Imagine being the first person to observe your favorite scene on your favorite trail as it lights up in the morning or shuts its eyes for the night. How is this possible, you might ask? Hiking in the dark!
The most spectacular times of day to hike are at sunrise and sunset. But to arrive at a scenic overlook, a waterfall, or a mountain peak at sunrise or sunset, you’ll need to hike in the dark.
In this guide, I’m going to share with you how to go hiking at night. These night hiking tips will open up a world of new possibilities because you’ll be able to hike before sunrise and after sunset, allowing you to see your favorite landscape in its most beautiful state.
Why Hike in the Dark?
Sunrise and sunset are the best times to hike. Crowds are at bay and the landscapes are soft and stunning.
When awakening, canyons will fill with muted light, mountains will transform from rugged peaks to soft silhouettes, and rainforests will brighten ever so slightly.
When resting, forests will dim, deserts will glow eerily white from bright moonlight and twinkly stars, and peaks will be backdropped by swirls of magenta, coral, gold, and periwinkle.
You’ll have to see it to believe it.
It is pretty much guaranteed that you will see fewer people on a trail pre-sunrise or post-sunset. Aside from a few notoriously crowded sunrise or sunset National Park trails, you will likely find solitude in the dark.
Catch a Sunrise
Hiking in the dark is the only way to catch the sunrise on a trail unless you’re backpacking.
Catch a Sunset
Hiking back in the dark is the only way to catch the sunset on a trail unless you’re backpacking.
Gain a New Perspective
Trails look different enveloped in darkness, dwindling light, or rising light. Even if you hike the same place, it will look different at every stage of the day.
You’ll earn some relief from the mid-day heat if you’re hiking in the warmer months.
You might have to hike in the dark because of weather conditions. Snow gets mushy later in the day as the sun warms and melts it, making it harder to walk on. Or wind could pick up in the mountains later in the day, making it necessary to start early.
Hike More Miles
You might want to hike more miles than you have time for in the daylight.
Since your vision will be compromised, you’ll rely on your other senses, especially your hearing, allowing you to receive a more intimate connection with the environment.
Night Hiking Tips: How to Hike For Sunrise and Sunset
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As with most outdoor activities, some challenges arise with night hiking.
I have compiled a list of night hiking tips to help you have a successful night hike and to help you be able to watch all of the trail sunrises and sunsets that your heart desires!
Hike a Familiar Trail
For your first night hike, pick a trail that you’re familiar with, a trail that you’ve hiked at least a time or two. Knowing the route in the daytime will help you navigate it in the dark.
Even if you’re a serial night hiker, traipsing in unknown terrain will always pose more challenges than hiking a new trail during daylight.
Always use caution and pay attention to your surroundings.
The best types of trails to hike at night are wide, open terrains like deserts and thin forests.
Beginners Should Avoid These Trail Features on a Night Hike
- Dense forests
- River crossings
- Rock scrambles
- Narrow or exposed trails
Do Your Research
Whether or not you’ve hiked the trail before, take time to research the trail and its patterns. Familiarize yourself with the elevation, natural features, and route pattern.
Even if you hiked the trail a few years ago, it’s possible that you forgot about a certain swift river crossing or exposed cliff that could pose concerns in the dark or that the path is narrower, steeper, and/or windier than you remember.
Also, check the weather conditions ahead of time. Weather like rain, snow, wind, fog, and ice could affect your night hike even more so than a day hike.
Hike With a Full Moon
The light from a full moon (or near full moon) will help you see the path in front of you and allow you to rely less on your headlamp.
A full moon is a reliable light source and is 100% predictable, so it’s easy to plan your night hikes around them!
Hike in a Group
Hiking with at least one other person is recommended for not only your first night hike but any night hike.
It’s known that hikers are more likely to get injured or lost on a night hike than on a day hike. Having other people around almost guarantees that someone will be paying attention to directions and helping the group stay on the right track. And if a person does get hurt or another emergency situation arises, someone in the group can get help.
Also, wildlife is particularly active at night. Hiking in a large group naturally creates more noise, so you are more likely to deter wildlife from approaching you.
Stay on the Trail
Leave the nighttime bushwacking and off-trail hiking to the experts. It’s hard enough to navigate a familiar trail in the dark. Add in unfamiliar territory, unknown obstacles, and uncut paths, your confidence is going to sink.
Stay on the trails as best as you can. Keep your eyes peeled for trail markers; they could be easily missed if you’re not paying attention. Since it’s easy to miss the trail markers in the dark while you’re trying to watch for other things like trees, stumps, boulders, spiky branches, and wildlife, use an app like Gaia GPS to help you stay on track.
Bring Adequate Lighting
Whether or not you hike under the moonlight, you’ll need an additional lighting source. Clouds and fog can obstruct your view, and shadowy sections can inhibit your eyesight, so I’d recommend bringing a headlamp or two with some extra batteries.
Headlamps are superior to flashlights because they allow you to hike hands-free. Some hikers strap it to their heads while others wear it around their necks like necklaces. With your hands free, you can reach for your bear spray, hold your trekking poles, and use both hands to feel for your surroundings.
Features to Consider When Purchasing a Headlamp
- Pick a headlamp with both a white-light and red-light setting.
- The white-light setting should have multiple brightness levels.
- Find one that fits comfortably on your head. You don’t want to be constantly adjusting it or have it sliding off.
- Turn your headlamp away when other hikers are approaching.
- Use the red-light option around your group and at camp. This option is also useful if your eyes are already adjusted to the dark.
Headlamp and Night Vision Tips
- Let your eyes adjust to the dark. It could take up to 45 minutes to fully adjust, but once they do, you’ll have a heightened sense of your surroundings. Once your eyes are adjusted, don’t look directly into any light source, or you’ll have to start over again.
- Use red light on your headlamp instead of white whenever you can.
- Know how to use all the settings on your headlamp before heading out.
- Bring extra batteries and/or an extra headlamp.
Bring Lots of Layers
The air is usually cooler before the sun rises and after the sun disappears.
Bring extra layers that you can add as the sun goes down or peel off as the morning light warms the trail.
Layers to Bring on a Night Hike
- Base, wicking layer.
- Mid, insulating layer.
- Top, waterproof/windproof layer.
- Heavier coat for winter or cooler weather conditions.
Your first night hike and probably every other night hike you go on will involve walking much slower than you would during the daylight hours. It’s easier to miss turns, run into things, have wildlife sneak up on you, or twist an ankle on stumps when the light is dwindling or extinguished, even if you have moonlight or headlamp sources.
Keep your pace slow and steady. Your night hike shouldn’t be a race to the finish line. If you are in a rush, you probably shouldn’t be out on the trails in the dark.
Watch Out for Wildlife
Wildlife is less of a threat to you than you probably think. Especially in the dark when your senses are heightened and your heart rate is spiked by every little twig crunch and distant howl.
Since both humans and wildlife tend to have decreased vision in the dark, you can help avoid surprise encounters by making lots of noise.
Noise is one of the perks of hiking in a group; you’re less likely to run into a bear or other wildlife. By simply talking loudly, singing, or laughing, you will alert the wildlife to your presence and allow them to keep hidden and wait for you to pass.
Most of the time they don’t want to come into contact with you or even see you UNLESS you’re not following proper bear protocol in bear country. I’ve written an entire blog post on must-know bear safety tips!
Why Wildlife is So Active at Night
- They like to escape the heat of the day.
- They prefer to hunt at night.
- They prefer to mate at night.
- They are less likely to run into a human at night.
Tell Someone Your Plans
Telling someone exactly where you’re going and sharing your itinerary and your plans is incredibly important, regardless of which part of the day or night you’ll be hiking.
Even if you’re hiking in a group, have each member of the group inform someone of the plan so that in the event of an emergency, if any or all of you don’t return, someone will be able to alert search and rescue in a timely manner.
Bring a Satellite Phone
As I’m sure you know, cell service is limited on most trails, especially in wilderness, forested, and remote terrain.
Carry a satellite phone with you to communicate with loved ones and have the option of pressing the SOS button in case of an emergency.
Carry the 10 Essentials
Carry the 10 Essentials with you no matter what time of day or night you’re hiking.
- First aid
- Sun Protection
Do’s and Don’ts of Night Hiking
- Do bring at least two light sources and backup batteries.
- Do hike with a full moon, if possible.
- Do hike somewhere familiar, especially for your first night hike.
- Don’t forget to pack layers.
- Do check the weather and research the area prior to hitting the trail.
- Don’t hike alone in the dark.
- Do stay on the trail.
- Don’t hike too fast in the dark.
- Do watch out for wildlife.
- Do tell someone your plans.
- Don’t forget to bring a satellite phone for communication and emergencies.
- Do carry the 10 essentials.