Hiking in the Dark

Ron Niebrugge Arizona, Ask Ron, Photos, Travel 9 Comments

Sabino Canyon, near Tucson, Arizona and about an 45 minutes before a dark hike down this same hillside.

Sabino Canyon, near Tucson, Arizona and about 45 minutes before a dark hike down this same hillside.

Ron Richins asked this great question recently:

I just saw your last post about SabinoCanyon.  I also saw your post awhile ago about Tower Arch.  The one thing they have in common is that you hiked out in the dark from each location.  Do you have a lot of experience doing this, and does it get easier the more you do it?  I’ve only done a few hikes after dark, and they can be quite unnerving.  I wonder if you could share some tips about hiking prudently after dark.  A headlamp’s a must, but beyond that, what else do you do?  Do you follow tracks left by a GPS?  Or, am I just letting fear rule me more than reason?  This might make for an interesting blog post.

Actually, I don’t do too much hiking in the dark especially in Alaska.  Last summer I actually spent one night only a mile from my home in a tent rather then hike through a pitch dark bear infested forest. 🙂  There are enough bears around here already – but at night, it seems like every dark stump turns into a bear!

It was in Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park that I really began doing dark hikes.  There, spending the night wasn’t an option because of restrictions, permits etc., so long hikes in the dark was the only way to be at many locations for sunrise or sunset.  It was easy down there thanks to well marked, well worn trails.  It worked out so well, that I began doing it in other areas –  places like Moab and Tucson like you observed.

So here are some observations:

–  Be extra observant for visual clues, junctions etc.  Even familiar trails look very different in the dark.  It much, much  easier to get lost or miss a trail in the darkness.  Reliable visual references such as mountains and other land features are often impossible to see in the dark.

–  Dark hiking is slow.  Even though it seems like I’m hiking really fast, I’m not!  Allow extra time even on a trail you are familiar – like 25% extra time.

–  A headlamp is a must.  Unlike a flashlight, a headlamp keeps both hands free, and always places the beam of light exactly where you are looking – which is where you want it!

–  I use an old Petzl.  During my last visit to REI I was really tempted to purchase this much brighter version:
Petzl Tactkka Plus LED headlamp
The thing I really like about the Tactikka Plus is the red filter which allows you to maintain your night vision.  I think that feature would be wonderful for night photography – star trails and northern lights.  Keeping your night vision while still having enough light to set up the camera would be a huge benefit.

–  Be sure your headlamps batteries are charged or fresh.

–  I carry a small can of bear spray.  I don’t remember where I bought this small can of spray – I think it might have been at a Bass Pro Shop.  I wouldn’t want such a small can in Alaska, but in the Southwest where I’m more concerned about mountain lions and people, I think it is a great size.

–  I make sure I know where I’m going.  I carefully look over maps and have a good feel for distances between junctions, directions etc.  I haven’t used my GPS on a night hike, but it probably isn’t a bad idea.  It would have been nice for our hike out from Tower Arch in Arches because the distance between cairns was greater then our light beam.  Fortunately on that hike I wasn’t alone.  I had Janine stop at the last cairn with her lamp, while I hiked out until I could find the next pile of rocks, then she could hike back toward my light and we repeated.  It was slow, but safe – especially given the steepness of the final hill.  A GPS cookie trail would have come in handy.

–  Go with a friend.  Not only is it safer like in the situation above, but it also makes it more fun and less spooky.  If I’m talking with someone then my mind is less likely to turn every stump into a monster like my mind does when I’m alone!

–  Be extra prepared.  I usually bring an extra shell or jacket, trail bars and water just in case I have to wait until morning to find my way.

I know what you are saying about how unnerving it can be when hiking in the dark – it is for me as well.  But, it does seem to get easier the more I do it.  I don’t think I will ever get to the level of comfort as I found in a young couple from South Africa.  I was camped late one summer night on the edge of the Harding Icefield in Alaska.  At 1:00 a.m in the total darkness they showed up without even a flashlight.  There are so many bears on that trail during the day, I can’t imagine making that long hike in the dark.  When I asked them about it the next day they just shrugged it off like it was nothing.

Comments 9

  1. I love night hiking! However, I prefer to use my “night vision” and keep the headlamp off. You should always have one in case an emergency arises, but I find it much easier to see without the light on. With the headlamp on, my vision is limited to the circle of the light, and the harsh directional light casts shadows that I find disorienting. The shadows interfere with my depth perception and make it harder to determine the size and spacing of objects in relation to one another because the shadows are constantly changing with every move you make. By allowing my eyes to adjust to the light available however, I can see all around me and my world is lit by a single main unmoving light source, similar to how I see during the day. If you start your hike at the end of the day as the light is fading, your eyes adjust to the changing light very quickly. I find it easier to get used to night hiking this way before venturing out on hikes that start at dark. When the moon is full or close to it, there is a surprising amount of light and hiking without using a headlamp is very easy.

    I biked across the country last summer and my buddy and I often rode at night without using headlamps on open backcountry roads when the moon was bright. We kept our headlights on our helmets and turned them on when we saw headlights in the distance, to make ourselves visible to passing motorists, but then turned them off again as soon as the coast was clear.

    In the areas where I hike, I am quite familiar with the environment and often the trail itself (although I have hiked new trails for the first time at night). The largest animals I need to worry about are black bear, bobcat, deer, and moose, so I don’t feel at all unsafe hiking without a headlamp on. If I were in grizzly country, or in an area with large and potentially dangerous wildlife that I am unfamiliar with, I might think differently. However, I still find that being able to see all around me, even if only in shapes and silhouettes, is more comforting that just knowing what exactly it is within the couple dozen meters or so of light that a headlamp provides.

  2. I agree with Kari. Night hiking is plenty of fun! I typically will only hike a trail at night though that I’m familiar with or have done at least once, just so I know if I happen to make a wrong turn I can look for visual clues. Most trails I also do are either signed or well-worn. I also like to go with natural light when there’s enough. If there’s anything close to a full moon out then there’s more than enough!

    I usually don’t worry about predators if I’m in the desert. Night hiking in the Tetons would be a different story though and I’d have to go with someone else on that occasion unless I had backpacked into a location nearby.

  3. Post

    Thanks Carl!

    Hi Kari – thanks for your great comment and for sharing your insight! You make great points – I need to try the total dark thing more. I know it works great in the winter with moon / snow, but haven’t tried that method much otherwise. By the way, I enjoyed following your bike trip last summer.

    Thanks Mike. I hear you on the Tetons in the dark. I remember a spooky evening coming out from Avalanche Canyon in the Tetons in mostly dark conditions.

    Thanks Jon – what a great place to run / ride! We took our bikes back there the next day for a ride right after the trams were done for the day – what a treat! I wish we had time for a run.


  4. It certainly is a different world at night. My preference for night hiking is also letting my eyes adjust to the dark. To get completely adjusted often takes 20 minutes or so. If it is very dark and the trail is pretty clean, I often use a head lamp. If it is rough, I carry the flashlight at waist level. That way I have nice shadow detail for my footing, whereas the headlamp gives very flat light and it is hard to judge distances. I really used this to my advantage running around Kilauea Volcano at night. That lava is very sharp, but also great traction. With a good flashlight at waist level I could cruise it as fast as in daylight.

  5. I hadn’t thought of using a red headlamp. That, combined with Kari’s comments about reducing the light for our eyes to adjust to, sounds interesting.

    Hiking across slick rock is really different than hiking along a well worn mountain trail. I’ve learned from experience that it’s really easy to get lost on slick rock where no trail really exists and only cairns are available to guide the way. One solution I’ve found was to use the GPS and lay down tracks. However, you need to save them as a DIFFERENT color. This is important because on the way out, it is difficult distinguishing between incoming and outgoing tracks. I literally got turned around and headed back where I came from. Now I save tracks in a different color.

  6. Post

    Wow, more great tip! The follow up comments are more valuable then my original post.

    Thanks Calvin – the waist high light makes sense.

    Ron – changing the color of the track is another good idea – unfortunately, my GPS is mono-chrome – but one day. Thanks.

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