Enjoy the night with a hike

An hour or so into the hike, the lightbulb went on for Alan. “Now this looks familiar.”

The problem up until now? We’d been hiking in the daylight.

Alan Nechemias and I had probably hiked this stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along Falls Lake — sections 10 and 9 — a couple dozen times over the past three years. But we could only recall hiking it once in daylight. The other times had been under conditions much like this: cool to cold late fall and winter nights once the sun had long since set.

Our night hikes were born of necessity a decade or so ago. Late one October we were lamenting the diminishing daylight and the coming of Daylight Savings Time, which would extinguish for several months any thought of getting in a bike ride after work. Ruing the seasonally imposed hiatus that loomed, we saw ourselves growing fat in our hibernating state. That’s when the idea struck: What about a hike, a long hike, in the dark?

Initially, early morning seemed a good idea. Start out in the dark, finish as the sun was coming up. Then, one morning as the world slowly began to take light we saw something up the trail, under a tree; It was a hunter with a shotgun, counting the minutes until sunrise and the legal start of deer hunting for the day. Since our primary venue for these long hikes was Falls Lake, portions of which are on gamelands, we decided to switch to night hikes.

Between now and the end of March, we’ll try to get out at least two nights a month. Monday’s inaugural outing was short by our night hiking standards, about 6.2 miles. Generally, we’ll go between 8 and 12 miles; our longest hike, I believe, was just under 15. We’re typically on the trail from 2 1/2 to 4 hours. On the nights we hike, we sleep well.

Night hiking isn’t for everyone. Those of you scared of the dark, for instance, might want to pass. Ditto those of you with poor night vision. Granted, you hike with a headlamp (more about that momentarily), but the headlamp offers no clue what lies beyond its 15-foot-or-so cone of illumination. (There’s nothing to harm you, frankly, but folks who may realize that on one level lose all sense of logic and reason in the dark.) Oh, and stickers for rules may not be cut out for night hiking. Technically, most trails on public lands are closed from dusk until dawn. That would include State Parks and nearly all municipal and county trails; national forests have no hours (and the trails are generally hard enough to follow in daylight, let alone the night), nor do lands managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. I say that they are “technically” closed because … what’s a legally correct way to put this? … well, because I’ve only been escorted off a trail once for violating curfew. There, consider yourself warned.

OK, some tips for you potential night hikers (from a post we recycled from last November on the subject).

  • For starters, you’ll need a light. Headlamps work best (leaving your cold hands free to tuck into your pockets), and you can get a decent one for as little as $30. LEDs cast a more hike-friendly light; be sure to take a spare light (a little pen light will do) and extra batteries. Wayfinding in the pitch dark is no fun, believe me. More information on the subject here.
  • Pick short hikes to start. It’s a different game out there under the lights and it takes some getting used to. For one, your world is confined to the glow of your headlamp; beyond that is a dark world short on sights and long on curious sounds. Curiously, it can be sensory overload.
  • Hike trails you’ve hiked in daylight. Even though it’s dark, familiarity is a huge plus. You’ll be amazed at how things you didn’t think you noticed during the day will pop out as key markers of where exactly you are on the trail.
  • Hike by your feet. One thing you’ll notice immediately: There aren’t as many blazes on the trail as their seem to be during the day. The best way to tell whether you’ve wandered off the beaten path? If your boots are suddenly sinking into soft, untrodden leaf litter. Backtrack and seek out firm footing.
  • Bundle up. It cools off at night and your daytime hiking partner Ol’ Sol won’t be there to counter the chill of winter.
  • Don’t hike alone. I do a lot of soloing, but not at night.
  • Again, take extra batteries. Your light goes out, you’re in for a really long evening.
  • Again, take a backup light. Even a $5 keychain light can be a lifesaver if your main torch goes out. Even if you take extra batteries, take a backup light. (Ever try to change batteries in the dark?)
  • Take a map and compass. You should be packing both in your daypack anyway, but make extra sure you have them at night.
  • Take water and snacks. Just because it’s dark doesn’t mean you can’t get dehydrated. And if your night hikes turn into epics like ours have, you’ll need extra fuel along the way.
  • Take a moment to check out the night sky.
  • Take a cell phone, just in case.

Interested, but tentative? We’ll be doing another night hike in the next couple weeks. Drop me a line if you’d like to tag along.

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