Night Hiking

Hiking practice

So, you’ve been hiking for a while and are looking for something a bit different to mix it up a bit; maybe a new trail, or a new location. But what if instead all you need is a new way to view that tired old trail you’ve been hiking for a while? And that’s where night hiking comes in. Night hiking provides additional opportunities to get out into the bush but it also represents additional risks. In this article, we discuss the pros and cons of hiking at night as well as the factors that need to be considered to ensure we do it as safely as possible.

What is Night Hiking?

This might seem obvious but the definition can vary. As an overarching statement night hiking is hiking at nighttime however what you see will vary depending on whether you do it just after sunset, in the middle of the night, or just before sunrise. My favourite time is the early morning before sunrise around 5:00am. If you don’t want to get up early hiking from daylight into the night also works really well.

Reasons to Night Hike

First let us look at the reason(s) for hiking at night. In fact, I can hear many of you thinking to yourselves, ‘why on earth would you?’ Which doesn’t surprise me. The majority of hikers I know, including my wife, aren’t into night hiking. For me it’s just another excuse to do what I love and I take any opportunity I can get to hike at night. In most cases, many of my friends would prefer to be safely sitting in camp eating, drinking and not moving very much. For me night hiking is something I do on average at least once, if not twice or more a month, and it allows me to see the world in a different way, literally, and here’s why:

  • It extends the opportunity to hike further or to slow the pace down given you’ll reach your destination at a slower pace
  • To reach that peak in time for sunrise/sunset
  • Provides relief from the heat of the day
  • The environment changes totally. Even familiar sites become new
    • Hiking with a full moon high in the sky is magical; it’s even better in mid-winter when there’s a heavy frost that turns the bush into a winter wonderland
  • The wildlife is different at night.

Reasons NOT to Night Hike

While there are always good reasons to do something there are also reasons for not doing so. These include:

  • Your vision is impacted at night so you need to pay much closer attention to where you put your feet. You risk injury if you misstep or trip over something that’s not obvious in the dark
  • Because your vison is restricted, your field of vision is much narrower and you may miss some spectacular views.

Things People Worry About

When hikers first transition to overnight hiking  one of their main concerns are ‘things that go bump in the night’. Noises seem to amplify at night time and your imagination can often run wild. In Australia, we have a number of nocturnal animals such as possums and wombats and it’s amazing how much noise they can make. One of the areas where I regularly night hike also has mobs of large kangaroos, some of them very large, and if you don’t realise they’re about it can be a bit disconcerting when you encounter large animals grazing just on the edge of the trail.

I suppose this concern over wild animals at night time is a remnant of our primal instinct to protect ourselves. No matter how far removed from those times we are, that concern still lurks in the back of our minds. Even after years of hiking I still am startled when I come across another hiker at night time as for me it’s just such a rare occurrence.

Getting the Best out of Night Hiking

Like any activity there are always things you can do to improve the experience. The following list contains suggestions that are considered standard practice and if you are new to night hiking, I suggest you stick to them at the start:

  • Tell someone your plans, just as you would do on a normal hike
  • Pick good weather. Night hiking in bad weather is riskier because of the reduced vision
  • Pick a trail you know well from your daytime hiking and that is easy to follow for your first night hike
  • Pick a safe trail. Choosing a trail that has steep/dangerous drop offs is not the best choice for hiking at night in any circumstance
  • Move slowly
  • Know the lunar cycle. Hiking when the moon is high in the sky is one of life’s great joys
  • Know your gear. Don’t use brand new unfamiliar gear on your first night hike
  • Organise your pack so you know where everything is without having to empty the whole pack
  • Ensure your torch is in good working condition and that your batteries are fully charged
    • Know how long your batteries will last
  • Be observant, pay attention to your footing and your surrounds including any overhead branches
  • Travel with someone else
  • Choose an appropriate headlamp (see lighting below).

Getting the Best out of Night Hiking – an Alternative View

If you are an experienced hiker with good skills then here’s a couple of alternate practices that will provide a very different experience. Please note that these fall into the advanced skill set and you need to use your experience and common sense in choosing when, or when not, to use any or all of these:

  • Hike solo
    • It’s a totally different experience and you don’t have to be worried about what other hikers are doing. You also don’t have to worry about being blinded by other hiker’s lights
  • Hike without a light
    • It creates a whole different experience. I do this quite regularly on the local trails I know really well. Its particularly exhillerating when the moon is at its brightest and high in the sky creating a shadow world
    • Even when I hike without a light I still carry one. On my local night hikes, I often go uphill without a light but when coming down, because the risk of a fall is greater, the light goes on.

Lighting for Hiking at Night

Most hikers these days will use a headlamp as it has the benefit of lighting up where you are looking. A headlamp also frees up your hands in case you need to grab something or are using trekking poles. I swap between two headlights depending on what I am doing. I don’t carry two lights; instead making my choice before I head out on a hike.

  • If the trail is unfamiliar or is not as well marked, then you should use a high intensity narrow beam that lights the way and leaves you with no doubt what lies ahead
  • If you are hiking a very familiar trail you know well, a less powerful light or a light with a red beam is a good option as you are less likely to blind the wildlife or scare them away.

If you only want to have one light, look for one that has multiple features that suits your needs. There is no such thing as a perfect light and there will always be compromises in any choice you make.

These days most of the high end lights have so many features and functions its often hard to remember how to use them all particularly if you don’t use them that often. Whatever you choose, make sure it fits comfortably otherwise you will focus on the discomfort and not what you are doing.

Petzl eLite, my low intensity light choice for when I’m not way finding on an unfamiliar trail

Black Diamond Revolt. I use this light for when I’m hiking on an unfamiliar trail and need to find my way

Headlamp Etiquette

This guidance is for whenever you are using a headlamp be it around camp or when you are hiking:

  • Many headlamps have an adjustable angle. If you are talking to other hikers ensure the beam is tilted towards the ground and not into your fellow hiker’s face. They will appreciate you not blinding them when you turn to talk with them. If your headlamp isn’t adjustable, then don’t look other hikers directly in the face.
  • Limit your light to suit your needs
    • Many headlamps with have intensity settings. In many cases you don’t need their light turned on to ‘high beam’
    • Have it on a low setting, or if it’s an option use the red light setting around camp, so you don’t ruin other hiker’s night vision
    • Better yet, turn off your light when its not needed. This also helps to conserve battery life.

Reduce the beam intensity, change to the red setting that most torches have, and or angle the light downwards so you don’t blind your fellow hikers

Final Words

So next time you head out on that hike that’s lost its gloss because you’ve done it so many times before, consider mixing things up and doing a night hike instead. This may not be a practice you come to love, and you may only ever do it once but give it a try; you never know you may come to love night hiking the way I have.

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