Taking a hike in the dark can be both a challenging and rewarding experience and is highly recommended. A night stroll will give you a new perspective on familiar paths and a new appreciation of the sounds, smells and ‘feel’ of the land around you.
Night navigation has long been an important element of Mountain Training courses. Navigating in good visibility is normally straightforward as you can see far ahead and take the easiest route without really thinking about it. After dark your depth perception changes, and you have to rely more on your map and navigation skills to find your way. Practising navigation skills at night will make having to use them in very bad visibility, mist, or snow much easier.
Being out at night is also good fun. Especially if you can visit an area where there is very little light pollution from houses, cars, or streetlights. It is very rarely completely dark out of town and as your night vision improves you can generally see well enough to find your way. There is also the bonus of seeing the stars properly and if you are very lucky, an asteroid shower or a display of the Aurora Borealis – The Northern Lights!
A long-standing tradition in my Mountaineering Club is the ‘Moonlighter’ which is a night ascent of a hill to watch the sunrise from the summit. Good fun with a small group of friends.
Mountaineer, Blogger and Author Alan Rowan has actually made a bit of a career out of climbing hills at night. His interesting blog can be found on his website.
12 tips for hiking in the dark
1. Know your route
Start with a path you know well. If on the hill check your map beforehand and remember some obvious waypoints, you will pass on your walk. This will help you keep track of where you are. Pick a route that is free from potential hazards, both environmental and personal. You aren’t trying to scare yourself after all!
2. Don’t go alone
Walking with a small group or companion is more fun and will boost your confidence until you build your experience.
3. Take your time
Allow more time for the trip than you would in daylight move more slowly and carefully and enjoy the ambience.
4. Leave details of your route
Make sure someone knows of your plans and timings. Sensible for any walk anyway.
5. Check the weather before you go
Even more important than in daylight as bad weather will slow you down and make navigation tricky.
6. Always take a torch
And seriously consider having a spare torch or spare batteries at least. (I always carry two headtorches in my rucksack – A bright one for navigation and route finding and a small spare for emergencies). Some torches use red filters to protect night vision, but this can make the contour lines on maps invisible which is unhelpful. An old tip I use is to keep one eye closed when looking at the map with the torch to protect at least some of my night vision. You will rarely need to use the torch all the time. Many Mountain Rescue call outs at this time of year are caused by people being benighted and not carrying a torch.
Consider having a couple of useful apps on your phone - What3Words gives a position that can be used to locate you and OS Locate provides 6 figure Grid Reference which can also be used for this but will also help you locate yourself on a UK Ordnance Survey map if required. Commercial apps can also be useful, I use the OS Maps App which gives you OS mapping at both 1:50k and 1;25k scale and shows your location. Routes can be planned saved and followed. Useful but not to be relied on completely as batteries can fail or signals be lost. A stargazing app to help you identify the constellations can also be fun.
8. Spare clothing
It can be cold at night – Always take adequate spare clothing, it will be colder, and you will probably be moving more slowly than in daylight. Hats and gloves are a must all year round on the hill and a lightweight insulated jacket to wear if you stop to look at the stars is useful.
9. Extra gear
Walking poles are useful to aid balance in dimmer light. Don’t forget the first aid kit either. A flask with a warm drink might be welcome too.
10. Be seen
If your route takes you near roads, consider wearing a hi-vis vest or gear with reflective strips (like cyclists do). This will help drivers see you early. They are cheap, don’t weigh much and pack away small.
11. Embrace the darkness
(Sounds like a heavy metal album title!) Don’t be afraid to turn the torch off as mentioned above. Unless it is particularly dark you won’t need it most of the time. Once your eyes accustom themselves to the lower light level it is surprising how much you can see. You will gain an appreciation of your other senses, hear more, probably see, hear or smell more wildlife. See the moon and stars clearly and ‘tune’ into the environment more.
Finally – Take care, take your time, and enjoy a stroll under darker skies, you won’t regret it.