Admit it. You’ve lain awake in your tent in the pitch-black darkness, listening to the disembodied howling, cooing, and mournful wailing of night creatures, and gotten that gun-metal taste of fear in your mouth. I know I have and was happy to learn that my fear isn’t out of the ordinary.
“It’s a perfectly reasonable reaction,” says naturalist Peter Rice, who leads nocturnal hikes in Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Reasonable, sure, but it gets in the way of one of the best spectacles in the natural world, the wildlife nightlife. While we humans are safely ensconced in our tents and sleeping bags, the darkness beyond camp is alive with the goings-on of all sorts of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects. Not being nocturnal by nature, we miss one heck of a show.
The first step toward enjoying what’s in the darkness (and coping with your fear) is understanding what’s out there. After 15 years of working nights, Rice has found that a little familiarity can go a long way. “Knowing the area and what kinds of animals live there is really important,” he says.
Because these are naturally nocturnal creatures, they’re highly sensitive to their surroundings and can high-tail it before you even know they’re around-unless you calm your nerves and learn how to become part of their landscape. Start by jettisoning the term “night hiking” from your vocabulary, because nothing disrupts nighttime rhythms like a pair of lugged soles thumping along a trail. Learn how to prowl gently and quietly. If the trail is smooth and the evening warm, wear campshoes or go barefoot. Stay low and move slowly to avoid branches that snag clothing, leaves that rustle and gravel scrunching underfoot.
The primary strategy for blending in after dark, though, is to stay put. That means you’ll have to pick a prime vantage point before the sun goes down. After you’ve set up camp, but before it gets dark, check the area for animal sign. With some practice and patience, tracks, scat, gnawed leaves and branches, burrows, dens, caves, nests, and game trails are easy to spot. When you find fresh sign, scope out a safe place at least 40 feet away-behind a bush or boulder or tree, perhaps, or maybe in a gully. That’s where you’ll watch from and listen.
After dusk, head back to your viewing spot. Bring mosquito netting (avoid insect repellent because animals can smell it) and a sleeping pad to sit on. Wear dark or natural colors, and for best results, rub yourself with a fragrant plant to disguise the human scent that will keep creatures away. Balsam, sagebrush, and honeysuckle are good natural deodorizers.
Once you’ve settled in, patience is vital and for many people, difficult. That’s because we’ve had our psychic clocks subliminally set by the world of 3-minute coffee breaks. We can’t even stick to a half-hour Seinfeld rerun without channel surfing. So how can you expect to sit still, alone, and at night, for 2 hours in the backcountry? By tuning into the senses you rarely use in your 9-to-5 world.
Vision: First, turn off your headlamp and put away the night-vision scope, insists Rice. Most human eyes operate quite well in the dark, although they take time to adapt to it. “You need 15 minutes for the pupils to open up, and another 45 minutes to develop your night vision. After that, you’d be amazed at how much you can see. In fact, people can see about as well as cats.”
Next, cover the lens of your lamp with a piece of red plastic. You’ll still have enough light to walk or write by, and you’ll be able to spot animals without startling them. Most nocturnal creatures’ eyes are full of light-sensitive rods that enable them to see in dim light, but lack color-sensitive cones. The red light will be undetectable, plus it’ll give away their position by reflecting light from their eyes back at you.
You can identify many critters by the color of their eyeshine. Tiny, glowing, red-orange dots on a tree trunk might belong to a moth, while larger, fiery-white eyes could be a coyote. In bodies of water, opalescent green gives away bullfrogs.
Movement is another clue. Big and little brown bats, both found throughout most of North America, have surprisingly different flight paths. The flick of a tail is another sure sign of an animal lurking nearby.
Hearing: For many animals, the ears take over when the sun goes down. Owls, for example, can hunt in complete darkness thanks to two unique adaptations: a dish-shaped feather arrangement that funnels sound to their ears, and asymmetrical ear slits-one is higher on their heads than the other-that help them zoom in on a sound, such as a scurrying mouse.
You can improve your nature hearing by concentrating on the sounds around you. On your next daylight hike, pause, close your eyes, and try to separate each sound. Imagine its source. Rice advises taking a hint from mule deer. Cup your hands behind your ears with your thumbs pointing up and elbows out to mimic the shape of deer ears. This technique is said to improve hearing as much as 10-fold. It comes in handy when trying to identify the plaintive wail of a screech owl or the spooky, wheezing hiss of a badger.
Smell: Unlikely as it may seem, there are a few ways to sharpen your sense of smell. The simplest is to wet the underside of your nose. The theory is that vapor molecules attach themselves to moisture particles, which is why smells are more perceptible on moist nights, Rice explains. You can also get your nose near the ground, where the night wind picks up most scents. In other words, act like a bloodhound.
Identifying animals by smell is a challenge. Other than skunks, animal scents can be difficult to pinpoint. Coyote, fox, otter, and deer have been described as slightly musky, while beaver, raccoon, bear, and muskrat are simply more musky. Even the odors of water snakes and garter snakes have been compared to skunks. Basically, if you catch a whiff of something musky, look around at the habitat and see if you can spot more clues like tracks or scat.
Once you perfect the art of reading the night, you’ll be amazed at how much you “see” in the darkness. You’ll also rest easier, comforted by the knowledge that you can now identify all those sounds that used to weaken your bladder and trigger the impulse to make a mad dash for the car.
Matt Purdue has been known to get wild with the nightlife in California’s Santa Monica Mountains.