Pass/Fail: Night Hiking

Is hiking without a headlamp a midsummer night’s dream—or a nightmare?
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Is hiking without a headlamp a midsummer night’s dream—or a nightmare?
Night hiking is a great way to commune with nature. Just don't wander off a cliff. (Illustration by Jacob Thomas)

Night hiking is a great way to commune with nature. Just don't wander off a cliff. (Illustration by Jacob Thomas)

Early in my hiking career, I learned the night was dark and full of errors. My parents had just moved to the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, and my brother Jeff and I, he in high school and me in college, decided to celebrate by following a herd of elk off-trail. We began our impromptu quest just after the sun had slipped behind the ponderosas fringing the highest ridge. Twenty-plus bugling ungulates, two mountain-drunk flatlanders, zero headlamps. And yes, we were wearing jeans.

Thirty minutes later, the pink afterglow went violet and we couldn’t see the handholds on the ill-advised, crumbling scramble we’d ended up on. The elk were long gone. We were at least 2 miles from the trail, and more than once I stopped my brother from going off a 50-foot cliff by grabbing the collar of his shirt. Our breath caught at how long it took the skittering rockfall to stop echoing. It got cold. An owl hooted a clear death knell. That crackle in the bushes was definitely Colorado’s last undiscovered grizzly. I was certain we’d die by the flickering green LED of my flip phone, within earshot of a busy highway. After two hours of getting stiff-armed by tree limbs, we stumbled and fell—literally—into the middle of a pavement-smooth trail. An hour later we arrived at the car, scraped and bruised.

It was enough to swear off night hiking for good. Luckily, I don’t learn from my mistakes and still night hike—I just pack two headlamps and extra batteries on every trip I take. That’s safe, but it’s also a shame: I have a hunch that a halo of blinding ice-white light obscures what makes evening in the wild so special. And I’m not talking about turning off your headlamp to gawp at the stars for a moment.

My brother and I decide to try it out 15 years later on a trip to Washington’s Enchantments. With whiskey rations spent and the rest of our party snoring, I poke my head out of the tent to see the basin’s famous white granite spires and ramps glowing chalky white. My brother’s already out there. I join him at the edge of a slab, where he’s testing the sticky rock and eyeing a sloping dome that looks like a bridge to the Milky Way. “Should we just . . . go?” he asks.

The moon lifts past the trees, so bright an ant would cast a shadow. It also illuminates the risk: Steep drops and sheer cliffs, some ending in star-sparked lakes, others in voids we can’t see the bottom of. “Let’s go,” I say.

We start slowly, probing with each footstep and taking time to let our eyes adjust when moving from shadow to moonlight. We carry lamps but don’t use them; we want to use our other senses. We listen to the scrape of our boots to hear if there’s grip-killing sand on the rock. With arms spread wide, we use our hands to feel our way through shadows and bear-walk in places we might simply stroll in the daytime. I can smell puddles of water or mud before I see them.

It works: Where our lightless adventure 15 years ago was a claustrophobic tangle, this is a fairy’s playground. I trade tight-chested panic for dilated wonder. The dagger of Prusik Peak pokes holes in a sky gone inky blue, and I can see the October larches flaring yellow against purple shadows. The Enchantments go beyond their name at night. Hiking in the blackness produces a novel sensation: What initially felt like a limitation starts to feel like a superpower. One hundred yards seems like the equivalent of a mile by daylight, but I don’t feel slowed down by my lack of owl eyes. Instead, I learn the details of a midnight landscape, start to understand the subtle differences in 50 shades of shade. We’re seeing the woods the way our Paleolithic ancestors did, like animals, with only the vision evolution bestowed upon us. Simply put, the wild gets wilder—and so do we.

We’ve been giving the cliff edges a wide berth, but my bolder brother ambles to the edge of a doozy: a house-size, sloping block that backs up to at least 2,000 feet of air. I inch behind him and look over to see a glacial valley pitted with lakes, stretching to the moonlit saw of the Cascades that closes the horizon. Behind us, we hear a skritch, and turn to see a pale ghost.

OK, it’s not really a phantom—but the big mountain goat shadowing our trail gives us a jolt. His black eyes follow our every move. We remember that this is his night kingdom, we’re just visiting, and he probably wouldn’t have a problem headbutting us off the brink to get at our salty socks. We carefully edge around him and scramble back to our warm bags. We awaken to the daytime glory of the Enchantments, but to this day, the mountains’ nighttime alter ego remains more vivid in my memory.

The Verdict: PASS

Being caught out at night unprepared and in unfamiliar territory can make for a harrowing epic. But with proper judgment and care, I learned lampless night hikes open up a whole new wilderness experience.

NIGHT HIKE SAFELY

Start smart with 6 tips for exploring after dark.

LEARN THE LUNAR CYCLE. For maximum safety and visibility, hike on or near a full moon (duh). But check the nighttime weather forecast, too.

BRING A HEADLAMP. Even if moonlight is bright, clouds or fog could roll in, and shadowy sections might require a light assist. Get a model with a red light option. Light from the red end of the spectrum preserves night vision. Our pick: The Princeton Tec Sync earned a 2015 Editors’ Choice Award because it’s simple and intuitive, yet still has all the features we want (red, spot, high flood, low flood, and max bright). A foolproof dial lets you click back and forth through all five modes. $30; 3 oz.; princetontec.com

CHOOSE AN APPROPRIATE LOCATION. Open areas with light-colored, reflective surfaces—meadows, sand dunes, above treeline—make for more enjoyable, safer night hiking. Unlike the author, avoid dense woods or dangerous features like exposed rock or swift rivers.

PICK A TRAIL YOU KNOW. Familiar locations are safer, especially for first-timers, and flat trails offer fewer tripping obstacles.

GO IN A GROUP. Darkness means more danger—so more eyeballs means safer spotting, reduces your chances of getting lost, and ensures you’ll have help if something goes wrong.

MOVE SLOWLY. It’s safer, and stopping often to assess the situation lets you soak in the atmosphere—which is why you’re night hiking in the first place.