It’s happening. Winter is coming, which brings along with it shorter daylight hours. For those of us who love to get on trail year-round, no matter the temperature, this will mean being on trail in the dark.
A few years ago I was attempting to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in less than 60 days, beginning in early August. While this wouldn’t be my first time hiking alone, it would be my first time hiking in the dark alone. At least four hours each day, to be exact. I was terrified.
The idea of hiking on a trail in the dark alone made me feel I didn’t belong; that I wasn’t a part of nature and had no business being out under the night sky. I was afraid of seeing a mountain lion, knowing it would inevitably happen at some point. I was afraid of people. I was afraid of every single noise I would hear. Because I had never spent time alone in the dark woods before, I didn’t know what to expect other than a negative outcome.
But you can have positive experiences on trail at night. “You’re not really experiencing the natural environment fully until you are willing to night hike,” said Jennifer Pharr Davis @jenpharrdavis, hiker, Appalachian Trail record setter and author of Pursuit of Endurance. “You don’t have the same views as during the day, but hiking under a full moon or watching shooting stars from the top of a mountain is pretty magical.”
To help you have a successful night hiking (or running) season, I asked five experienced backpackers to share their tips and lessons learned on trail at night.
“Night hiking did not come naturally to me,” said Ayesha “Heaps” Cording @Wilderbound, who hiked the PCT in 2016 and 2018. “I found I would feel very lethargic, stumble more often and end up with a splitting headache. I honestly always tried to avoid it. This year I finally worked out the key to make night hiking work for me: eat. My favorite nighttime snacks are dark chocolate (the darker the better), almonds, plantain chips or bars. Basically anything that I can easily grab and eat while I walk. I try to avoid snacks too high in sugar as the crash after makes my tiredness unbearable. The reason I had found it so miserable before is because I never realized how long it had been since my last meal. Food is fuel and fuel is energy.”
2. Aim for early hours.
“I typically like to bank my ‘night hiking’ in the early morning hours,” Pharr Davis said. “There is something very hopeful and optimistic about waiting for the sun to come up. I also find that I am more fresh and alert during the dark early morning hours … When you wake up at 3am, throw coffee in your water bottle. You will feel super accomplished with the distance you’ve covered once the rest of the world starts to stir.”
3. Let your eyes adjust. Hold off on that headlamp.
“When it starts getting dark, I like to wait as long as possible to turn my headlamp on,” said Daisy “Flower” Glasser @daisyflowerglasser, who completed a sub-70-day thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016. “That way I can let my eyes adjust to the changing light naturally. It helps me feel more in tune with my surroundings.”
4. Make it a routine.
“If you are truly looking to become comfortable with night hiking, you need to night hike. A lot,” said Caet Cash @woodswomyn, a wilderness guide with Blue Ridge Hiking Company who completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2014 and the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017. “You’re already hiking, so integrate it into your current hiking routine. Morning person? Start an hour before the sun rises. Night owl? Keep an eye on your watch and hike for an hour after the sun goes down. If you are uncomfortable with an hour, start with as little as fifteen minutes. Practice.”
5. Soak it all in.
“When you’re on trail at night, you’ll be there when the starsplosions start to come out, where it feels like the stars are coming toward you more and more until you can almost touch them with your hands,” said Izzie Zahorian @izziezahorian, who has hiked more than 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. “I love noticing those stars as I continue to hike and noticing constellations I learned when I was younger. Enjoy the secret society of exploring the world while friends and family slumber. When it’s dark out, there is so much to notice. Savor the time with yourself and the generous, gentle natural world.”
6. Enjoy a lack of distraction.
“Night hiking is different than day hiking,” said Cash. “I love night hiking. Night hiking also scares me. Let me square this circle for you: When I am night hiking, I am not tempted to stop, take out my phone and answer that text or email. I can’t. It would ruin my night vision. My cellphone camera isn’t going to capture anything in the dark. Night hiking allows me to truly focus on the task at hand. My senses are heightened. I am not distracted. I’m scared, but I love it. Enjoy it and respect it for what it is.”