How Night Hiking Works


Hiking at night brings all new challenges and rewards. See more national park pictures.
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When I was in high school, I snuck out of the house a lot at night. I'd pad down the steps of my family's suburban split-level, remembering to leap lynx-like over the creaky third stair. Slowly, silently, I'd twist the knob on my brother's ground-floor bedroom. I didn't have to worry about waking him (he slept the zonked-out, open-mouthed sleep of the dead), but I did need to be careful of my sharp-eared mother dozing in front of the TV in the next room.

Listening hard for mother-noises over the muffled strains of the "Dallas" theme song, I'd creep onto my brother's desk, hook my fingers around his window latch and ease the window open, lifting myself out into a world filled with night song and stars.

My friends would be waiting for me at the bottom of the hill, idling in someone's father's borrowed car. There would be a flurry of slamming doors (go! go! go!) and we'd all die laughing as we peeled out of the neighborhood, cranking up The Cure's "A Forest" on the stereo and passed bottles of Zeltzer Seltzer around the car.

Darkness made us invincible; we'd sneak into the local golf course to lie on our backs under the moon. The cart paths shone silver, and the nighttime hummed with insect song. Without warning, the sharp, clean smell of ozone would fill the air and we'd scramble up, shrieking, as the sprinklers blasted on.

Night hiking is the adult version of sneaking out of the house: You get all the excitement but with virtually no chance of being caught and grounded upon your return. National Geographic contributor James Vlahos says of cresting a mountain at night, "The stars and planets are close overhead; a savagely beautiful and uninhabited world lies below ... I feel less a hiker than an astronaut."

But is night hiking really all magic and moonlight? Or do monsters and mayhem also lurk in the dark? Find out everything you need to know about night hiking, starting with how to see in the dark, next.

How to See in the Dark: Rods, Cones and Night Hiking

I have a couple of trickster cousins who think it's hilarious to switch off their headlights while driving in the dark. Hiking at night doesn't plunge you quite as terrifyingly into pitch blackness, but even experienced hikers can feel uneasy and off-balance in the woods at night.

Loss of visual acuity heightens all the other senses. Snapping twigs sound strangely magnified. The forest's pine scent develops rich, earthy undertones. Reflective surfaces -- rock faces, dunes and lakes -- loom unexpectedly out of the blackness. Heightened awareness is one of the things advocates love about night hiking. However, those who find themselves hiking in the dark unexpectedly say the experience can be terrifying. Santa Fe attorney and avid hiker Debbie Ramirez found herself on a night hike after misjudging the time it would take to descend from Mount Whitney. She said, "I could see the trail, barely, but I had no idea what was lurking in the woods. It was pretty scary."

The human retina is made up of rods (which help us see in the dark) and cones (which are concentrated in the center of the pupil and work best in bright light.) Understanding how rods and cones differ is the trick to being able to see in the dark [source: American Optometric Association]:

  • Cones: Thanks to all those centrally-concentrated cones, most of us have a middle-vision blind spot in low-light conditions. To compensate when hiking at night, focus your eyes slightly to one side of objects you want to see.
  • Rods: It takes rods a full 30 to 45 minutes to adapt to low-light conditions. Before setting out on your night hike, first find a dark spot and sit for a half-hour. Once your eyes adjust, you'll be amazed at how well you'll be able to see in the dark.

Learning how to see in the dark is essential to staying safe on a night hike. But what about those creatures Debbie Ramirez felt lurking in the woods? Is it really safe to hike at night?

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!: Night Hiking Safety

The buddy system's a good idea when you're hiking at night.
The buddy system's a good idea when you're hiking at night.
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James Vlahos, who hiked the 211-mile John Muir Trail at night and waxed eloquently about the experience in his 2011 essay for National Geographic Traveler, says that "hiking at night isn't as dangerous as it may sound, but it's probably not well suited for novice hikers."

This is because hiking, even under normal light conditions, requires a number of skills, including physical, orienteering, first-aid, plant and wildlife identification, and survival skills. Once a hiker has acquired this basic knowledge, he or she is probably equipped to hike safely at night. However, there are a few safety tips that even experienced hikers should bear in mind:

  • Bring a Friend: It's always a good idea to hike in a group. However, this is even more important when hiking at night. Hikers make more noise in groups, which helps scare off the wildlife. A group will also help keep hikers safer from any human predators that may be lurking under cover of darkness.
  • Know Your Surroundings: Hiking at night, especially if you've never done it before, can be creepy and disorienting. It's best to hike at night with a guide or on a trail with which you are already familiar.
  • Go Slow: Depth perception is tricky at night; you'll need to move more slowly to avoid trips and falls.
  • Watch for Wildlife: While it's true that certain predatory species (mountain lions, coyotes) are nocturnal, these animals will generally be more afraid of you than you are of them. Avoid catching them unaware by hiking in groups and making noise as you walk.
  • Share the Moon: Especially if you're a beginner, hike on a clear night when the moon is bright and waxing.
  • Know Your Gear: When Debbie Ramirez found herself unexpectedly night hiking, she had a headlamp in her pack, but she couldn't find it in the darkness. Even if she had found it, would she have known how many hours it would function on its highest setting? Knowing your gear is important for all hikers, but this is doubly true for those hiking at night.

Speaking of gear, will night-hiking provide you with the excuse you need to invest in those fancy infrared goggles you've been coveting?

Leave the Kitchen Sink at Home: What to Take on a Night Hike

Experienced hikers are usually pretty proud of their backpacks. They pare them down to the barest of essentials, imagining themselves as modern-day naturalists like John Muir, messiah of the Yosemite mountains, who reportedly hiked alone for weeks on end carrying nothing but a stale loaf of bread [source: Vlahos].

It's no surprise then that experienced night hikers like James Vlahos spend little time talking about their gear. In fact, when they do make mention of essential items like headlamps, it's to caution hikers against overusing them. (Take note: ruining a hiker's night vision by accidentally shining your flashlight into his eyes is about the worst breach of etiquette you can make on a night hike.)

This doesn't mean that would-be night hikers should rush out and buy expensive night vision monoculars or infra-red goggles, however. You are certainly welcome to invest in these, but they are definitely not a night-hiking necessity. The fact is, a night hiker's pack is about the same as a day hiker's pack. Both should include basics like tools for navigation (map, compass), extra layers of clothing, light source, batteries, small first aid kit, matches, water and snacks, rope, a multi-tool and a tarp that can serve as an emergency shelter. There are a few items, however, that night hikers can't live without.

  • Sturdy Hiking Shoes or Boots: Park rangers at Bryce Canyon require proof that you are wearing boots or shoes with lug traction soles before they'll allow you on their popular full moon hikes. Trips and falls are common while night hiking. The proper shoes can save you from an ankle sprain or worse.
  • Bug Spray: Many insect species are active at night, so be sure you wear insect repellant.
  • Light Source: Headlamps are great for night hiking. Even the inexpensive ones come with three settings: low, high and red light. The red light setting is great for navigating in the dark without totally ruining your night vision.
  • Warm Clothing: Layered clothing is recommended on all hiking checklists; however, you will be especially grateful for that extra jacket after the sun goes down.
  • GPS: Though not absolutely essential, a GPS with a backlight is handy since it's much easier to lose the trail in low light.

Think you're ready for a night hike? Learn how to choose an epic night-hiking destination next.

Best Night Hiking Destinations

Joshua Tree National Park in Utah is a very popular night hiking (and night photography) spot.
Joshua Tree National Park in Utah is a very popular night hiking (and night photography) spot.
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In the daytime, most hikers are interested in the payoff at the end of the trail: the summit view, the colossal waterfall or the historical remains. At night, the sky itself is often the star of the show. The full moon bathes rock formations in eerie, red Martian light in places like Bryce Canyon's Powell Point. Stargazers revel in the fist-sized stars they find on night-darkened summits and hilltops. Sunset hikers are startled in places like Carlsbad Caverns as bats take flight for a night's hunt.

It would be impossible to list all the amazing places to night hike, so here are a few different things to consider when choosing your night hiking destination:

  • Dark Sky Parks: The International Dark Sky Association's dark sky parks are the ultimate night-hiking destinations. There are dark sky parks located all over the world. These include Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, USA, Galloway Forest Park in Scotland and Zselic National Landscape Protection Area in Hungary. Big Bend National Park in Texas is the newest IDSA-certified dark sky park, established in 2012.
  • U.S. National Parks: The National Parks Service has been concerned with preserving night skies in its parks since at least 1999. Many national parks now offer guided stargazing and astronomy hikes and programs. These hikes are a great introduction to night hiking.
  • Meteor Showers & Celestial Events: Time your night hike to coincide with a meteor shower or other celestial event. Backpacker Magazine lists Shining Rock Wilderness, N.C., as a great place to view the Leonids [source: Backpacker].
  • Hiking Clubs: A great way to get started night hiking is by getting involved with your local hiking club. Inquire at your local sporting goods store or visit Meetup.com and search for "hiking" in your area. REI, for instance, offers night hikes in some areas through its Outdoor School program.

Learn more about navigating the Great Outdoors, including an anecdote about my first real encounter with stars, next.

Author's Note: How Night Hiking Works

Several years ago, I was vacationing in Jekyll Island, Ga., and I couldn't sleep. After tossing and turning for a couple hours, I shrugged into a sweater and headed out to the beach.

A city girl like me rarely bothers to look up at the night sky. It's usually orange and depressing, a haze of smog and streetlamps. I'd never seen anything like the night sky I discovered in Jekyll Island. These weren't just stars; they were great, crusty swaths of universe: Stars upon stars upon stars, some big as fists, some tiny as diamonds. I could literally feel the energy streaming off of them.

Lying on my back in the starlight, I felt about a million things all at the same time: infinitesimal and macroscopic, all alone and completely connected. Writing this article made me smile to remember my occasional nocturnal wanderings, like the one in Jekyll Island. I loved discovering that there is a whole dark-sky movement dedicated to controlling light pollution and protecting the few areas of truly dark sky that remain in our world. Visit the International Dark-Sky Association to learn more.

Related Articles

Sources

  • American Optometric Association. "The Eye and Night Vision." (July 5, 2012). http://www.aoa.org/x5352.xml
  • Moon, Yonder. "Hiking by the Light of the Silvery Moon." The New York Times. Nov. 11, 2005. (July 5, 2012) http://travel.nytimes.com/2005/11/11/travel/11moon.html?_r=1&pagewanted=al
  • NightHikers.org. "Gear." Sept. 26, 2007. (July 5, 2012) http://nighthikers.org/
  • Ramirez, Debbie. Hiker from Santa Fe. Personal Interview. July 5, 2012.
  • REI. "Day Hiking Checklist." (July 5, 2012) http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/day+hiking+checklist.html
  • Stardate.org. "2012 Meteor Showers." (July 5, 2012) http://stardate.org/nightsky/meteors
  • Vlahos, James. "Star Trek: Yosemite to the Moon." National Geographic Traveler. July/August, 2011. (July 5, 2012) http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/john-muir-trail-traveler/
  • Young, Sarah Moïse. "Top 3 Night Hikes." Backpacker Magazine. November 2008. (July 5, 2012) http://www.backpacker.com/november_08_top_3_night_hikes_north_carolina_new_mexico_california/destinations/12647
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