Tips for an evening saunter/night hike

Editor’s note: We run this piece every year around this time. The extra hour of afternoon daylight that Daylight Saving Time grants us means we can hit the trail after work. But that comes with a caveat — and some advice, which follows.

For much of the winter, the sun set long before we had a chance to enjoy it after getting off work. Now, it stays out later and later, and so do we. Sometimes later than we anticipated.  

When we become drunk on sunlight and it leaves the party before we were expecting, it’s good to know a thing or two about navigating in the dark, and near dark. Today, we share some tips based on our experience of leading night hikes for the past 10 years.

Before heading out

  • Pack a headlamp. This is a must. Flashlights, work, but you 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.
  • Pack extra batteries and a spare light. Batteries can fizzle without warning and a spare light is a must (if for no other reason than to help you see to change 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 a limited portion of trail. 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.
  • Take a map and compass. You should already have these in your daypack, but make extra sure you have them at night. If you become misplaced, finding a point of reference that matches with your map will go a long way toward getting you back to your car.
  • Take water and snacks. Just because it’s dark doesn’t mean you can’t get dehydrated. And hiking in the cool air will burn some calories; you’ll be glad to have the extra fuel.
  • Be aware of posted hours. Trails on certain 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.

At the trailhead

  • 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. Make sure you have a buddy with you.
  • 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.
  • Take your phone. Another way to figure out where you are: call up your favorite map program, even one that focuses on roads. It may not show the trail you’re supposed to be on, but it will show the nearest road: Keep your blue dot headed toward it (which might require some timber-bashing).
  • Double check the hours. Websites and social media can contain old news; double check when the gates close (if there are gates). Also check for notices, advisories and closures that could affect your hike.

On the trail

  • Be vigilant about blazes. If you don’t see a blaze ahead of you, turn and check to see if you can spot one from the direction you came. .
  • Hike by your feet. It takes a bit more effort to scout out the blazes at night. The best way to tell whether you’ve wandered off the beaten path is if your boots suddenly sink into soft, untrod leaf litter. Backtrack and seek out the firm footing of the trail.
  • Stop, look, listen. Night hiking is a much different experience. Take the time to savor it.
  • Appreciate the night sky. Because that’s one of the reasons you’re out there!
  • Beware the gloaming. There’s a roughly 10-minute period before the end of twilight when there’s not enough light to see on your own, yet your headlamp is no help, either. This is a good time to stop, look and listen.
  • Resist the urge to turn on your lamp prematurely. Especially if you are in a group, because once you light up, your light will cast shadows making it hard for the unlit to see.
  • Stay within earshot of fellow hikers. It’s much easier to lose people in your group at night; make sure you can at least hear their footsteps.

Leave a Reply