Hiking in the dark may seem like a counter-intuitive idea – isn’t the best part about hiking the spectacular views, after all? Night hiking can actually be one of the most beautiful ways to encounter the landscape: taking in the sounds of the dark and opening your eyes to the stars above.
It is a totally different experience to hiking in the day, but it can be completely safe as long as you are prepared and stay smart. Here are some pearls of wisdom which I hope will keep you safe when outdoors in the dark…
My 13 tips for staying safe while hiking at night:
1. Stick to the trail
This is always an important hikers’ guideline, but becomes even more imperative at night. As well as adhering to Leave No Trace principles, you can rest assured that you aren’t going to find yourself in a dangerous – potentially life threatening – situation at night.
If you do need to leave the trail to – ahem – answer nature’s call, then do not wander too far and attach a line or cord between you and a buddy or a tree at the edge of the trail. It might a little O.T.T. but hikers have unfortunately been lost to the wild having wandered off on a bathroom break – even in the daytime.
2. Choose the right gear
Hiking poles, headlamps and sturdy shoes. Those would be my top three items for night hiking. (Excluding clothing, which we’ll discuss a little later on.) It is much more difficult to navigate your feet away from potential trip-hazards, and nobody wants to find themselves nursing a wound or busted ankle in the dark.
For both day and night hikes, any gear you take you should be well familiar with before you hit the trail. You do not want to get halfway and find that you can’t operate a key piece of your gear correctly, especially if you can’t really see it…
3. Know your terrain
Night hiking is not the place to be trying out trails in new lands. You’ll want to know how loose the ground is under your feet, any unexpected turns or potential spots for losing the trail. If you’re new to night hiking then pick your favorite trail and see how it shines in the light of the moon!
4. Take a map
It is alarming the number of people who forego a map on night hikes. Navigating via the stars may sound pretty impressive, but be honest – its not in your average hiker’s skill-set. Always travel with a map of your route, and use a dim red light to read it (or a smartphone with night-light activated) so you don’t ruin your night vision.
5. Go slow
Be prepared to slow down on a night hike. This is not the time to be smashing personal records, blitzing down the trails or rushing to the end. If you’re worried about time, simply choose a shorter hike.
Even with a headlamp or well-adjusted night vision; sticks, stones and steep edges can still sneak up on you and might cause injury. I twisted my ankle on a night hike by literally falling over my own feet – anything can happen!
6. Take a spare headlamp
Hopefully you already have a headlamp on your night hike list – but absolutely pack a second! Even though it is possible (and often preferred) to hike with only the moonlight, having a decent light for emergencies is imperative.
Ideally, your headlamps should have a red light option as well as normal white light. Your eyes are less sensitive to the red wavelengths than to the harsh white light, so this will help to maintain your all-important night vision as you hike.
7. Train your night vision
Brighter does not always mean better. Good flashlights are important for emergencies, but allowing your eyes to adjust to natural light sources (such as the moon or stars) is much better for your overall night-hiking happiness. Not only will this enable you to enjoy your surroundings in the most natural way possible, but it will be kinder on your eyes and conserve battery power for when you really need it.
It takes up to an hour for your eyes to fully adjust to the dark, so plan in a little acclimatization time if you can beforehand. When on the trail, avoid looking at bright sources of light which can ruin your night vision instantly, including: smartphones, car headlights or flashlights from other hikers.
This goes both ways – if you have your flashlight on when you encounter another hiker then do them the courtesy of turning it off or shining it in the other direction whilst they pass.
8. Hike with a full or near-full moon
No, this is not to maximize your chances of seeing a werewolf.
As we have discussed, utilizing natural light sources such as the moon is a great way to train your night vision and allow you to enjoy your surroundings as you hike. It may be hard to imagine in a city, but you’d be surprised just how much light the moon does provide when out on trail. So dust off those lunar charts or download an app to help you plan your next nocturnal adventure.
If it is set to be a cloudy night with the full moon, then you might still have some decent ambient light, but you’ll definitely want to have your red light to hand as you hike.
9. Take extra layers
It can be tempting to want to wrap up super warm for night hiking, as the temperatures will certainly be lower than in the daytime. However, you still need to factor in the body heat you’ll generate whilst walking. You do not want to run the risk of overheating and sweating, only to cool much more rapidly when you stop for a break – the temperature difference is much greater between your skin and the night-time air.
Instead, pick a comfortable outfit for staying just warm enough while on the move, and have extra layers handy and easily accessible for your breaks and when you reach your destination.
10. Hike in a group
Hiking alone is a wonderful feeling; but if you’re new to night hikes then it is much safer to go as a group or in a pair.
You’d have to be extremely unlucky to run head first into a bear, cougar or human who wished you harm – but it does happen, and there’s safety in numbers. In a group, there is also much less chance of you letting your mind wander when you hear that twig crack, that branch crackle or the falling of loose stones behind you…
Just make sure you choose hiking buddies who appreciate nature the same way as you do. Being stuck with a chatterbox while you’re trying to take in the stars is less than enjoyable.
11. Tell someone about your hiking plan
Even if you’re hiking with other people, it is always a good idea to tell a family member or close friend of any night-hiking plans. They shouldn’t be expected to stay up all night – but you could ask them to keep their phone on alert, or at the very least notify emergency services if you haven’t checked in by the morning.
Help is more difficult to come by at night, and having someone looking out for you is never a bad idea.
12. Be aware of wildlife
Many species of fauna such as deer, bears, coyotes, owls and even cougars are more active at night. This does not mean that you need to be afraid, but you should be aware that you may not be the only one on the trail. Always be alert for any sounds or visual signs that wildlife is near.
Lights – even dim red lights – are a good way to signify to any predators that you are not its prey, and its very likely that they will turn and leave in the opposite direction. Also be respectful of any wildlife you encounter. This means no flash photography – you can damage the animal’s own night vision which leaves it more vulnerable to predators or unable to hunt for its own food.
13. Take extra rations and precautions
Due to the limited availability of help during the night and numerous potential hazards, taking a few extra emergency supplies than you normally would is always a good idea. Choose high-calorie snacks such as nuts and seeds, dried fruits and so on – and pack an extra layer of tops and bottoms wrapped in a dry-bag for emergencies.
Many people also hike with a lightweight emergency blanket at night to retain body heat during those long, cold hours before dawn should they be unable to walk for any reason.
Hiking at night is exhilarating!
My first night hike was in the Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile. I desperately wanted to see the famous “Torres” turn red in the sunrise light, so I set off alone at 2am for the 3-hour scramble.
Undergoing my first such hike solo perhaps wasn’t the best idea, however the Torres del Paine is essentially the Disneyland of Patagonia’s hiking, so I was confident I wouldn’t be the only one on the trail – and it was exceptionally well-marked.
Also read: Is Hiking in Patagonia Safe?
I spent the first hour totally alone under the stars, listening to the rush of the water cascading into the valley on my right and imagining the towering peaks above me to my left. Sure enough, as the trail progressed, I met some other hikers and by the time I (slowly) reached the summit at daybreak, there were about fifteen of us eagerly awaiting the sunrise.
It was a beautiful moment and I was so glad to have done it at night – not least because I met dozens and dozens of tour groups making their way up as I made my way down! I have learned a lot from this first night hike, and many since.
Hiking at night can be a hugely rewarding experience. As long as you are mentally prepared, well-organized and stay alert when out on the trail, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t give it a go.
Stay safe, and have fun!