Guide to Safe Night Hiking: Do’s and Don’ts of Hiking in the Dark

night hiking
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Night hiking turns known trails into mystery-filled landscapes and can be an experience that is likely to stay with hikers for a long time. Hiking in the dark is a different experience than day hiking, even on the tried-and-tested trails, so it also requires a different approach and safety precautions.

Preparedness and some education can go a long way in hiking safety in the dark. Whether you are night hiking by choice or because of some reason that made your hike extend into the dark, you need to be prepared for the challenge and have a plan in place.

Night hiking can be a challenge and sometimes dangerous, especially if you are not experienced or hiking alone. Although gaining enough knowledge about the trail and being prepared is the key to safe night hiking, there are also some other factors to consider to minimize chances of unwanted surprises. Hiking requires a certain level of physical fitness and preparedness even when traveling during the day, so hiking at night might not be something for every hiker.

Let’s start with some common reasons why anyone might want to consider night hiking before moving on to how to do it safely. We have also covered the benefits of hiking in a separate post, which also apply to night hiking.

Why Hike in the Dark?

There are many questions that come to mind when thinking about night hiking, including isn’t it more difficult, what if I trip and fall and how to deal with wild animals? However, after being in the dark for some time, our eyes adjust and can see pretty well.

Hiking at night is considered to be out of the comfort zone of most people because even the thought of it can make some people uncomfortable and nervous. But there are also plenty of convincing reasons why day-time hikers should consider hiking in the dark.

river and stars on night hike

Challenge Yourself

Night hiking is for those who like to challenge themselves. It challenges us to see things differently and allows the sense of wonder to take over our fears. When approached with an open mind, night hiking can be an unforgettable experience. Smelling puddles of mud of water before you even see them and using your hands to feel your way through the shadows are new experiences as well as challenges when you have a limited vision.

Hiking in the dark is a novel sensation and what feels like some limitation can turn into a feeling of possessing a superpower. You get a rare chance to experience the midnight landscape and understand the little differences between shades. Fear of darkness and spooky woods can feel like a horror movie. Night hiking is a great way of overcoming these fears. It helps you build confidence, makes you mentally stronger and strengthens your belief in yourself.

Provides a New Perspective

With the exception of very challenging terrains and extreme weather, there is no rule that stops hikers from hiking at night. Night hiking allows you to extend the daily time window and get a new perspective of the outdoors. Finding your way through the woods in moonlight or gazing at our galaxy can be transformative experiences, especially for people used to urban environments.

Compared to day hiking, you have to rely less on your vision when hiking at night, so you focus more on other senses such as hearing. This puts you more in tone with the surroundings and allows you to connect with nature at a deeper level.

Star Gazing

Night hiking allows you to get an uninterrupted view of the sky and stars. The amount and clarity of stars can be surprising, especially for those who struggle to see them in urban environments. Pollution and dust hides the majesty and true beauty of the night sky, which is always there but we cannot see it clearly in cities. Night hikers know how much is visible in the night sky when it’s dark and you might even be able to see the Milky Way, which is one more reason to hike at night.

To Avoid Hot Days

Another reason why a hiker would want to hike at night is hot and humid terrains, and scorching day temperatures. Night hiking provides relief from the heat that might otherwise be unbearable during the day. Hiking at night can be especially helpful for hikers during summer and in hot climates. In such conditions, hiking at day might not be a suitable option and switching the schedule might be the only way around it.

To Make Up for Shorter Days in the Winters

Night hikes allow hikers to take advantage of longer winter nights and hike in the early darkness to make up for shorter days. However, you need to time your hikes perfectly. You need to be familiar with the trail and should ideally start the hike in light and return back in the dark. Bring extra layers, preferably reflective beanies that keep you warm and make it easier for others to see you in the dark.

Gives Us a Chance to Be Alone with Our Own Thoughts

Our daily routine rarely gives us a chance to be alone with so many things trying to get our attention including work and family obligations. We are usually busy with our phones and other gadgets even when we get a chance to be alone. The concerns about crowded trails diminish when hiking at night, especially if you plan on hiking popular trails in national parks.

Hiking at night gives you a rare opportunity to be with yourself and your own thoughts in a profound way, allowing you to look at your life in more depth and without any distractions. Solitude and silence can lead you to ask deep and philosophical questions, which in our chaotic urban lives is not likely to happen.

If you are not the type of person that likes being alone, night hiking is also a great opportunity to spend some quality time with your loved ones. Call it a date night hike or a chance to reconnect with someone, night hiking is a great way of getting closer to the people you love and experience solitude far away from chaos.

Chance to See Nocturnal Wildlife

A different world starts to wake up as we start getting ready to go to bed, which is like a foreign land for daytime hikers. Hiking at night allows hikers to explore it by using all their senses and not just their eyes. It’s a new world with new challenges, so you never know what up next. The tried-and-tested trails become a different landscape at night full of life and new animals.

Night hiking gives you a rare opportunity to experience wildlife you might not be able to see when hiking during daytime. You’ll come across different sounds, smells and animals that only come out at night. Referred to as nocturnal animals, these ‘night species’ sleep during the day and become active at night such as great horned owls, bats, porcupines, badgers, tarantulas, beavers, wombats, skunks, raccoons and hedgehogs.

The advanced sense of smell and hearing allows nocturnal animals to find food at night and also helps them avoid predators and the heat of the day. Compared to these animals, our eyes need a lot of light and color to see clearly at night. Since there isn’t much light available, our brains have to make our other senses work harder to compensate for that. However, you need to do some homework in advance and know how to respond if you come across a potentially dangerous animal at night.

A Great Horned Owl perched on top of a Pine Tree at dusk.

Heightened Senses

Lack of adequate lighting means poorer vision, which heightens other senses. Smells start getting stronger and you start hearing things you might not be able to hear in daylight. That’s because your brain is making your senses do some extra work to help you better understand the surroundings. Using senses other than vision is a unique experience itself and also related to gaining a new perspective to your surroundings.

How to Compensate for Low-light?

The human retina has rods and cones and each serves a different purpose. It takes around 30 to 45 minutes for our rods to adjust to the low lighting conditions. That’s why hikers are recommended to sit for around 30 minutes in a dark spot before starting the hike or start the hike when there is still some light left.

This provides the eyes with enough time to adjust to low-light and enables them to see more clearly in the dark. The cones are concentrated in the center, which can lead to blind spots in the middle in bad lighting. Focusing eyes a little bit to one side of things you want to see can compensate for those blind spots.

Hikers need to be well equipped with basic knowledge, which is required even in day trips, including identifying wildlife and plants, survival skills, first-aid, orienteering and a certain level of physical fitness. Without these basic skills, night hiking is not recommended, especially for novice hikers.

Bright flashlights or headlamps might be needed in some situations such as in emergency situations or when not very familiar with the trail, but for the most part very bright light might not be the best option because it can severely affect your night vision.

Experienced night hikers try to limit themselves as much as possible when it comes to using flashlight or headlamp in the dark in order to allow their eyes to adopt and amplify their night vision. Your eyes have to start the adjustment process all over again if you look directly at the light source, even for a second or two. That’s why if you encounter other night hikers trying to cross you on the trail, it’s better to politely ask them to turn off their lights when passing by or else you can look away until they are gone.

snow covered mountain under blue sky during night time

Tips for Safe Night Hiking

Know the Trail and Start Slow

Not being familiar with the terrain can become a huge challenge in the dark, which is why hikers should stick to trails they are familiar with and know what to expect. Experienced hikers who plan on exploring new trails should consider starting with some daylight still left, allowing their eyes to adjust to low light naturally. Hikers new to night hiking should stick with safe trails or parts of a trail that are not full of rocky places and steep inclines. Beginners should pick a trail they are already familiar with from day hikes and where they can hike safely alone at night.

In addition to picking a safe place to hike at night, novice hikers should start with slow and short hikes to get used to the environment. 15 minutes to half hour short hikes give you a fair idea if night hiking is for you or not. There is no point in hiking at night for hours only to realize that you are actually not enjoying the experience and just want to get back home. Open areas with reflective surfaces such as meadows make night hiking safer and more enjoyable compared to dense forests and terrains with swift rivers.

Light it Up

Darkness hides the otherwise familiar landmarks and makes depth perception difficult. Suddenly, the old trails that one might have hiked dozens of times become new and you start feeling like you have to explore it all over again.

Although many hikers like to challenge themselves and prefer hiking without any form of illumination, for most hikers a flashlight/headlamp/torch is a crucial item. The weather can change quickly and clouds might block the moonlight or there might be some places where the terrain blocks the light, so you need to have something that can help you find your way in the dark.

Hiking in the natural light of the full moon plays well with night vision and allows you to see animals and woods in their natural environment. Although you might not need a headlamp under a full moon, you should always keep a source of illumination for safety reasons. Understand the lunar cycle and try planning your night trips around it for better visibility and safety.

Headlamps free your hands and illuminate where you are looking at. A pocket headlamp is portable, can illuminate the trail, and can also be used when swapping batteries of the bigger lamp. Night hikers also need to keep spare batteries to avoid running out of juice in the middle of a journey. Low-medium brightness setting not only saves battery juice, but is also sufficient for most situations you’ll encounter in night hikes.

Most hiking headlamps and flashlights come with adjustable brightness settings and zoom-in and zoom-out feature, allowing you to switch between different lighting modes easily and save battery life. Another important aspect to consider is a comfortable fit because you don’t want a headlamp that keeps bouncing or a flashlight that’s difficult to hold in hands.

Red Light

Compared to bright white light, red light (Princeton Tec Sync provides direct access to the red LED) in the dark can help preserve the night and peripheral vision and is less likely to spook animals. A flashlight with high brightness levels can be useful in certain situations, but you probably won’t need to keep the brightness level all the way up most of the time.

Night hikers should look for flashlights or headlamps that have both white light and red light options. Our eyes are less sensitive and can adjust better to red light (because of longer wavelength), which means better night and peripheral vision.

Lighting Etiquettes

We have already covered trail and hiking etiquettes in a dedicated post, but hikers also need to consider lighting etiquettes. Flipping your headlamp on suddenly can ruin the night vision of others and it can take quite some time for them to recover. Similarly, when talking to other hikers, try tilting down the headlamp or using your peripheral vision.

When passing by other hikers, it’s better to turn off the headlamp for a moment so it does not impair their night vision. However, you should not hesitate to flip on a light when it comes to safety, which is more important when you are hiking out in the dark. You also need to be careful when taking pictures of the wildlife with the flashlight turned on, and avoid flashing bright light head-on. You can use dedicated nighttime camera apps or the built-in night mode feature found in most modern smartphones.

Buddy Up

Night hiking is more challenging without a buddy, which is true even for experienced hikers. Noises made when hiking in groups can help scare off wild animals and human predators. Having friends around you makes it easier to take a leap into the unknown and bolsters courage. However, make sure no one starts wandering alone in the dark. Wait for group members if they have to take a bathroom break and only move on as a group. If you plan on solo hiking, make sure to carry a cell phone and keep your loved ones updated about your whereabouts.

silhouette of people hiking at night

Be Prepared for the Unpredictable (As Much as You Can)

Hikers need to be prepared for changing weather conditions and pack accordingly. Weather conditions can change quickly in the woods and temperatures can plummet sharply after the sun goes down. Add rain to the equation and if you are unprepared, it can be a recipe for disaster. You need all the essential gear to keep you warm and insulated from the cold, including a base, mid layer, waterproof shell and emergency shelter.

You also need to know your gear and understand what it is capable of. Novice hikers should not try brand new equipment just like they should avoid a new trail when hiking in the dark. For example, you need to pack a headlamp with enough batteries to last you the whole trip (and some more), which is possible when you know how long it can last on different brightness settings.

Avoid using headphones in the dark as it is distracting and might lead to an unpleasant surprise such as a predator coming dangerously close. Limited vision and inability to properly hear can be a recipe of disaster when hiking at night.

Pack Light

Experienced hikers prefer packing ultralight, which should not come at the cost of leaving the essentials behind. However, hikers new to night hiking don’t need to spend tons of money on buying all the ultralight equipment and fancy gear such as infrared goggles or night vision binoculars because these things are not a necessity. The important items to consider for a day as well as night hiking backpack (covered in a detailed post here) include:

Keep Everything Organized

Keep the stuff you’ll need along the way at an easy-to-reach place because finding something you need in the dark is hard, especially if it’s at the bottom of your backpack. Stuff like torch, water and emergency first aid kit should be stored in easy-to-reach compartments of the backpack.

We have a dedicated post on a backpacking checklist and most of them also apply to night hiking. But you still need to consider the extra items that you’ll need in the dark and ensure all the important stuff is within easy reach.

Map Your Route

One should never leave for night hiking without informing someone and sharing all the important details such as where, when and for how long. Pick easy to navigate routes and keep family/friends updated about your whereabouts.

Dangers of Night Hiking

Night hiking is more challenging and difficult mainly because of the dangers associated with it including:

It’s Easy to Get Lost in the Dark

This can happen due to a number of reasons such as overconfidence in your own abilities and skills, unfamiliar terrain, underestimation of trail conditions, lack of experience and poor preparation. Unmarked trails are hard to follow in the dark and might look very different than what they appear to be during the day.

Avoid venturing off designated trails, which not only protects you, but also helps protect the natural environment. Hikers need to be observant and keep a check on important landmarks such as canyons and rivers to make sure they are going in the right direction.

Slipping and Falling

This is one of the biggest dangers of hiking at night and can be fatal. Be extra careful when negotiating rough and uneven terrain and pay attention to your surroundings. It’s not that difficult to misjudge a ledge, rocks and scrambling sections.

Wild Animals and Hunters

Depending on the terrain, there are going to be some wild animals that you’d want to avoid. Research potentially dangerous wild animals in the area. Try making some noise as you hike to minimize chances of catching predators along the way by surprise, especially in the early morning or late evening.

When hiking in an area home to bears, carry a bear spray. Wear ankle boots and crew socks when hiking through areas where you might encounter snakes.

You also need to make sure that you don’t get shot by hunters, especially in autumn and late summer. You’d not want to walk stealthily or wear camouflage in the dark during the hunting season.

 

Extreme Weather

Bad weather, especially at higher altitudes can ruin night hikes and can even be life threatening. Although weather can be unpredictable at higher altitudes, make sure to check the weather forecast and prepare well. Night hiking in winters requires even more gear such as extra layers and is not for the faint hearted inexperienced hikers.

Snow and Ice

Night hiking becomes even more challenging on icy and snowy terrains. You need specialized equipment, including clothes and shoes to deal with such terrains. Hiking in these terrains is not recommended at night because of the snow and ice specific hazards, including it’s difficult to know where a trail ends and cracks in the snowpack.

You also need to bring more layers than you think you need, which increases weight and makes hiking even more difficult. Margin of error is already pretty low in night hiking, so hikers need to know their limits before thinking about night hiking in snowy or icy terrains.

Rivers and Other Water Bodies

Crossing rivers, streams and other water bodies at night can be dangerous and not recommended unless you absolutely have to or are well aware of the terrain. Even then, you need to be careful when crossing, especially streams and swiftly flowing rivers. Never underestimate how much force flowing water can exert.

Feet Problems

We have already covered how to prevent and treat blisters in a dedicated post, which also applies to night hiking. Sprained ankles can be life threatening and hikers need to be careful about rocks, branches and hidden roots. Pick the right type of shoes (hiking shoes vs. boots) and socks (how to pick the perfect socks for hiking) according to the terrain and train your feet for the challenge in advance.

Dehydration

You might not feel like drinking a lot of water when hiking in dark and cold environments. However, you still need to keep plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and keep electrolyte balance, which provides you with the energy needed to deal with the challenges of hiking in the dark. Dehydration can also lead to hypothermia and that’s not something anyone would want during a night hiking trip.

Where to Hike at Night?

Day hiking is mostly about getting to the end of the trail or summit views, historical remains and waterfalls. But night hikers are after different experiences, including star gazing, wildlife exploration and getting some quality time alone. Not all of the popular trails and hiking/backpacking destinations are night hiking friendly. Many trails do not allow hiking at night, so you’d want to double check operating timings of the trail you have in mind.

Dark Sky Parks are located all over the world and include Big Bend National Park (Texas), Bridges National Monument (Utah), Galloway Forest Park (Scotland) and Zselic National Landscape Protection Area (Hungary). Many US national parks offer guided astronomy and stargazing hikes, which work great for hikers who are new to night hiking.

Stargazers should try to plan their hikes around the full moon, meteor showers and other celestial events. For example, Rock Wilderness (N.C) is considered to be a great place to experience the amazing view of Leonids. Local hiking clubs also offer night hiking trips, so you might want to check out local sporting item shops or sites like meetup.com to learn more.

hikers looking at moonrise at night

Conclusion

An unfamiliar territory and unpreparedness can turn an enjoyable experience into a harrowing epic. Proper care, good judgement and being prepared is the key to turning nights into unforgettable wilderness experiences. Night hikers rely less on their vision, which heightens other senses. This heightened awareness is the main reason why many hikers opt for night hiking. But the same experience can be terrifying for those who got themselves into night hiking unexpectedly.

Hikers need to understand the challenges and dangers associated with night hiking and be mentally and physically prepared to deal with them. Starting with short, safe and easy hikes in familiar terrains provides hikers with the valuable experience they need to deal with bigger challenges. Night hiking is not like a walk in the park, but it can be a rewarding experience if you are prepared and know how to tackle the obstacles.


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