It’s not that I’m afraid of the nighttime, mind you. It’s just that, like most humans, I’m not designed for nocturnal endeavors.
Case in point: about five years ago my husband, Mike, and I planned to scare ourselves silly by spending Halloween night in rarely visited Haunted Canyon, deep within Arizona’s Superstition Wilderness. We got caught in rush hour traffic, took more than a few wrong turns, and arrived at the trailhead with darkness descending. Determined to sleep in the eerily named chasm, we pulled out our flashlights and started hiking, the feeble columns of light barely illuminating the prickly pear and perilous drop-offs. As I listened to gravel tumbling into places I couldn’t see, I became frighteningly aware of my limited sensory capabilities. Eventually we wandered onto a cattle path and then lost the trail completely. Branches grabbed at my pack and face, thorny bushes clawed my legs, and I felt clumsy and embarrassingly spooked. We finally set up camp amid a sea of cow pies 3 miles, we later discovered, from Haunted Canyon and our intended loop hike.
It was your classic night hiking mishap, one I’m sure almost every red-blooded, light-loving backpacker has experienced at one time or another. A backcountry walk in the dark is almost always unplanned, not much fun, more than a little awkward, and usually a tad scary. Even so, the more evenings I spent relegated to the confines of my campsite, listening to the wilderness come alive with the sounds of creatures that are quite comfortable with the night, the more I wondered what I was missing out there. We go to great lengths to negotiate other difficult environments, so you’d think we could also adapt to the night, right?
I decided to embark on a well-researched, strategically planned journey to the dark side.
Fear of the dark spans many cultures and thousands of years, according to anthropologists. Our ancient ancestors weren’t at the top of the food chain and didn’t want to become a midnight snack, so they probably stayed in evenings. Even Native Americans living in the Southwest desert, where lack of water and soaring
temperatures made daytime treks dangerous, historically have avoided night travel. The Hopi, for instance, “believe in ghosts and witches, and generally feel it’s not a good idea to be out at night,” says Miguel Vasquez, a cultural anthropologist at Northern Arizona University. “It’s been that way for a long time.”
If you aren’t afraid of ghosts, there are other very real concerns, such as getting lost, stepping on a poisonous snake, or impaling yourself on a sharp branch or big cactus. While my imagination is pretty much untrainable, I figured the best way to keep myself clear of such corporeal hazards was to become more adept at finding clear paths through the seemingly impenetrable dark. And who better to offer such advice than Sharon Crawford, the reigning champion of night orienteering?
The objective of orienteering is simple: Use your navigational skills to zip through the backcountry and reach a
predetermined endpoint before other compass-wielders do. The question I had for Crawford was, why in the dark?
“It’s fun to be out at night,” she enthused. “Knowing you can successfully navigate at night gives you a whole new level of confidence. It’s very rewarding.”
Crawford does much of her nocturnal navigating with the aid of a headlamp, but she frequently turns it off to get a more far-reaching view of the landscape. “You can do a lot with starlight,” she said, adding that you can stay on course by paying close attention to the topo map and following “big linear features” like a ridgeline or creek drainage. And yes, she’s been lost plenty of times on moonless nights. The key is to stay calm and to get to an identifiable feature so you’ll have a general idea of where you are on the map.
“People who aren’t used to walking at night are intimidated, but they just need to get out and try it,” she told me. “The night is an ally, not an enemy.”
Despite Crawford’s confident urging, I still wasn’t ready to strike out on my own nighttime ramble. So I joined Mike Rabe, an Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist who specializes in bat research, for an evening in Coconino National Forest’s Sycamore Canyon.
“People are spooked pretty easily when they’re out at night,” Rabe said as we sat in the dark next to a pond, waiting for bats to land in a net he’d set up. “You hear a sound and can’t see what made it, so you get scared. A small rodent rooting around in the leaves can sound like a big, fat bear.”
Rabe ventured into the uncommon discipline of bat research because he likes to look at the little buggers up close (“they’re so cute, so odd, like creatures from Mars”), but he also clearly enjoys the backcountry at night.
“Did you hear that owl?” he asked on a velvety black, moonless evening. He picked up sounds that didn’t register to my ears, which isn’t surprising, since disembodied night noises are exactly what I’ve trained myself not to hear. Just moments earlier he’d pointed out how to distinguish various species of bats by the faint peeping of their sonar.
I didn’t hear the owl and I can’t say I found any of the bats Rabe snagged in his net to be cute, but I did realize I can learn a lot from nocturnally astute people like him. While I’ve been lying in my tent all these nights, reading a book and marveling at the long life of certain brands of headlamp batteries, human night crawlers are out exploring the backcountry, experiencing the many sights and sounds and smells I’ve been missing.
That did it. Empowered by my evening with the bat man and the lingering words of Sharon Crawford, I decided to take the plunge into the shady business of night hiking.