking at night in a safe, controlled way.

Don’t go alone. I’m as guilty as most people about occasionally hiking by myself. But it’s especially critical on night hikes to be out with a partner or several people. And let someone know where and when you'll be hiking.

Choose a familiar trail. Until you become more experienced, go out on trails that you have previously hiked. That will help keep you more oriented even as you’re still getting acclimated to the very different sensations of night hiking. But remember that some parks and trails also close after sunset, so call ahead to make sure your destination is open.

Don’t pick a challenging trail. You’ll definitely want to avoid trails with hazards such as steep drop-offs and stream crossings. You should also start with a wide trail where the footing isn’t too rocky. Finally, choose an area that’s open to the sky and not in too dense of a forest so that moonlight is able to illuminate the ground.

And definitely go out on a night with moonlight. Full-moon hikes are gorgeous and you’ll be amazed at how much light there is. Even during half moons, a surprising amount of light can reach the trail.

Wear a headlamp. Infinitely better for night hiking than flashlights, headlamps free your hands and the light will automatically follow the direction where you’re looking. The best headlamps let you choose between a white or red light. Red illumination lets you see the trail but also makes it easier for your eyes to adjust to the darkness when you turn your headlamp off.

Overprepare. Be sure to bring two sets of spare batteries and an extra flashlight just in case.

Pay attention to wildlife warnings. Many parks in areas where bears as well as mountain lions may be present actively discourage hiking after dark.

Expect bugs. Especially if you’re going out around dusk during warmer months, mosquitoes and other nasties may be quite active. Bug spray and lightweight clothing that keeps you covered can reduce the nuisance.

Dress in layers. Temperatures can drop dramatically after dark, so bring additional layers to put on as conditions change. And definitely check weather forecasts before you leave the house.

On the Trail

Head out before dark. First of all, you'll get to enjoy the sunset. And secondly, you and your eyes will have a chance to get used to the dimming light instead of just plunging straight into the darkness.

Slow down. There's no point in hurrying down the trail at night. You also want to go at a slow enough pace to spot hazards, such as low-hanging branches and boulders.

Stick together. Everyone in your group should stay close to one another because it's so much easier to get lost in the dark. If you reach a junction first, wait for the whole group to catch up before continuing down any of the trails.

Keep it short. Until you build up your skills, don't plan on any major hikes at night. When it's dark, you'll have to concentrate more and pay additional attention to footing, so a night hike may end up feeling more strenuous. Pick a goal or destination that you know you can comfortably reach.

Stop frequently to take it all in. The whole point of night hiking is to enjoy the sensations of nature in a different way than you would during the day. Listen for wildlife, look up at the stars, and immerse yourself in the experience.

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