When we head down the trail, one of our goals is to head out of our lives. Not that we’re escaping ourselves — necessarily. Rather, the parts of our life — the social media babble, the job, a demanding cat — from which we need a break. Curious that we seek to escape by heading somewhere so open and exposed. Even curiouser that it’s so effective.
Now imagine that your outdoor escapes were even more effective. That in addition to the solitude and escape of the outdoors, you added intimacy to the mix. Intimacy generally missing from the exposed outdoors because it’s so … exposed. Imagine making your escape into the woods at night.
At night on the trail, your world is reduced to the 20-foot halo of your headlamp. You’re still outdoors: the murmur of night’s nocturnal critters confirms you’ve got company outside your lit sphere, the occasional break in the canopy reveals an endless night sky reminding you of your pinprick place in the scheme of things (humbling, but it helps put into perspective your lunch pilfered from the office fridge). Exposed, and yet so personal. Talk about the outdoors working its mojo!
Raccoons, perhaps, but no saber-toothed tigers
Still, many of us remain … well, if not fearful of the dark, at least highly respectful of it. Thousands of years of sitting around a campfire wondering what’s waiting to eat us when the light goes out— saber-toothed tiger, the Jamaica giant galliwasp — will do that to a species. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a saber-toothed tiger on the prowl for a good 10,000 years, and we aren’t in Jamaica: in these parts, there are critters that may watch you at night, but none doing so while holding a knife and fork.
So why don’t more of us hike after dark, especially with the specter of Daylight Saving Time drawing to a close (Nov. 3) and the sun calling it quits before we get off work?
We won’t speculate on the matter: guessing what others are thinking leads to others guessing what you’re thinking. What we will do, though, is take you with us on our monthly night outings.
Tuesday Night Hikes
Beginning Nov. 19 and continuing into March, we’ll be hiking at least one night a month, usually on a Tuesday (though there is one Friday hike) on a Triangle-area trail. Most of the hikes are 3 to 4 miles in length, most are on trails you’ve likely hiked in daylight (including several sections of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail). We start at 7 p.m., to let the rush-hour traffic clear, we hike for about an hour and a half. Afterward, we hang out and enjoy the night a shade longer over hot chocolate.
It’s a way to keep from restricting your outdoor activity to the weekends during the short (yet somehow long) days of winter. It’s a way to get out on a day, Tuesday, when you likely have nothing else going on (based on sketchy data from Uber and Lyft drivers). It’s a way to overcome your fear of being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger.
Another reason to hike at night, especially for slower hikers and beginners: the dark is a great equalizer of fast hikers and slower ones. Hiking at night pretty much demands that you focus on the trail immediately ahead of you: no looking 30 yards up the trail and figuring how quickly you can cover the distance. If you’ve felt like you’re your own group on a group hike, that’s less likely to happen at night.
Tips for hiking at night
While we’d love for you to join us on our Tuesday Night Hikes, we know some of you would prefer to give it a go on your own. A few things to keep in mind:
- Get a headlamp. This is a must. Flashlights, work, sure, but you really want to keep your hands free. You can get a decent torch for as little as $20; note that LEDs cast a more hike-friendly light. Be sure to pack both extra batteries and a spare light (a little pen light will do) so you can see to change out your batteries.
- Pick short hikes to start. Night hiking takes some getting used to. Your world is confined to the glow of your headlamp, and it takes some concentration to focus on such a limited portion of the trail. Surprisingly, it can be a sensory overload, as your other senses tune in to the world beyond the scope of your light. Don’t overstay your first outing.
- Hike trails you’ve hiked in daylight. Even though it’s dark, familiarity is a big 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 you are on the trail.
- Hike by your feet. It takes a bit more effort to scout out the blazes at night rather than in the day. The best way to tell whether you’ve wandered off the beaten path is if your boots are suddenly sinking into soft, untrodden leaf litter. Backtrack and seek out firm footing.
- Bundle up. Nights are cooler than days; counter the chill with one more layer than you think you’ll need. You can always shed a layer down the trail.
- Don’t hike alone. I do a lot of soloing, but not at night.
- Again, take extra batteries. If your light goes out, you’re really in the dark.
- Again, take a backup light. Even a $5 keychain light can be a lifesaver if your main goes out. (Ever try to change batteries in the dark?)
- Take a map and compass. You should already have these in your daypack, 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 hiking in the cool air while concentrating on the trail will burn some calories; you’ll be glad to have the extra fuel.
- Appreciate the night sky. Because that’s one reason you’re hiking at night!
- Take a cell phone, just in case. Besides, most phones have a flashlight function that could save you in a pinch.
Note that most trails on public lands are closed from dusk until dawn. That includes state parks and nearly all municipal and county trails. National forests typically don’t have hours, nor do lands managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Embrace the night — take a hike!
Our Tuesday Night Hikes series kicks off Tuesday, Nov. 19. Learn more about the series and its perks, and sign up to join us here.