12 Reasons You’ll Love (and Hate) Night Hiking

The second full moon of October, the Blue Moon, will fall on Halloween night this year. What better way to celebrate the convergence of a rare lunar phenomenon and the spookiest night of the year than with a moonlit night hike this weekend?

Night hiking isn’t something to fear or avoid. In fact, it can be pretty darn glorious in its own way (think starry skies, moonlit vistas, and endless cricket serenades). And for backpackers trying to put in big miles, it can become a necessity as the days get shorter heading into winter. Whether you start hiking before the sun comes up or stay on the trail for hours after sundown, hiking by headlamp can be a magical and unique experience.

But night hiking also has a (figurative and literal) dark side. It’s important to be ready for potential pitfalls so you have a safe, fun journey, rather than a terrifying, insect-ridden horror fest. There are many reasons to love and hate night hiking. Let’s start with the bad.

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The Bad

1. You’ll miss the views.

If you only hike at night, you’ll miss much of the visual appeal of the trail. This is one of the biggest and most-cited reasons not to hike at night—especially on trails known for their epic views.

2. More potential for mishaps.

Although a good headlamp should provide plenty of light to hike safely at night, limited visibility can still create difficulties for hikers, especially on challenging terrain. You might find yourself traveling a little more slowly on rugged sections at night to avoid a rolled ankle or a fall.

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Reduced visibility and lack of peripheral vision can also make it more challenging to follow the trail in the dark. It can be especially challenging to rediscover the trail at night after a road walk, stream crossing, or other similar disruptions in the path. Only hike at night if you’re confident of the route and your abilities. Keep your map, guidebook, Guthook guide, or other navigation aids handy. Consult them early and often to make sure you don’t lose the path and become disoriented.

3. Silver blazing.

Silver blazing is when you faceplant all the spider webs that sprang up across the path overnight because you’re the first one on the trail that day. This issue mainly applies to pre-dawn night hikers. Silver blazing is objectively terrible, especially if the spider is at home when you come calling. A related problem: moths and other flying insects that are attracted to the large, bright light on your forehead may end up dive-bombing your face while you hike. Not fun. Switch to red light to mitigate this.

4. Creepy animal eyes.

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Glowing animal eyes peering at you from the shadows? NOPE. It can be cool to spot wildlife at night, but it’s also unsettling, especially since it’s often hard to tell what kind of animal the eyes belong to in the darkness. Is that a surprised family of deer watching you or a hungry pack of wolves? The former is infinitely more likely since wolves are locally extinct throughout most of the United States, but try convincing your overactive imagination of that.

5. You’ll be out of sync with other hikers.

If you prefer solitude, this might actually be a good thing, but hiking is a social experience for many people. If you night hike regularly, you might be on-trail when everyone else is sleeping or hanging out at camp and vice versa. However, most night hikers still travel mainly during the day and only put in a few hours after dark. The dissonance with other hikers’ schedules is therefore relatively minor, with plenty of overlap for socialization on the trail and at camp.

6. It can be hard to adjust your circadian rhythm.

If you’re a long distance backpacker, it’s critical to budget plenty of time for a full night’s sleep, even if you plan to spend significant time night hiking. But going to sleep early in the evening and waking up in the wee hours can be challenging. Likewise, it’s not always easy or natural to stay on the trail for hours after sunset. Only with time and consistency will you adjust to this schedule. Of course, it’s also helpful that most hikers are exhausted and ready to pass out after a long hike anyway. Consider earplugs and eyeshades to reduce noise and light disturbance if you’ll be sleeping during daylight hours.

The Good

1. It’s cooler.

Lotus descends into the Grand Canyon at sunset to beat the summer heat on an overnight Rim to Rim hike.

Hiking long hours in the hot sun can be grueling, especially in exposed environments plagued by intense heat (Southern California, anyone?). Walking at night is one way to beat the heat and still get your miles in. Plus, you won’t have to wear sunscreen.

2. You’ll see the trail in a new light (literally).

“The Tetons – Snake River,” Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. By Ansel Adams (Public Domain). Hiking by moonlight can feel like you’re inside an Ansel Adams photo.

You may not see as many big views when night hiking, but that doesn’t make it a lesser experience than walking during the day. Instead of long, sun-drenched vistas, you’ll get primo stargazing and glimpses of twinkling towns and cities in the distance. And on bright, moonlit nights, the trail and surrounding lands take on an altogether different character. Traveling by the light of the full moon can make you feel like you’re hiking through an Ansel Adams photograph, and it’s magical.

3. You’ll appreciate your other senses more.

Your other senses may be heightened at night when the visual world shrinks to the scope of your headlamp beam. The reduced visuals let you appreciate the trail in different ways. With less to look at, you can instead tune in to the beauty of night sounds, the rich smells of forest plants, and the feeling of mountain air against your skin.

4. If you start before dawn, you’ll get to camp first.

And that means you’ll have the first pick of campsites. Now you can be the cool kid with the perfectly smooth tent pad that’s upwind of the privy. Everyone will be so jealous. Besides, there’s something truly delicious about finishing your day early and lounging about all afternoon while other hikers slog by with miles to go before they can stop.

5. You’ll be able to position yourself for sunrise/sunset.

night hiking

Starting in the wee hours will give you plenty of time to reach that epic summit in time for sunrise. Likewise, if you’re willing to put in some miles after the sun goes down, you can linger up top for sunset before pressing on to the trailhead or camp. Even in the green tunnel, with a little planning, you can time your miles so that you reach vistas around twilight.

6. You’ll get a different wildlife perspective.

During the day, it’s easy to stomp right past wildlife without noticing them. But at night, their eyes gleam in the light of your headlamp, making it just about impossible to miss them. Everything from deer to minute, glittering insects stand out sharply in the darkness. Whether this is awesome or downright unsettling (or both) is mostly a matter of perspective (see above). You’ll also have the special opportunity to listen to nocturnal creatures like owls hunting at night.

Night Hiking Tips

Get the right headlamp.

Since you’ll be using your headlamp a lot as a night hiker, you should get one with plenty of features, like adjustable brightness, tilting, and red light settings. Eighty to 150 lumens is plenty of brightness for night hiking for most people. Still, it’s not a bad idea to get a headlamp with 200 to 400 lumens of output on the brightest setting. The super-bright light setting can come in handy with hard-to-follow trails or when you need to find something you dropped on the ground. The Black Diamond Spot, Petzl Actik Core, and Nitecore NU25 are all popular among thru-hikers.

Keep your battery charged or keep spares accessible.

Don’t wait until the middle of your night hike to discover that your headlamp’s battery is dying. It’s a pain to dig out spare batteries and change them in the dark—this is a task best dealt with during the day, preferably on break or at camp. And a dead battery is a significant inconvenience if it’s a rechargeable type that needs to be plugged in for hours. Regardless, you should keep your spare batteries or battery charger (along with snacks, extra layers, and any other gear you might need during the hike) in an accessible pocket so that they’re easy to find, even in the dark.

Smooth, easy trail? Use red light to protect your peripheral vision.

The bright white light of your headlamp is tough on the eyes. It significantly reduces your peripheral vision, makes it hard to see the stars and other cool stuff (even after it’s turned off), attracts bugs, and can disturb fellow campers and wildlife. Red light is more soothing, less disruptive, and does a better job preserving your peripheral and night vision. It’s a bit harder to see by red light, though (especially since most headlamps only have low-lumen red settings), so only hike by red light if the trail is smooth and easy to follow. Even if you choose to stick with your white light, it’s polite to switch to red when passing through a campsite.

Keep your eyes peeled for creepy crawlies and other animals.

night hiking

NOPE.

Spiders may build webs across the trail at night when there’s less foot traffic to deter them, while snakes, scorpions, and other creatures may venture out to enjoy the cool night air and relative lack of human disturbance. Bears and cougars, meanwhile, can be active at any time of the day or night. Keep an eye out for creatures big and small to avoid startling them (or yourself). You might instinctively want to hike quietly in the hush of night, but it’s a good idea to make some noise as you go so that animals have advanced warning of your presence. Always stay alert.

Take it slowly and be careful with stream crossings.

Be extra cautious of your footing and pay close attention to the trail and your maps to ensure you don’t get lost. Take an extra moment to assess stream crossings before wading in (or rock-hopping across). The reflection of your headlamp beam on the surface of the water can make it challenging to visually judge the depth of water, and with a limited field of vision, it can be hard to spot potential hazards or easier crossing points. For difficult and dangerous fords, it may be safest to wait until daytime when there are other hikers out and about.

Carry earplugs

If you’re hiking for at least part of the night, that probably means you’re sleeping for at least part of the day. Earplugs and even an eye covering to block the sunlight can help you to get your z’s in even if your campsite is bustling with activity.

Keep track of the full moon.

If you spend a lot of time on the trail after dark, you’ll soon get intimately familiar with the lunar cycle. Hiking by the light of the full moon is incredibly beautiful and surreal, and everyone should try it at least once (even if you’re not usually into night hiking). From a practical standpoint, visibility is much better when the moon is full and you may not need to rely as heavily on your headlamp.

Featured image via.

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Comments 2

  • Avatar
    Benjamin : Oct 31st

    Night hiking can be interesting. My first night hike was unplanned, it was the result of a vehicle breaking down on the way to Pictured Rocks. We ended up getting there at around 10 pm, and had to hike over the worst section of the trail to get to our campsite. I ended up attaching my mini-Maglite to the side of my hat, which worked fairly well. Fortunately the rest of the group had already set up most of the camp, so all I had to do was pitch my tent. Since then I have purchased several headlamps, and also had a few come in subscription boxes. I prefer to use a red or green light, to preserve my night vision. In fact, my Search and Rescue team required us to only use red headlamps–to avoid blinding each other.

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