Embrace the coming dark with a night hike

If you think it’s bad that the sun sets today at 6:25 p.m., wait until 11 days from now when the sun disappears at 5:14! 

Yup, Daylight Saving Time ends in the wee hours of Nov. 7, and we lose an hour of sunlight on the backend. (On the plus side, while we’ll continue to lose afternoon daylight for another month or so, we’ll start gaining it back, slowly, on Dec. 14.) The start of Standard time, alas, means many of you will curtail your evening adventures. Too bad, because you don’t need to. Not when the dark offers so many new reasons to explore.

Hiking at night offers special rewards not found during the day. This type of hiking calls for different levels of concentration, as you focus on a world circumscribed by an orb of light as you scan for footing; this problem-solving aspect of hiking is one of the things that improves not only body but mind as well. You can tune in to the sounds of night life, which is not the same as the sounds of daytime critters (more owls than warblers, more raccoons than squirrels). And if you pause and look up, you can see the glories of the night sky (pausing is key; we have tried to hike while looking up at the stars and it always ends badly). It’s a special place, the night world, and it is one well worth exploring.

We get that night hiking isn’t for everyone. If you’re hopelessly intimidated by the dark, or have very poor night vision, for instance, you might want to pass. But for the rest of you open to the concept, we have some tips for you.

  • Headlamps on? Let’s head out!

    A headlamp. This is a must. Flashlights, work, sure, but you really want to keep your hands free. You can get a decent one for as little as $15; 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 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 on your first outing.
  • 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 you are on the trail.
  • Hike by your feet. It takes a bit more effort to pick out the blazes at night. 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. Nighttime is cooler than day, of course. Counter the chill with one more layer than you think you’ll need; you can always shed a layer later.
  • 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 torch 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. That night sky is 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.

Let us help you take on the night!

GetHiking! Tuesday Night Winter Hike Series Winter 2021-22. Intrigued by the notion mom a night hike but not intrigued enough to head out on your own, at least not without a little experience? Get that experience on our GetHiking! Tuesday Night Hike Series Winter 2021-22, which starts Dec. 7 and runs through Feb. 22. A dozen hikes, each around 3 miles and lasting an hour and a half, on a different trail each week. Learn more and sign up to join us here.

GetOriented! Finding Your Way in the Woods. Of course, a map and compass will get you only so far if you don’t know how to use them. If you need some direction, check out our GetOriented! classes. Our next classes are Saturday, Nov. 20, at Eno River State Park, and Saturday, Dec. 4 at Umstead State Park. Learn more about the Eno class here, the Umstead class here.

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