Nocturnal: Tips for Adventuring After Dark
Standing in the rocky wash, I gaze out towards the setting sun. Gnarled Mesquite trees dot the land around me, the thorns grab and tug at my clothing when I brush by them as if asking me to stay. Coyote prints weave like rivulets in between the twisted trunks. I’m amazed that so much life exists here, in this seemingly desolate landscape. I saw mountain lion tracks earlier in the day too.
Sand dunes roll out to the South like waves of the ocean. To the East and West are jagged peaks, and a maze of canyons to the North, where I came from. I glance at my watch and look back at the horizon… Vivid orange and red and yellow mix with blue as the deep purple of the night sky slowly creeps in. I dig the headlamp out of my pack before all the light leaves the sky, but I don’t turn it on yet.
I want to savor the sunset.
Stars begin to dot the sky and the milky way blazes above me in the minutes before the nearly-full moon peeks over the mountains. I wonder if the coyotes are still around, if their sharp snouts point in my direction, watching me with their curious eyes from hidden dens, or if they’ve moved on for the night. I reckon I won’t find out. The moon helps light my way, but I turn on the headlamp anyway and continue my solo trek across a near-endless desert. There’s a smile on my face, the kind that only comes along during adventures such as these.
There is Magic in the Night
Imagine what it would be like to look forward to the night coming on, to welcome the darkness and appreciate the silence and the beauty that comes along with it. Think about how it would feel to be prepared, mentally, and with the right gear, to go confidently into the night.
If you’re a hiker, backpacker, runner, or adventurer of any kind, chances are you’ll be caught out after dark at some point, especially this time of year when the days are short and the nights are oh-so-long.
Many people draw the line at recreating during the nighttime hours, which is understandable. Everything looks and feels different at night. Shadows jump and swerve as you move along the trail and you can’t see as far. There is a lot more mystery in the night.
What if I told you that you could overcome the nervousness of recreating at night? That you could go on that backpacking trip, or run in the dark, or do a night hike and maybe even enjoy the experience?
It Just Takes a Little Training
Some of my initial experiences with nighttime adventuring came as silly debacles sprinkled with a few epic failures… Like that one time I mis-planned a long run and ended up running in the dark because I didn’t realize it was daylight savings. Or that other time I hiked into the Inyo National Forest to meet up with a friend who was on the John Muir Trail; I set up my little camp at our pre-arranged meeting spot but they didn’t show up until the following morning, leaving me to unexpectedly sleep alone in the wilderness for the first time.
Mistakes, debacles, and misadventures happen, but adventuring safely at night requires planning and practice. Much like any athletic endeavor, learning to embrace the darkness just takes a little training.
Here, I’ve put together some tips and training advice that you can use to set yourself up for successful nighttime adventures.
For any outing, not just the night, make sure you have a set plan. Use trails that you already know and make sure they are safe to travel on at night, i.e., don’t plan on walking the creepy bike trail that’s down the street from your house. Keep in mind that you won’t be able to move as quickly or efficiently at night as you do during the day, so even familiar trails may take longer to navigate.
Make a detailed itinerary and share it with friends, including a map and time-frames. Call or text them as soon as you have safely completed your activity. If something were to happen, they know where to start looking or where to direct the authorities. Along these same lines, you can plan to have friends check on you at trailheads along the route, or be ready to come pick you up if you decide to stop.
Inviting a friend or two along on nighttime excursions can help you stay safe and more comfortable as well, and is highly recommended. My first night hike was with a good friend in the park located in my hometown. We both were very familiar with the trails and, knowing the community, felt that it was a low-risk activity. Despite that, we nearly jumped out of our skins when a bullfrog let out a mighty croak from the stream a few feet away.
Adventuring after dark is not totally benign and always comes with increased risks, such as hypothermia and injuries (tripping and falling, for example). These risks can be mitigated by making sure you have the right gear and being ready for a variety of situations.
Start off by making sure you have the 10 essentials (checklist at the end of this article). One very important item on this list is a light. Handheld flashlights have been known to cause dizziness in some people because of how the light bobs and sways as your arm swings, while headlamps or waist lights are ideal because they move with you, they also free your hands.
It’s important to carry extra batteries for your light source as well. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was ten miles out on a wilderness trail and my headlamp died. I failed to pack extra batteries, so I used my cell phone flashlight to get through another few miles until it died as well. Fortunately, I had set up an emergency plan and when I didn’t show up on time, my partner came looking for me using the map and itinerary I had left for him, so I didn’t end up staying the night in that dark and damp redwood forest.
The 10 essentials list also includes navigational gear and extra layers – two very important things for staying out after dark. Familiar trails can look different at night, so GPS is good to have with you. And carrying extra clothing to combat the night’s chill is also a necessity.
When it comes to sleeping outside, you can start small by setting up your tent in your backyard or “cowboy camp” on your patio. This gives you the option to retreat indoors. A step to take from here would be to get a campsite at a campground, or find dispersed camping opportunities, where your vehicle can be your escape. This is also a great way to test your sleep system to make sure it’s comfortable enough and warm enough.
I have never had a negative interaction with the critters that would normally seem scary. Cougars, coyotes, and bears have always kept their distance, preferring to remain elusive and mind their own business. Animals that have been aggressive towards me? Domestic dogs and bees.
Wild animal danger is not more significant at night, but you might see different animals than you are used to seeing during the day. While many people are afraid of large mammals like cougars and bears, the most common run-ins are with owls! I’ve never personally experienced it, but I know a lot of runners who have had to duck and cover from a territorial owl.
Get to know what animals are in the area, and have an idea of who you might encounter at night versus during the day. Research how to handle encounters with these animals, and have a plan just in case.
Have Fun With It
Sing! Dance! Laugh!
This is one of the best ways to stave off the unease and apprehension that might come along with nighttime adventuring. Sometimes I turn on a podcast or an audiobook. Other times, I’ve played loud music. I sing and dance my way down the trail, and while I might look absolutely ridiculous, it’s fun. I like to think the commotion will warn wildlife that I’m in the area too, so they can move along before I get to them.
You Are Capable
Don’t limit yourself because of fear or nervousness in the dark. You are capable of accomplishing your goals. If your dream is to go on a big backpacking trip, then do it! If you want to learn to run at night because you signed up for a 100-mile race, start practicing! Go into the night with the mindset that you are training, and remind yourself of your goal. Allow yourself to admire the newness of the experience, and don’t forget to look up at the stars. With practice, you will be able to go confidently into the night.
The 10 Essentials Checklist
- Extra layers
- Headlamp plus extra batteries
- Navigation (GPS, maps, etc)
- First aid
- Shelter (emergency bivvy)
- Fire (matches, lighter, and/or tinder)
- Sun protection
Ashly Winchester is a runner, writer, adventurer, and mountain guide based out of Northern California. She also hosts a podcast called Womxn of the Wild, where she interviews women who are breaking down barriers in the outdoors.