Night Hiking Basics

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When the sun takes its daily dive below the horizon and delivers nighttime to your doorstep, there’s no rule saying you have to stay in for the evening. If you’re looking to extend your daily window of time for getting outdoors, here’s some inspiration and information to get you started on your after-dark adventures:

  • Why hike at night? A different perspective of the scenery, relief from summertime heat and a deep connection with the outdoors are three good reasons to hit the trail when it’s dark.
  • Using lighting and night vision for hiking at night: Knowing when and how to use a flashlight or headlamp and how to improve your natural night vision are key to having a pleasant night hike.
  • Tips for hiking at night: Starting on a familiar trail, heading out before sunset and using the light of a full moon are just a few tips

 

Why Hike at Night

With the arrival of nighttime, most hikers aren’t rushing to lace up their boots and head outside, but there are a few reasons why you might want to:

It’s beautiful: Gazing up at the Milky Way galaxy, watching a meteor streak across the sky or finding your way by the light of a full moon can be transformative experiences, especially if you’re used to city living.

Relief from the heat: If you live in a hot locale, scorching summertime temperatures can be uncomfortable (or even unbearable) during the day and hiking at night can bring relief.

Connecting with the environment: By hiking at night you’re deliberately reducing your ability to use your vision to navigate. This gets you to focus on your other senses, especially your hearing, which can put you more in tune with the environment around you, especially wildlife.

 

Lighting for Hiking at Night

If you’ve never been on a night hike before, you may hold the common misconception that a brighter light is better for exploring the darkness. Bright headlamps and flashlights are great for some outings where maximum illumination is essential, such as with trail running or in emergency situations. But that harsh white light will wreak havoc on your night vision.

Limit the use of your headlamp or flashlight as much as possible and rely on the natural light of the moon (if there is one). This will allow your eyes to adapt to the darkness and amplify your night vision so you can better observe the landscape, wildlife and starry skies under natural light.

Tips for optimizing your night vision:

  • Give your eyes time to adjust: It can take up to 45 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the dark.
  • Avoid looking at any light source: It only takes a second of looking at a light source to affect your night vision and you’ll have to start the adjustment process over. If you encounter a group of hikers using headlamps and flashlights, ask them to turn their lights off while they pass you on the trail, or look away as best you can.
  • Use your peripheral vision: The rods in your eyes that are essential for seeing in dim light are more numerous in the periphery of the retina, which means you can actually see better at night by using your peripheral vision. Rather than looking straight at an object, try more of a blank gaze where you are aware of what’s visible above, below and to the outsides of your eyes.

Tips for using a headlamp or flashlight:

Naturally, there are times when you’ll need to use a headlamp or flashlight, for example, checking a map or finding something in your pack. But you’ve worked hard to achieve maximum night vision, so before you turn that light on, make sure you really need to.

Here are some tips for buying and using a headlamp or flashlight:

  • Get a red light: When shopping for a headlamp or flashlight for night hiking, it’s essential to look for one with a red-light setting in addition to the standard white-light setting. Your eyes are less sensitive to the longer wavelengths of red light so your night vision will be less affected by it. After buying a light, make sure you’re familiar with how to use the red-light setting before going on a night hike.
  • Look for multiple brightness settings: It’s nice to be able to switch from low to high or vice versa when you need to see something, like a trail marker or details on a map. Being able to do so also gives you control over battery life.
  • Get a comfortable fit: Find a headlamp that fits comfortably on your head without bouncing or a flashlight that’s easy to carry in your hand.
  • Never shine your light in someone’s face: Not only is it rude, it drastically impairs that person’s night vision, which they may have spent up to 45 minutes working to achieve.
  • Turn it off: If you’re using your headlamp or flashlight and you hear another group of hikers approaching, be polite and turn your light off so you don’t affect their night vision.

You can learn more about headlamps in our article, Headlamps: How to Choose and flashlights in our article, Flashlights: How to Choose.

 

Tips for Hiking at Night

Hiking at night can be more intimidating and challenging than going during the day. Here are some tips to help make your experience more comfortable and fun.

  • Head out for a view of the sunset: Starting your evening hike with a goal like this can make it easier to get motivated to get outside at the end of the day when your body would otherwise be winding down. 
  • Hike with a full moon: If you’re new to night hiking this is a good way to start. You’ll be able to see much more and depend on your headlamp a lot less.
  • Don’t go solo: Hiking at night can be intimidating and your mind can be your own worst enemy when you’re out there by yourself. Every snap of a twig or looming shadow can feel like a threat. If you’re just getting into hiking at night, go with a group of friends.
  • Start on a familiar trail: If you’re new to night hiking, start on a trail that you’ve hiked many times before during the day so it won’t feel quite so foreign at night.
  • Pick the right location: You can night hike just about anywhere, so it depends on what you’re after. Open areas with reflective surfaces like light-colored rocks are easier to navigate and give you a great view of the sky for stargazing. Dark forests will allow your eyes to fully adjust to the night so you can spot nocturnal animals. If you’re headed to a city or county park for your night hike, be aware that some are closed after dark so always check the operating hours.
  • Be ready for wildlife: Most of your nighttime wildlife encounters are likely to be benign, but it’s important to do your research about animals common in your area and be aware of your surroundings. Listen and look for animals not only so you can enjoy seeing them but also so you can respond if necessary.
  • Slow down: Darkness makes terrain more challenging, even on familiar trails. Rocks and roots can seemingly come out of nowhere to trip you up or twist an ankle. Slow down and don’t expect to hike at the same pace you would in daylight. Going slow also lets you observe things you might miss otherwise.
  • Be observant: It’s easy to get turned around in the dark, even on a trail that you’ve been on a bunch of times during the day. Watch for trail markers and turns. If you intentionally leave the trail to scramble on rocks or lay down in a meadow, be sure to remember how to get back on track.
  • Keep your pack organized: It can be harder to find things buried in your pack at night. Stow important items like your water bottle and food in easy-to-reach places so you won’t have to turn on your headlamp.
  • Bring layers: With the setting sun comes cooler temperatures, so check the forecast and dress accordingly. If you start out before sunset, bring along an extra layer to pull on when it cools off.
  • Bring a cellphone for emergencies: Understand that you can’t always count on getting cell service.
  • Tell someone where you’re going: Day or night, you should let someone know where you’re hiking in case you don’t make it back in the time you expect to.

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