I Hate Mornings, But I’m Always On Trail by 5 A.M.—Here’s Why

I am not a morning person.

I like to sleep in and am a consummate snooze button enthusiast. So when I tell you that I intentionally hit the trail before five a.m. nearly every morning on my AT thru-hike, I want you to appreciate the full gravity of that statement.

The truth is, I actually didn’t get on the early wake-up schedule right away. I was the last person out of camp most mornings during my earliest weeks on trail, preferring to sleep in and let my body wake me up when it was good and ready.

But then I met my boyfriend on trail, a pathological morning person who began dragging me unhappily from my warm tent each day to discover the wonders of the early morning start.

I must admit that waking up to a blaring alarm clock at 3:30 a.m., an ungodly time if there ever was one, inspired some unkind thoughts toward my dear partner at the time. (“It would be worth dumping this MFer just to get another ten minutes’ sleep,” etc. etc.).

But eventually, I realized that starting before the sun was dramatically improving the quality of my hike. I embraced the practice with open arms after that and have never looked back since.

So why do I do it?

1. To beat the heat.

Southern California is a hot place. Best to start early and beat the heat.

Whether I’m slogging through crushing summer heat and 98% humidity on the Appalachian Trail or sweating away precious water in the blistering PCT desert, I HATE overheating. I’m a sweat monster to begin with. When the mercury rises in summer, it’s a miracle I don’t just sweat out all the water in my body and shrivel up completely.

Not only is hiking through the heat uncomfortable to the last degree, but it can be dangerous too. This summer has seen record-breaking heatwaves across the country, and a woman died this summer on the PCT in southern California due to heat-related illness.

By getting on trail before the sun rises, I can get five or six good hours of hiking in during the relatively cool morning hours. There have been times when I’ve put in a 20-mile day and put up my tent before noon. I once started at 2 a.m. on an especially hot day and had my 20 in before 10.

Disadvantage: If you stop early in the day and you can’t find a densely-treed spot to set up, you may have to move your tent around throughout the day to keep it in shade, which is annoying. Sometimes I throw my sleeping bag over the top of the tent to make my own shade instead.

2. So I can take my time.

When unexpected obstacles slow you down (such as the trail turning into a literal giant boulder jumble in Mahoosuc Notch), it’s best to have plenty of daylight hours left to tackle them.

I like to hike around 20 miles most days, and that takes time. Enough time that I sometimes feel pressured to keep cranking and pass up opportunities to stop and smell the roses. This is especially true in late fall, winter, and early spring, when the daylight hours are already limited.

But if I start hiking by five a.m., I know I’ll have plenty of time to hike my 20 miles and get to camp with light to spare. Even if I encounter unexpected obstacles and complications that slow me down. If I want to explore a side trail, take a long lunch at a viewpoint, or catch a trailside nap, I know I can afford the stoppage time.

An early start also comes in handy on days when I go to town to resupply. Hitching to town, doing all my chores, eating, digesting, and getting back to trail is typically a time-consuming experience, but if I start early enough I can do all that and still put in 20 miles as usual. Budgeting enough time to run errands and hike helps me avoid the town vortex. I’m that much less likely to fall into the well-maybe-I’ll-just-get-a-room-for-the-night-and-hike-out-tomorrow-morning trap.

3. So I can have my pick of campsites.

There’s something to be said for getting to camp early enough to claim a nice, flat spot.

Not many people start hiking as early as I do. On the flip-side, not many people stop hiking as early as I do, either. By the time most thru-hikers start thinking about looking for a campsite for the night, I’ve already set up my tent, had a nap, eaten some snacks, done yoga, and started making dinner. Lying on my back on my foam pad with my legs propped against the nearest tree, several snacks at the ready, while other hikers trudge by with miles to go before they can stop, admittedly makes me feel deliciously, annoyingly smug.

Pre-dawn starts mean that I rarely come up high and dry when looking for a campsite. In fact, since no one else has yet made camp by the time I stop, I often get dibs on the flattest, quietest, shadiest, furthest-from-the-privy-est campsite available.

4. Because I don’t mind night hiking.

Gotta get up early and do some night hiking if you want to enjoy a spectacular sunrise at McAfee Knob.

In fact, I actually enjoy hiking in the early, pre-dawn hours. I wouldn’t like night hiking all the time, but it’s enjoyable for an hour or so each day. It’s a unique experience that’s magical in its own way.

Hiking past sunset and into the night can make me feel anxious. What if I can’t find a place to pitch my tent in the darkness? It can be challenging to tell whether a campsite is rocky, trashy, or overgrown with poison ivy with nothing but the narrow beam of a headlamp, and keeping track of tent stakes and other possessions is a nightmare in the dark. Besides, on a crowded trail like the AT, it’s all too likely that you’ll roll up to find the shelter full and the tent pads all occupied.

In contrast, starting before dawn and hiking into the sunrise is exhilarating. Knowing that I have the whole day ahead of me lets me relax and enjoy the experience. Catching a quiet mountain sunrise when few other hikers are out and about is a special experience, and one that I’ve been blessed with countless times thanks to my five a.m. starts.

READ NEXT – 12 Reasons You’ll Love (and Hate) Night Hiking.

5. Because afternoon is not a good time in the high mountains.

Crossing a snowfield en route to Humphreys Peak in Arizona, early July.

I’ve already mentioned beating the heat as one of my primary motivators for starting early. But there are other conditions to consider as well. High mountain passes can hold snow throughout the year. It’s best to traverse snow fields early in the day before the sun’s warmth softens them up. It’s much more pleasant (not to mention safer and more efficient) to crunch your way across firm, mostly frozen snow than to posthole through a wet, slushy mess. That’s why many PCT hikers in the Sierra start in the wee hours—so they can get up and over the pass before the afternoon heat.

Also, high mountain regions tend to experience afternoon thunderstorms in summer. Being above treeline during thunder and lightning obviously isn’t great. Best to get up and over early.

6. For solitude.

Sunrise is just about the latest you’ll enjoy anything like solitude in Arches National Park during summer.

I don’t mind seeing other hikers on the trail. It gets lonely out there and it’s nice to share the experience with like-minded folks. Still, I’ll admit I like a little peace and quiet when I’m hiking too. Crowded trails can be stressful, and waiting in line to have my picture taken at a popular viewpoint is not my idea of a wonderful nature experience.

Starting early gives me a few hours’ headstart on the crowds. That way I can have popular summits to myself for a while and enjoy some solitude before the throngs of people, before the day hikers blaring music on mini Bluetooth speakers, before the mountain bikers and the little yappy dogs and all the other trail users who are perfectly entitled to be out there but who irritate me nonetheless.

Do I always start hiking at five a.m. when I’m backpacking? No! And I certainly don’t make a habit of it when I’m in the civilized world either. If I’m feeling indulgent or if I’m just out for a short, leisurely section hike, I’ll happily sleep in to my heart’s content. But if I’m on a thru-hike with hundreds or thousands of miles to go before I can let off the gas, or even if I’m on a short hike where I know to expect heat, thunderstorms, and/or big crowds, getting up early is well worth it.

Hiker midnight for me is seven p.m. As long as I’m in bed by seven (and this is usually achievable since I get to camp so early most days), I can still get an easy eight hours of sleep and wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 3:30, ready for the day’s adventure.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 11

  • Jeff "MP3" Stone : Aug 18th

    As a person who is off on the last to leave camp, this was a good dose of inspiration for me. Just one concern… and I think the answer is probably ear plugs lol. Going to bed at 7:00 p.m., I would think other hikers would still be chatting away over dinner or around a fire. I guess if you choose a tent spot away from the center of the campsite and have earplugs, you minimize the problem.

    Reply
    • Kelly Floro : Aug 23rd

      I prefer to do my socializing during the day and camp alone for just that reason. That way I can go to bed when I want and won’t disturb fellow campers when I’m packing up at 4 a.m. the following morning! If I’m camping with others, as you said, earplugs and exhaustion normally solve the noise problem.

      Reply
  • Kelly : Aug 18th

    I feel your pain. Living in AZ if I want to beat the heat and the crowds it’s up at 3:30-4:30. I never regret it, always worth the sacrifice of a few extra hours of sleep in exchange for the healing calm and fresh air of the trail.

    Reply
  • Quiet Storm : Aug 18th

    Good discussion of all the reasons to start early. Many have said it’s not necessarily how fast you hike but for how long. Probably a combination of both. Of course the spider webs on the AT is one reason not to start out first, but still well worth it.

    Reply
    • Kelly Floro : Aug 23rd

      Excellent point. My trail name could have been “Silver Blaze” on account of all the spider webs I faceplanted on the AT. Definitely had me questioning my life choices (especially when the webs were occupied upon collision).

      Reply
  • Ralph B. Mahon : Aug 19th

    Up with the sun, gone with the wind,
    She always said I was lazy…..

    Reply
  • Jake Grounds : Aug 20th

    Anyone know what Net Tent that is under “3. So I can have my pick of campsites.”?

    Reply
    • Kelly Floro : Aug 23rd

      Jake, it’s the Paago Ninja Nest (https://www.paagoworks.com/en/paagoproduct/ninja-nest/) – a Japanese tent I impulse bought at PCT Trail Days a few years back. I love the “front porch mode” and the huge amount of mesh in the inner tent, but it’s on the heavy side (over 3 lb) and the proportions are a little odd: huge square footage, but as it’s less than 6′ long in every dimension you have to put regular-length sleeping pads on a diagonal to make them fit inside, leaving a lot of underutilized floor space.

      Like any tent, it has its pros and cons, but you can’t beat the views when the tarp is up in canopy mode!

      Reply
  • Ellie Thomas : Aug 20th

    I agree on all points, and a few others I also like to start early.

    I see more wildlife early morning and dusk.
    It is easier to hitch into town with more traffic if I’m on the road in the morning before everyone gets to work.
    You probably already mentioned this – I LOVE sunrises.

    Good article – thanks!

    Ellie

    Reply
  • Laci : Aug 20th

    As some one who also likes to sleep in, you make some really compelling arguments for getting up early for a day of hiking!

    Reply
  • Clay Bonnyman EVans : Aug 22nd

    I usually wake up with the birds, and am almost always the first person out of camp (whether I camped alone or with a group). For all the reasons elucidated above, I love getting started early.

    Dawn is also a great time to see wildlife. Saw my first moose in Maine and several bears on the AT and PCT before 6 a.m.!

    Reply

What Do You Think?