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Hiking at night

Sooner or later it happens.  Darkness descends and you are miles from your destination.  If you are equipped, it is time for lights, most ideally a headlamp.

But the best place for the headlamp is not on your head, but in your grubby paws..  On most trails, a light on your head, wipes out shadows, making bumps and irregularities in the trail indistinguishable, in extreme cases causing disorientation.  A hand held headlamp resolves the issue.  Of course, when you are scrambling or climbing, your headlamp goes on your head.

I like to make minimal use of any outside light in any event.  hiking at dusk, delay your light until your eyes are fully dark adapted.  You may find that starlight and moonlight will be sufficient, especially if the moon is nearly full.  Use the least amount of illumination possible to preserve your dark adaptation.

Pay attention to your other senses.  Your feet can often distinguish between the trail and off trail terrain.  in tall timber, a glance skyward will often reveal a clear path.  Be aware of switchbacks, it is easy to walk off one in the dark...

I gained a lot of experience in night hiking doing recreational hiking, but especially in SAR, where operations usually either began or ended in the dark.

What tips or insight can you provide to assist one foundering in the dark?

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.
8 Replies

After trying it on a couple of occasions, I'm not a fan of night hiking.  But I also try and minimize use of a flashlight/headlamp when I'm in camp as well.


don't wait to change the batteries, because of course it will be dark when they run out, because the only time you turn it on is...when it's dark. 

Yes Yes I know you tested it before you left home or before it got dark.

One of my nightmares is it going dead, and it's dark, and I can't see to replace the batteries!

I guess that's what friends are for.

I've got some really sad stories about having to put a flashlight in my mouth in a deep snow forest on a iced over trail at a REALLY steep incline, before headlamps where readily available, but no time to discuss, maybe later. 

One quick pic of that situation before darkness fell

10 30Dec83.jpg15 31Dec83.jpg01 30Dec83.jpg08 30Dec83.jpg

REI Member Since 1979

I'm sure that these old scans of a long ago hike will make you want to rush out and see the area, so I'm hoping I'm not being unethical by geo tagging, i.e. telling where they are.. (tongue in cheek here)

so here goes, it was in germany, garmisch-partenkirchen, in the german/austrian border frontier, on the reintalbach trail headed to the schachenhaus, closed for the winter but offering a 'winterraum' for winter hikers.

REI Member Since 1979

One of my favorite memories, from the early 1980's, is hiking the AT along a nearly treeless section of the AT in NJ for a couple hours by a full moon. It was an intentional decision. My co-leader and I were leading a group of about a dozen or more junior highs along the AT during a week in summer. We did not allow anyone to turn on their light. We hiked slowly. No one tripped or fell. Although I do not remember much about making camp, we probably did that in the dark as well since we had all already eaten dinner and all we had to do was set up a tarp, set out our bags, and turn in for the rest of the night.

aka "Boonerelli"

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
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Some great points made but holding your light in your hand to reduce shadows is counter intuitive because you decrease the angle of light to the obstacle. Holding the light in your hand would make more shadows, not to mention problems with trekking poles, etc. When are there no shadows outside? At high noon when the sun is directly overhead. Wear your headlamp on your head and tilt the lense down for best visibility.

Actually, my experience is to the contrary.  The light on your head obliterates the important shadows and may leave you disoriented.  i know that sounds counterintuitive, but I have experienced the phenomenon at least twice, once vividly on the Bright Angel trail in Grand Canyon, a fabulously smooth and well kept trail.  I became extremely disoriented, with no shadows on the trail.  Taking the headlamp off my head and holding it elsewhere solved the problem.  I had a similar experience on a 14'er in the Colorado Rockies.

I have logged somewhere over 470 SAR operations, mostly volunteer, and the proper place for a headlamp is in your hand, ,not your head, unless you need both hands for moving........It was the rare operation that did not involve darkness to some degree....

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

@hikermor I was intrigued by your assertion that 'the best place for the headlamp is not on your head, but in your grubby paws' so I tried it out on my hike this weekend. The TLDR version: I was not a fan for a few reasons, but it was fun to try out. 

My hike started at 5am (sunrise was ~7:40am) so I had ample time to experiment along different sections of trail. It was ~17 degrees with a clear sky, but the majority of my time in the dark followed a very poorly maintained trail with a dense canopy, so there was effectively no ambient light. Either the best or worst conditions to test this out. The first issue arose on flat sections of the trial where I could 'walk with purpose'. I found that having the headlamp in my hand was problematic because I swing my hands when I hike and the constant changes in angle of the source of light was pretty irritating. When I kept my hand still, my gait was affected. I also quickly realized that if my friend was behind me, his light would cause my body to cast a pretty harsh shadow. I had him hike in front of me during the rest of my trial. During moderate accents, where I didn't need to use my hands, having the light low created extreme shadows behind roots, in puddles, etc. because it was pointing up at the section of trail I was ascending. Often it elongated shadows enough that it was quite disorienting. I'm 6'1" with a large wingspan so that might add to the issue. I tried holding the light at different levels and the higher I got the better my experience. I didn't hike out at night, but I assume it would be better descending the trail. The other issue I ran into was that often I would lose the trail with the lamp in my hand. I was much more prone to following deer trails. Often I wear my headlamp so that it points down the trail and the ground in front of me is not illuminated directly by the lamp. I assume that this helps me distinguish human vs. animal trail as sometimes the human trail is more overgrown than the deer trail. 

All in all, it was a fun experiment. In the winter we have darkness for 18 hours of the day, so I use a headlamp quite a bit and will probably continue to wear it on my head. 


Interesting!!  My problems with lights on my forehead have occurred on well maintained trails where the light obliterates shadows, reducing depth perception.  The best conditions for night hiking occur with a bright moon, and a starry sky.  When your eyes are dark adapted, you often need no light at all.

When you are scrambling or technical climbing at night, you must have the headlamp on your head.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.