If you've ever stayed out too late on a hike -- whether accidentally or on purpose -- you already know that hiking at night is a completely different experience from hiking the same trail by day. The darkness hides familiar landmarks, rendering those you can see in totally alien terms. On a dark night, depth perception becomes a guessing game -- and a whole new set of animals comes out to play.
That's part of what makes night hiking such an adventure. The familiar old trail that you've hiked dozens of times is suddenly new; it's like exploring all over again, and even a short hike can be thrilling at night. That said, it's worth taking a little time to consider what you're getting into and prepare accordingly. I encourage you to review the basics of night hiking first and then, once you're ready to go, keep the following in mind:
The more the merrier.
There's nothing quite like having a good friend -- or friends -- nearby to bolster your courage as you take a figurative leap into the dark unknown. That said, make sure your party still has the same number of people when you finish the hike as when you started; if anybody insists on wandering off alone (e.g. for a bathroom break), wait for them to get back before moving on. This is one case where an impromptu game of Marco Polo is not an appropriate joke.
Sometimes, small creatures make big sounds.
I'll never forget the time I was bouldering in the woods with a friend (on a glacial erratic), when we both heard crackling in the undergrowth. Whatever was coming through the brush sounded massive, and it was heading straight for us.
We shouted warnings to each other and reached for the bear spray, positive we were about to be rushed by an angry bruin. The mystery animal thrashed around a little more before tumbling out of the bushes at our feet: A squirrel.
That happened in broad daylight; it's even harder to identify creatures by their rustles at night. (I remain convinced that the bigger the animal, the quieter it can be when it really wants to. More than once I've come across the smooth, still-warm depression left by a moose (or possibly a bear) bedded down in the grass, without having heard or seen any trace of its passage as the big animal tiptoed away.)
Batteries don't change themselves.
If you're night hiking under a full moon, you won't even need a headlamp -- but you should always have a good light source along, just in case clouds roll in or terrain blocks you from the light. That means carrying spare batteries for said light source, because if it's going to poop out, it'll happen right when you need it most. Murphy's Law and all that.I like to carry a tiny pocket headlamp that I can use to illuminate the bigger lamp's battery pack as I swap batteries -- it only adds an ounce or two, yet makes the actual changeover much easier -- although of course if you're hiking in a group, you can just have someone else shine his light your way.
There is such a thing as headlamp etiquette.
Hiking without a headlamp -- when light conditions allow -- is part of the fun; it's a thrill to see what your eyes can pick out of the darkness once they've had time to adjust. But if someone else in your group flips his headlamp on at a whim, it can ruin your night vision for a while -- so work out the headlamp rules beforehand: Is your whole group going with, or without? Of course, safety always trumps etiquette in a pinch.
If you are using headlamps, it might be natural to look right at others in your party, especially if you're having a conversation. Doing so shines your headlamp right in their eyes, so either use your peripheral vision or tilt your headlamp down so it won't shine straight at them.
One last thing to keep in mind...
Being brave enough to go on a night hike doesn't mean you should skip all the usual safety checks -- in fact they're even more important than ever. So do make sure that somebody who cares about you knows where you're going and when you'll be back. Now get out there and play!