“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”  -John Wooden

I’ve been called crazy before, but I love night hiking.  It’s not just that I love being under the stars, and love the serenity that is unique to the night;  it can also be an easier way to cover ground.

The exposed chaparral and desert climates of Southern California can make for challenging hiking conditions.  Triple digit daytime highs are normal for much of the year, and shade is usually few and far between.  Coupled with the dry summer air, backpacking here can be difficult and dangerous.  I’ve seen the effects of heat exhaustion on several people, and it turns an otherwise awesome trip into a miserable chore.  Water also becomes scarce by mid summer, and staying hydrated while managing your water supply becomes a vital skill.  Planning to cover the bulk of your mileage in cooler temps is a must, and hiking at night can be a pleasant way to do just that.  In addition to being a part of your backpacking strategy, replaying your local trails from a nighttime perspective adds variety to the terrain you are already most familiar with.  Watching and listening to how the world around you changes through dusk and dawn, day to night, is fascinating.  You hear and see owls become active, watch bats take flight, and witness a general shift in the kind of activity and social interaction taking place by the wildlife around you.  Also, choosing and being prepared to hike into the dusk, and on into the night can help you meet a predetermined goal point, or complete a hike that would otherwise fall short of its mission.

Trail Illumination ©Arai Photography

The first thing  to overcome for new night hikers may be their own psychology.  At some point, you’re going to walk by some tree or bush and startle something sleeping in there, or you might spook some rabbits in a hole or a snake under a rock just off the trail and see them dart across your path suddenly.  Relax and keep a level head, remember that you’re the one who just scared the bejesus out of some animal, they are not stalking you like a mugger in a dark city alley.  Shadows and silhouettes from the surrounding landscape can play with the imagination, especially when you catch bits of quartz and mica reflecting off the rocks.  Your own movement, and the movement of your lights can make these shadows and reflections appear to move unexpectedly.  Noise from wind blowing through unseen objects that would have sounded peaceful during the day can have an eerie effect on the psyche at night.  Perhaps the most surprising encounter may be to run into other people at night, both on the trail and around their camps. One of the things I love about hiking during the night is the peaceful calm.  It’s important to stay relaxed and to not overreact to these ‘surprises.’  After all, why go hiking at all if you’re going to be on edge and stressed out the whole time?

Headlights ©Arai Photography

It’s equally important to pay attention to your surroundings and what’s really going on around you. Be careful not to just look down and ‘zone-out.’  Look around regularly, sweep the trail with your eyes and your light, and be sure everyone keeps an eye on everyone else in the group.  Use all of your senses.  As with anything else, learning to feel comfortable while trekking under darkness may take a little time and practice, and being part of a group can help calm the nerves substantially.

As with backpacking in general, being prepared with the right tools for the expected conditions is very important.  The most basic piece of night hiking equipment is supplemental lighting.  Please, if you’re actually planning to put on mileage in the dark, bring real lights.  All headlamps are not created equal.  I don’t suggest anything with a maximum brightness of less than 100 lumens, and I don’t suggest anything without a red mode.  That red mode helps preserve your night vision at camp, and makes you less disturbing to your mates if you’ve got to move around camp while they’re sleeping (think ‘restroom’ break).  The ideal light will also:  throw a wide even beam to light up the trail in your immediate area, have a low power option for working close, be weather resistant, fit securely but comfortably for extended periods, and use the same batteries as other equipment in your group.

Red Lights ©Arai Photography

In addition to my headlamp, I also carry a compact flashlight with around 200 lumens output and a built-in red filter.  This flashlight is great for sweeping the trail, and looking around in general, especially if I’m at the front of the group.  Good lighting is important because you need to be able to accurately see your surroundings, both while trekking, and choosing and preparing a campsite.  Don’t underestimate your need for spare batteries with your lights.  I’ve had brand new batteries turn out to be short-life duds, and cold temperatures can affect the life of chemical batteries dramatically.

An additional piece of equipment night trekkers in some climates may consider is eye protection.  It’s not a big deal when I’m hiking among the low shrubs in the desert, but I’ve been slapped in the face by twigs and pine needles on trails leading under taller trees.  Even though that headlamp sits right above our eyes, the light beam and our attention will probably be directed towards the ground more often than the branches above.

I’m sure we can all agree that it’s important to keep our packs organized on the trail, but this is especially important when on the trail at night.  You really don’t want to be pulling everything out of your pack in darkness to dig for your shell layer, then have to figure out how to put it all back.  I’ve also found adding additional reflectors or pieces of reflective fabric can be useful for clothing or a pack that doesn’t feature much reflective material, and I sometimes clip a small low power LED onto my pack, which makes it easier to find the pack if I set it down.

Lighting the Trail ©Arai Photography 

Despite how great the night sky is for navigation, it’s not always available.  If it’s cloudy, or much of the sky is blocked, we might still be able to get a feel for direction based on cloud movement, a steady wind direction, or noting the late dusk afterglow near the horizon to the west (be careful not to confuse distant city lights for this).

Trekking at night can be a fun, unique experience many backpackers will enjoy.  Remember that good lights, extra batteries, and some common sense go a long way.

Tent and Stars ©Arai Photography
Dawn Silhouette ©Arai Photography

 

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