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.