Welcome the early dark with a night hike

The following is a version of a piece we run every year at this time, a time when our spirits are buoyed by day by cloudless skies and cooling temperatures, but bummed when those days of sun end earlier and earlier.

Most of us don’t expect the day — the daylight part, that is — to end so soon until the demise of Daylight Saving Time, which is Nov. 6 this year. So when we walk out the door on Oct. 6 expecting to get in a hike and discover a setting sun that will be completely set by 6:52, we’re taken aback. And a bit sad. 

No need to be.

Sure, I think we all feel like George when he wrote, “Here comes the sun, and I say / It’s alright.” But in the GetHiking! world we also embrace the view of Simon and Garfunkel, when they sing, “Hello darkness, my old friend.” Though more in the literal sense with us.

When night begins setting in earlier and earlier, we don’t let it keep us off the trail. We simply grab a torch like townsfolk of yore and head into the night. Though, again in our case, in search of adventure on the trail, not a misunderstood science project. Why?

Hiking at night offers some special rewards not found during the day. This type of hiking calls for different levels of concentration, as you focus on a close 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 also mind. 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 ended 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 scared of 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.

  • 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 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. So 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 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. 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. 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 some 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.

This fall and winter, embrace the night. Take a hike.

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