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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: Don't Get Caught in the Dark

How to avoid an unplanned night hike and what to do if it happens anyway

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

Photo by Jason Stevenson
Photo by Jason Stevenson


I recommend that you try hiking at night, but only on purpose. Most of my night hikes were accidental—a result of getting lost or behind schedule. Only one trek—descending the New Hance Trail into the Grand Canyon on a full-moon night—was actually part of the plan. This week I’ll explain how to avoid accidental night hikes and what to do if you get caught in the dark.

Just in case you need a reminder, here’s the typical night-hiking scenario. Footsore and weary, you trudge along a trail watching the sun vanish behind a distant ridgeline. Your car is five miles (you think) ahead, and you’re almost out of water. Crinkling in your pocket is the empty wrapper of your last trail bar. A chilly breeze kicks up, and the undergrowth flanking the trail recedes deeper into shadow. As the light fades, you notice the brightly colored leaves wane into monochrome gray. You stumble over hidden roots and rocks as your forward progress becomes more about feeling than seeing. Something rustles the leaves behind you. Is it the wind—or a mountain lion coiling to make a neck-snapping pounce? (Have a good night-hiking story of your own? Describe your own misadventures in the comments section below.) 

OK, you get the picture. When you’re not prepared, hiking after dark can be frightening. After all, if humans were meant to be nocturnal, we’d have huge eyes like lemurs and echolocation like bats. But since we’re pretty helpless in the dark, here are three tactics to keep inadvertent night hikes off your itinerary.

Know your time limit
It’s 6:10 p.m. Do you know when the sun will set? Find out before you leave for a trip. Newspapers print daily sunrise and sunset tables on the weather page, or check the website www.sunrisesunset.com. Most GPS devices also deliver accurate sunset estimates, and smartphone users can download free apps that determine the time specific for your location. Knowing the exact minute the sun disappears below the horizon is helpful, but a ballpark figure is just as good. And remember that these times constantly change. In October the sun sets one minute earlier each day in the United States and two minutes (or more) earlier in Canada and Alaska.

Bring a light…always
Packing a headlamp for a day-hike might seem excessive—unless it prevents a shivering night in the woods. Any search-and-rescue team can confirm that most lost-hiker scenarios are either initiated or complicated by nightfall. If some of those missing hikers had packed a headlamp (as well as a map and some common sense), they might have been able to self-rescue—saving time, money, and personal embarrassment.

In general, lost hikers should stay put, conserve energy, and wait for help to arrive. Stumbling through the woods at night without a light is the second-worst course of action (after panicking). You could easily injure yourself, become more lost, or miss obvious clues like a trail sign or road. But if you have a headlamp and some notion of your present location, hiking out might be safer than hunkering down until morning. In most situations, using a headlamp will give you several more hours of safe hiking time to become unlost. Maybe there’s only a 10 percent chance of becoming lost on a trip, but there’s a 100 percent chance that darkness follows day. Carrying a three-ounce LED headlamp (spare batteries aren’t a bad idea either) is very lightweight insurance policy against that certainty.

Plan realistic mileage
Getting caught after dark is more often the result of poor planning than bad luck. Can you start a nine-mile summit attempt at 2:00 p.m. and finish before sunset? Maybe you could in Alaska in June (when the sun never sets), but not in New Hampshire in November—even if your trail name is Flash Gordon. Most hikers move at 2 mph or less, especially after adding rest breaks and meals. Plus, groups naturally move slower than individuals. So plan daily mileage goals based on hiking speeds between 1 and 2 mph, and give yourself a safety margin of an hour.

Nature gives you a little break, too. You’ll often get an extra half hour of usable twilight after the sun sinks beneath the horizon. This afterglow will disappear faster, however, if you’re on the eastern slope of a mountain or stuck at the bottom of a narrow canyon.

When night falls... 
Despite the best precautions, you can still find yourself hiking in the dark. This happened to me last November on a Shenandoah trip when my crew got caught after sundown on the eastern slope of high ridge. The last mile of trail before our campsite seemed three times longer due to many darkness-induced false hopes and ankle-twisting stumbles. This experience reinforced four night-hiking tips I want to share with you:
  1. Delay turning on your headlamp until it gets really dark. This advice sounds counterintuitive, but it works because your unassisted eyes function better in fading light than they do in the harsh glare of a headlamp. It takes 30 minutes for your pupils to adjust to see in darkness. Any flash of white light, like someone accidentally shining a headlamp in your face, shrinks your pupils and resets your night vision’s 30-minute clock.
  2. This fact leads to a second piece of advice: When hiking in a group, agree to keep everyone’s headlamps off until it gets really dark. One person with a light will ruin the night vision of everyone else.
  3. Did you ever notice you can see better at night using your peripheral vision? That’s because rod cells—your photoreceptor cells for low-light conditions—are located at the edges of the retina. To see better in the dark, swing your head from side to side to engage the peripheral rod cells in scanning the trail ahead of you. Yes, you’ll look odd, but you’ll see the trail much better.
  4. Let your other senses take over. Does the map indicate a stream is off to the right? You can’t see it, but perhaps you can hear it. And if you notice water sounds on your left, you better double-check that map. Likewise, listen to the feedback from your feet. After a few minutes of hiking in the dark, your boots will learn which shadows indicate safe footing, and which might yank your ankle. Let your non-sight-based instincts take over, and you’ll have an easier and safer time moving in the dark.

Lights out for this week. Tune in next week to find out Where the Wild Things Are (and Aren’t)






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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
TJ
Jan 17, 2014

I started incorporating a little bit of advice I picked up from Backpacker. When I'm hiking in the winter I now bring along a sleeping bag. A couple of extra pounds in a relatively light day hike pack is worth it to me.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Jan 17, 2014

Live to hike another day by staying found and knowing how to use a compass. Earn respect, not embarrassment, by being prepared for the unexpected. Even skilled explorers can become lost or somehow end up spending the night hunkered down because of weather or injury. Many people never consider that they might end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors or waiting for medical help --and so they hike without the essentials. Day-hikes can be the most dangerous because hikers usually carry minimal supplies. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing just in case you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors. Read "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart" (Amazon). Learn how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. A compass doesn't need a signal, satellites, or batteries and works in all types of weather, day or night, but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Learn how to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. This book is for all ages. Look for it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart."

Star Star Star Star Star
Farfolomew
Feb 25, 2013

Gave myself a good scare today coming down the trail without a light in near pitch black conditions. Further up the mountain, where the trail had snow, it was a lot easier to see where I was going, especially when it started to melt and there were patches of dirt to offset the dim white. But when the snow vanished, I couldn't see squat! Thankfully I was positive I was still on the trail and knew I was really close to my motorcycle. However I was worried about losing the trail and not being able to find it again so I was very hesitant to continue. Then the full moon came out and lit the way for the remainder of the quarter mile. When I found my bike I screamed for joy!

So what did I learn?

Aways have a light. Even one of those keychain LEDs would have worked..I mean geeze, I had my keys on me too! Also, had I not been a retard and left the cell phone with the bike, I could have used that as a light too. Anything just to catch a glimpse of where the trail is.

If you know the moon will come out soon and you're not gonna make it without it getting dark, wait for it to help you find the path. Don't run down and then lose the the trail before it comes out. A full moon overhead is quite bright!

A walking stick saved my butt quite a few times from twisting an ankle; highly recommend using one to feel your way down a dark path.

Use the cut log sections that are laying across the trail as an indicator you're still on the trail. Feel for that smooth chainsaw flat cut.

If you have another person with you, use the Marco/polo technique of sending someone ahead to scout for trail, while the other person remains on the trail so you know at least both aren't lost. If the scout can't find the trail, Marco polo his butt back to the stationary guy and try again.

Star Star Star Star Star
Get
Feb 25, 2013

Test

Star Star Star Star Star
Farfolomew
Feb 25, 2013

Gave myself a good scare today coming down the trail without a light in near pitch black conditions. Further up the mountain, where the trail had snow, it was a lot easier to see where I was going, especially when it started to melt and there were patches of dirt to offset the dim white. But when the snow vanished, I couldn't see squat! Thankfully I was positive I was still on the trail and knew I was really close to my motorcycle. However I was worried about losing the trail and not being able to find it again so I was very hesitant to continue. Then the full moon came out and lit the way for the remainder of the quarter mile. When I found my bike I screamed for joy!

So what did I learn?

Aways have a light. Even one of those keychain LEDs would have worked..I mean geeze, I had my keys on me too! Also, had I not been a retard and left the cell phone with the bike, I could have used that as a light too. Anything just to catch a glimpse of where the trail is.

If you know the moon will come out soon and you're not gonna make it without it getting dark, wait for it to help you find the path. Don't run down and then lose the the trail before it comes out. A full moon overhead is quite bright!

A walking stick saved my butt quite a few times from twisting an ankle; highly recommend using one to feel your way down a dark path.

Use the cut log sections that are laying across the trail as an indicator you're still on the trail. Feel for that smooth chainsaw flat cut.

If you have another person with you, use the Marco/polo technique of sending someone ahead to scout for trail, while the other person remains on the trail so you know at least both aren't lost. If the scout can't find the trail, Marco polo his butt back to the stationary guy and try again.

Cmntr
Feb 27, 2011

To preserve your night vision, have a red flashlight filter or a light with a red led mode. Caution - under red light you will not be ale to see any red markings or text on a map. In the days before NVGs we wore dark red lens spectacles two (2) hours before a night patrol in order to stage our night vision.

Logan
Feb 18, 2011

If you need to turn on a light to look at a map or find something in your pack, cover up one of your eyes to help keep your nightvision

tim
Oct 24, 2010

I always carry a headlamp in my daypack, with extra batteries which I keep in a second headlamp that I removed the headstrap from. Not much more weight and if anything goes wrong with the first lamp [burned out bulb, etc] then I have a spare. Also I'm not faced with replacing batteries in the dark.

Ramona
Oct 22, 2010

i became a night hiker early on, with a favorite trail in Schunnemunk Mtns. Would leave about midnight, without any provisions not even a flashlight, and no moon, just to see if i could feel my way through the trail. Very fun.

But, the experience did help out - when a setback led to my late hike up pikes peak to meet a friend at the camp. it turned dark quite fast (have to take into account where the sun will set -like on the other side of the mountain you are on?). i had a flashlight - but had left in a hurry and didn't change batteries. I hadn't seen anyone in hours. It was almost Christmas in Colorado. My eyes became accustomed to the dark reasonably fast - they do. I didn't pack much as i had been assured most provisions would be at camp when i got there and also told the signs up were easy to follow. haha! Signs are hard to find in the dark! I had been hiking for hours in the dark with shoes not meant for snowy ice, when i hit sheer ice and my legs became a tangled mess. My ankle hurt, so I rolled myself up a snowy embankment - made a tent out of two pine trees, duct tape, some string, and an emergency blanket. I used my poncho as a windbreak as the trees were thinning and the tent was open to the wind. I slept with shoes on in my sleeping bag. I had run out of water - yes - it was a longer hike than i prepared for - but..........

I had brought a stainless steel mixing bowl with me - go ahead and laugh - but it worked well for making a fire in the snow, to cook snow for water - it was kind of a catch-all item i thought would come in mighty handy - like keeping my comfy tent boots dry, or making a fire in snow. it fit in my pack quite nicely. Anyhow - i stayed til morning and prayed for no rustling - even a mouse sounds huge in the dark. Next morning i packed up and headed down, using my bowl as a sled for my pack, so as not to put more pressure on my already painful ankle.

Once down, I couldn't wear shoes for 4 days - so keep boots on in similar situations until at rest.

Ramona
Oct 22, 2010

i became a night hiker early on, with a favorite trail in Schunnemunk Mtns. Would leave about midnight, without any provisions not even a flashlight, and no moon, just to see if i could feel my way through the trail. Very fun.

But, the experience did help out - when a setback led to my late hike up pikes peak to meet a friend at the camp. it turned dark quite fast (have to take into account where the sun will set -like on the other side of the mountain you are on?). i had a flashlight - but had left in a hurry and didn't change batteries. I hadn't seen anyone in hours. It was almost Christmas in Colorado. My eyes became accustomed to the dark reasonably fast - they do. I didn't pack much as i had been assured most provisions would be at camp when i got there and also told the signs up were easy to follow. haha! Signs are hard to find in the dark! I had been hiking for hours in the dark with shoes not meant for snowy ice, when i hit sheer ice and my legs became a tangled mess. My ankle hurt, so I rolled myself up a snowy embankment - made a tent out of two pine trees, duct tape, some string, and an emergency blanket. I used my poncho as a windbreak as the trees were thinning and the tent was open to the wind. I slept with shoes on in my sleeping bag. I had run out of water - yes - it was a longer hike than i prepared for - but..........

I had brought a stainless steel mixing bowl with me - go ahead and laugh - but it worked well for making a fire in the snow, to cook snow for water - it was kind of a catch-all item i thought would come in mighty handy - like keeping my comfy tent boots dry, or making a fire in snow. it fit in my pack quite nicely. Anyhow - i stayed til morning and prayed for no rustling - even a mouse sounds huge in the dark. Next morning i packed up and headed down, using my bowl as a sled for my pack, so as not to put more pressure on my already painful ankle.

Once down, I couldn't wear shoes for 4 days - so keep boots on in similar situations until at rest.

the buckaroo
Oct 22, 2010

Fugawi Reunion #3:Carson/Iceberg Wilderness 1970's

Here's the routine...first full moon after summer solstice, 10 friends meet at the trail head one hour before midnight for the yearly high sierra decadent bacchanal baseball pig out. Once assembled, one bottle of Remy & one quality tequila are passed around 'til empty. The stroke of midnight sends us on a one & a half mile cruise to the baseball meadow. This one groomed by ground squirrels to big league standards.

This particular trip had a planned spring creek crossing. The creek was a mere 3 feet wide at the ford. I was the last to cross. Planting my staff mid creek, my leap foot lands in the water as I make the attempt...splashdown. Must've been the extra weight of the marinated steaks. Changing clothes quickly, I resume the hike...a bit behind the pack.

Arrived at camp as fellow hikers were bedding down. Our first night routine belongs to the bag & bivouac...no tents until the following night, such are traditions. Cleared a level spot for cutting some zzz's, reached for my bag & it was not to be found. Camp consensus was that it was waiting for me at the creek crossing, gone missing due to clothing change.

Grabbed the torch & headed up the trail for the 1/2 mile trek with the hound leading the way. That pup was not to be found at the fording so upon my return to camp, I grabbed the bivy & the dog & settled in. Next morning I awoke, looked five feet away & there was the bag...resting up against a rock, along with the backpack, just where I put it the night before...ouch.

The original fugawi match consisted of pine branches & cones played on a mountainside...too many pine cones was the main complaint...it evolved from there.

peace & cookies

Dann
Oct 22, 2010

In addition to illumination, head lamp, etc. Everyone should read up on the 10 essentials and carry them on all expeditions (hikes) even short ones. You can never tell when a situation may occur when you need at least one of those essentials. http://www.gorp.com/hiking-guide/travel-ta-hiking-wilderness-skills-sidwcmdev_058018.html#.

Sara JMT hiker
Oct 22, 2010

I learned to carry a headlamp on all hikes. I had day hiked from Evolution Lake to Muir Hut and back on the JMT. By the time I got back it was pitch black and I was on rocks. I yelled for my hiking partner, who had stayed back at camp, to let her know I was safe. She lit the stove and let it flare so I could find her. The headlamp came in handy 5 years later when a packer didn't drop packs in the place we requested & we couldn't find them. We had to hike back over Duck Pass (which had snow on the trail) and use my headlamp and my flashlight for the final hour of night hiking.

Moose
Oct 22, 2010

To minimize loss of night vision when using a head lamp or, flash light, purchase one of the many models that comes with with a red filter. The filter will help preserve night vision and, they usually can be removed if you need brighter white light.

Hikes with Pack
Oct 22, 2010

I've done some night hiking, mostly by choice. For a day pack, do throw in a light of some kind. But if you plan to hike at night, you'll find that you can see the toe catchers much better with two - a headlamp aimed further down the trail and a small light carried low. The lower light will cast shadows from rocks on the trail whereas a headlamp tends to flatten the trail at your feet. It's a good idea to review your route and map ahead of time if you don't know it well, and if you're jumpy, you may want to skip the nocturnal roamings.

High Altitude Wanderer
Oct 22, 2010

I often plan to hike at night, but even when I am not anticipating darkness I carry my head lamp and spare batteries. Learned that the hard way decades ago.
Climbing Mt Shavano for the first time, I started up the trail following my dog Dudley. He usually does a good job staying on a trail, but this time, he lead me astray. It gradually dawned on me that we were off route in the pitch dark (except for my light). I checked the trees for blazes but found none. I circled my location, still no blazes. I took out the map but it was useless. I hadn’t bothered to check the map before we left and I hadn’t been checking my compass to see what direction we were travelling in. Two big mistakes. I decided to hunker down and wait for daylight. Then I might be able to pick out some landmarks and orient the map and from there, cross country back to the trail.
But before I removed my pack, I had an idea. We (Dudley and I) were climbing a mountain. The trail had been gaining altitude steadily. If I assumed the trail continued going up, then I could cut across the slope without gaining or losing altitude and I would eventually cross the trail. I headed left cutting across the slope until I came to a deep and steep cut. I would have remembered that but as I didn’t, it was time to cut across the slope in the other direction. I headed back across the slope for what seemed a long time. I was beginning to doubt my plan, when suddenly I stopped. I felt as if I had crossed the trail without knowing it. Sure enough, just about 20 feet back, I came to the trail, turned right and headed up the mountain.
Did you ever notice how much easier it is to see a trail when you are on it and looking up or down the trail, as opposed to when you are off the trail and walk over it at approximately a right angle to it? Try it some time.

Kerrie
Oct 22, 2010

I've only been on 1 night hike, and it was due to starting out late (after work). However I had my headlamp with me (and my boyfriend and his headlamp) so it all went OK. I had hiked the Sandias for over a year and wondered where all the wildlife was... that night I found out. They're all over! I'd never seen so many bright glowing eyes from the depths of the trees as that night. It was slightly freaky as we were walking down the trail into a small canyon and saw a group of bright green eyes looking up at us from among the sagebrush - coyotes! I'm sure if I'd been hiking solo (as I usually do) I would have been freaked out a little more. Safety in numbers during night hikes, I think.

Jason Hatfield
Oct 22, 2010

Great advice, I always have a light no matter what time of day I'm on a hike. Most of my hikes end in the dark and I agree with waiting until it's really dark to turn your light on.

Joe Whittle
Oct 21, 2010

Woops! Lol!

Here it is:

http://windinglightadventures.blogspot.com/2009/07/ruby-peak-sunset-ii.html

Joe Whittle
Oct 21, 2010

Being an avid backpacker as well as nature photographer, I often find myself on or near a summit as shadows grow long or the after sunset "magic hour" of glowing saturated light presents photographic opportunities galore. This has turned me into somewhat of a night hiking "expert" over the years, and I have many great stories and experiences from that habit. (Although the most recent from last week on the way out from a 4 day solo trip and climb of 9,600 ft. Cusick Mountain in Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness landed me a swollen ankle after making the mistake of exchanging my boots for my old runners on a trail I "knew" to make better time. This worked well until the last mile of a 6 mile dark hike where horse traffic had torn up the trail into just rocks. (I should've known better to slow down there.) Anyhow, here is a link to one of my favorite night hike stories, called "The Angry Bear In The Dark Story". I have many more on my blog "Winding Light Adventures".

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