Hiking requires a set of skills and can be very demanding even during the day when there’s enough natural light. Night hiking has a different feeling than hiking during the day. Actually, it’s often a totally different experience that brings unique challenges; hence hiking in the dark isn’t for everyone, especially for novice hikers. However, once you acquire some basic skills and gain enough knowledge about the trail, you will be prepared for some safe hiking at night.
Tips and tricks
Before going to the pros and cons, take a look at some basic rules for safe night hiking. They’re valid for both novice and more experienced backpackers:
Know the terrain/area
Start on a familiar trail. It can get a little tricky if you’re not used to nighttime hiking. So, it’s much better to start your night hike on a terrain you know well and where you know how to stay oriented. For example, having hiked the trail previously during the day will help considerably with navigation and will relieve your stress about the unknown. If you decide to hike up a mountain, take into account that there are mountains where snow can stick around until the beginning of the summer (of course there are also mountains where theres snow year-round) so you may need snowshoes.
Pick easier trail
Especially if you don’t have a lot of experience on the trail and/or you’ve never hiked at night, this isn’t the time to pick the hardest trail. Look for something relatively easy and short (around 10-15 kilometers) with not too much elevation gain. As a general rule, avoid rugged areas with rocky trails, scrambling or hiking in a canyon unless you know the place very well and are comfortable walking there at night. The whole idea of night hiking isn’t to make sure that you won’t stumble or tumble downhill. Easy hiking trails will also give you a better chance of seeing wildlife as you won’t have to watch every step you take or have issues with branches to the face. You don’t want to run across dangerous animals such as a bear.
Do your homework
It is important is to go in with a realistic mindset and to check trail conditions in advance. Do your research when planning your hike and don’t forget that hiking safety at night should be your number one priority. Some places just aren’t suitable for night time hiking because of rough terrain, weather conditions, wildlife or anything else. For example, hiking in the dark can lead to mistaking a game trail for designated trail, which can have serious consequences for you. Hiking at night can be very dangerous if you underestimate your surroundings so don’t do it. You wouldn’t like to risk a serious injury or even worse.
Get a flashlight or headlamp and spare batteries
Never hike without lighting, especially in an area you don’t know well. Even experienced hikers can feel uneasy when hiking in the dark without having a source of light at hand. Additionally, know your lighting well – how many hours it would function without needing new batteries, how bright you need your light to be. Since your eyes will adapt to darkness, you don’t need too bright illumination because this will reset your night vision and you’ll have to start adapting to the darkness again (it usually takes around 30 minutes, however on some occasions, this process can reach up to 45 minutes).
Some form of light is needed regardless of the time of year. How much light you need depends on where you are and when. Developments in LED lighting have been swift and are continuing. Lights are becoming more powerful (especially Cree flashlights) and many lights have the option of a flood or spot beam. The extra power means that smaller, lighter headlamps and flashlights can now be used for night time hiking (always bring extra batteries or an extra headlamp to make sure that you’re prepared if something goes wrong with your main source of light on the trail), saving weight in the pack. All but the simplest lights have variable light levels so you can have a very bright light for night hiking or for identifying distant objects and less bright lights for close-up use and longer battery.
Check out the advantages and disadvantages of headlamps and torches before going to a night hike. Though most hikers prefer using headlamps (often heavier than flashlights but wearing a headlamp frees up both hands so that you can carry out important and not-so-important tasks such as cooking, reading a book, taking photos, etc.), in muddy conditions or around cliffs, a more powerful flashlight works best for figuring out precise foot placement. In addition, the control of the focus and brightness of the beam is much easier when using a flashlight.
Bring a friend
Solo night hikes can be very relaxing, though solo hiking isn’t really recommended for inexperienced backpackers. Thus, it’s best if you hit the trail with a friend for your first a few night hikes. This way, you’ll get a double benefit of the hike – a shared experience will make the night backpacking less scary and in case of emergency, you and your friend will be able to help each other. It’s a good idea to use backpack, garment or shoes with reflective strips as this will make you more visible at low light in case you become split from your friend(s).
Let someone know where you are going and your itinerary
This is a basic rule for all kinds of hiking and backpacking. The logic behind it is very simple: in case of emergency search and rescue will have an idea of where to start looking and probably where they could locate you.
Get your trekking poles
You may need extra stability because at night time even the most experienced hikers can feel off-balance. Trekking poles can be extremely useful when negotiating uneven terrain because they add stability and help you keep your balance. Moreover, they will give you a boost uphill. There are also some other benefits of using hiking sticks: they relieve stress off your knees and joints; facilitate river and stream crossings, make walking easier in general, etc.
Hike on clear nights when the moon is bright
Take advantage of the moonlight and you won’t go wrong. Night hiking is amazing with bright full-moon. Moreover, backpacking under a full moon on a good trail is safer (it’ll illuminate the trail and the woods) and more enjoyable. In general, you should be able to see where you’re going unless it’s really cloudy or you’re walking through a thick forest.
Night hiking pros
Relief from summertime heat
It can be really hot in some areas, especially in the summer. As we recommended in our post about summer hiking, night hiking can be a good solution to avoid the heat of the day as well as to get more kilometers done and to reduce sun/heat exposure and hydration needs (locals and long-distance hikers in hot desert do this all the time). If you hike from early down to late evening, you’ll get a very short night sleep (in such as case, you can take a nap when it’s warmest – during the heat of the day – between noon/early afternoon and 5 pm-6 pm).
Depending on the environment and the season, temperatures can fall really fast so be prepared with some spare clothes. Keep spare clothes near the top of your pack (especially a fleece, jacket or raincoat) where you can get to them without unpacking other gear because it will be difficult and time-consuming looking for the clothes you need in the dark.
Hiking at night offers you quiet trails without the buzz of conversation and laughter. Finally a chance to be alone with your thoughts and reconnect with yourself. It’s a refreshing perspective that you might enjoy during your night hikes. It’s something that rarely happens in your daily life full of mundane activities.
Connect with nature
The spectacle of nature is probably the primary reason a lot of hikers are out there. Hiking in the dark can be inspiring and ennobling. It is interesting and beautiful in its own way – you can enjoy the stars in the night sky, breathe fresh air, and immerse in serenity. It’s your time to reconnect with nature. As a bonus, you’ll have a chance to observe wildlife since a lot of animals are active at night time. And as none of them expect to meet a human out there at that hour, there’s a huge chance that they’ll be more curious than scared or aggressive.
Night hiking cons
You’ll have to slow down your pace – it’s a natural reaction to slow down when walking at night without seeing your surroundings well. You need to avoid falls and other possible dangers (and due to depth perception being bad at night) so you often need to be extra careful with your route. Moreover, if you’re doing anything technical then it’s important not to do it in a rush.
You might not be able to sleep in the heat, especially when backpacking during the summer. Trying to sleep in the intense heat and bright daylight is not something funny and to some, it sounds like a terrible idea. Then you’ll want to sleep at night but apparently, you can’t sleep and hike at the same time. Moreover, readjusting your sleep schedule if you’re not used to being up at four in the morning can be very challenging (night owls excluded as they would love to stay up all night hiking). As a result, you won’t be getting enough rest, which can ruin your hiking trip. Keep in mind that good night’s rest is important for a longer trip success so nighttime adventures are not recommended unless you’re experienced in doing that.
Missing the view
The obvious thing you’re missing is the view – landscape, vegetation, wildlife (when backpacking at night, you see mainly bugs, bats, owls, snakes, and lizards). Even with a full moon, there’s a little more visibility than a circle of light in a world of black. This leaves you feeling like you haven’t seen the place, which won’t be a huge problem if your aim is just covering a certain distance. Otherwise, for a new place you’ve never seen before, you’ll come away feeling like you’ve still never seen it at all.
Dangers of hiking in the dark
Why people do get lost in the backcountry? There can be many different reasons but usually, people get lost because of one or more of the following:
- Overconfidence in their skills and abilities
- Underestimating nature and trail conditions
- Poor preparation
- Lack of knowledge or insufficient experience
Unless well-marked, trails can be hard to follow at night. The limited vision can make the scenery look very different than when hiking during the day so stay on the trail and don’t go off-trail for the sole reason of not getting disoriented and lost. Carry a map, a compass, a reliable source of light, be observant and consider landmarks such as rivers and canyons. Use your navigation correctly and all you’ve learned about the area in the planning stage of your hiking trip.
Falling is probably the number one cause of hiker deaths so beware of slipping and falling down during your night hikes, especially when negotiating terrain difficult to navigate. Be very careful with your surroundings because it is easy to misjudge a rock or ledge and to tumble downhill. Also, avoid scrambling sections at night if you’re not familiar with the area.
Always check the weather forecast before hitting the trail. Bad weather can ruin your night hiking adventure especially if you intend to hike in an altitude. Extreme weather can lead to a life-threatening situation so consider and the possible weather hazards. Learn about precautions for weather, conditions, and terrain in your particular area. There are always details and dangers that are specific to the environment you will be hiking in. Also, avoid night time hiking in winter.
It will be dark and cooler and you may not feel any necessity to drink water. It’ll be a mistake if you don’t get enough fluids because you’ll get dehydrated. Try to maintain appropriate hydration and electrolyte balance, and you will have more energy to cope with the challenges of night hiking. Dehydration is also dangerous for another reason, namely, it will make you more susceptible to hypothermia and you want to avoid that.
You want to prevent any potentially harmful situation for your feet – from preventing blisters to sprained ankles. Be careful for hidden roots, branches, and rocks as they are much less visible at night. If you stumble, you can potentially injure yourself. You need to wear comfortable hiking footwear because walking at night can be very treacherous. Hence your choice of proper hiking shoes or boots as well as socks is of prime importance.
Rivers and streams
Fording rivers and streams at night can be very dangerous and isn’t recommended unless you know the terrain really well and/or you don’t have any other choice. In the end, only experience can tell you whether it’s possible to cross. If you decide to cross, be very careful, especially when crossing swift-flowing rivers or streams. Many people underestimate the force of the flowing water and pay the price for their early mistakes.
Movement over snow and ice
Needless to say, travel over snow and ice presents a lot of problems even in the daytime. If you are properly equipped and you have experience in doing this, you can probably safely travel at night. In any other case, it’s better to minimize hiking in the dark.
Research potential wildlife. Depending on the environment, you would like to avoid some wild animals. Try to make some noise as you walk to avoid catching unaware any predators on your way. Many wild animals are most active early in the morning and late in the evening. It means that hiking around dawn and dusk seriously increases the chances to see wildlife as well as to encounter bears. Similarly to running on trails, hiking at night can be very risky. Bears are often more active after dark, and you’re less likely to see them until it’s too late. If you are in the bear country and choose to hit the trail at night, be sure to make lots of noise. Also, don’t forget to carry a bear spray, just in case.
Snakes are among the most feared animals. Snakebites rarely occur above the ankle, so wearing boots and thick socks minimizes the chances of being bitten. Snakes will do everything possible to stay out of your way; the vibrations from your feet are usually enough to send them slithering off before you even see them. Do not walk at night barefoot or in sandals or light shoes without checking the ground first. While walking in the cool of the night can be a way to avoid the heat, it’s not a good way to avoid snakes (so carry with you some source of light). In general, it isn’t a good idea to travel after dark in snake country.
In many areas the late summer and autumn see the backcountry fill up with hunters carrying rifles. Try to make sure they don’t shoot you. Hunting season is not the time to wear camouflage in the wilderness or to walk stealthily at night.
Night hiking provides a different and worthwhile experience. It can be very rewarding as it brings you closer to nature and allows you to reap some of the benefits nature has to offer you. Even if it doesn’t sound like something that you’d like to do regularly, it can be a fun experiment for a weekend.
However, there are some dangers related to hiking at night as well. Having a map, a compass, and a reliable source of light will help you stay on the trail and not to get lost. Drink enough fluids, avoid encounters with dangerous wildlife and fording rivers, and check the weather forecast to avoid extreme weather.
Night hiking is not always a walk in the park but it can be a great experience if properly prepared for it.
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