Night Hiking: How to Hike Safely in the Dark

How Tos & Tips

Hiking is awesome. Hiking at night is, in some cases, even better: it can give you the opportunity to see a stellar sunset from a backwoods viewpoint or get a good look at the starry night sky.

But regular old day hiking already requires some preparation and forethought to ensure everyone’s safety, and that’s doubly true of taking to the trail at night. From figuring out where it’s safe to go in the first place to equipping yourself with the proper equipment and lights, in this article, we’re going to cover night hiking basics, tips and more.

What is Night Hiking?

Let’s start from the very beginning — which is, after all, a very good place to start. What is hiking? And why hike at night in the first place?

Night hiking is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a hike that takes place at night. Night hiking can give you a different perspective on a place you’re familiar with, or help you access viewpoints for stargazing, sunset-watching, or even trying to spot nocturnal wildlife like owls.

Of course, even hiking during the day can be dangerous if you don’t take the proper precautions — so a night hike takes a little bit more planning still. For instance, you want to be sure you have reliable lighting equipment so you don’t end up stuck with no way to see your way home, and like all hiking trips, it’s highly recommended you go with a friend instead of attempting to tackle the project solo.

It’s also imperative to ensure the place you’re planning on taking your night hike is actually open to after-dark visitors, as many trails and forests shut down at sunset.

Is it Dangerous to Hike at Night?

Many people who are interested in night hiking find themselves hesitating to actually get out there because they’re nervous or intimidated. After all, if regular hiking is dangerous, isn’t night time hiking that much more so?

Well, in some ways, yes; everything is a little bit more treacherous when you can’t see well. But with the right preparations and respect for basic Hiking 101 safety rules and etiquette, night hiking can be done safely and effectively.

Let’s start with the most essential tips for keeping yourself safe, which need to be taken seriously by all hikers, no matter what time of day they’re going. Whenever you’re hiking, you should:

  • Be sure to bring fresh water and snacks, especially if the hike is long and/or arduous.
  • Prepare yourself for the outdoor elements by dressing appropriately, taking the climate of the area you’re in into consideration. (In most cases, the smartest hiking outfit involves layers of moisture-wicking fabrics so you can adjust your clothing to your temperature and you avoid ending up soaked in cold sweat.)
  • Wear proper shoes, that are built for rugged hiking conditions. Regular sneakers usually won’t do, except on the easiest and shortest hiking trails.
  • Know the area you’re headed to, and arm yourself with a map and a compass. Digital hiking map apps, like AllTrails, can be a great starting point, but you should also have a paper map as a backup in case your phone dies.
  • Research any wildlife that may live in the area ahead of time, and prepare appropriately to deal with a potential encounter. For instance, when hiking in Montana and other places bears call home, it’s important to be aware of — and perhaps even practice — the appropriate behaviors to deal with both black and grizzly bears. Bringing bear spray is probably also a good idea, as is avoiding bringing along particularly smelly snacks and items that may attract bears.
  • Let somebody know where you’re going, especially if you’re planning on hiking alone. Letting a friend or family member have your itinerary can help ensure rescue in case something goes seriously wrong and you have no way to get in touch with anybody.

However, with night hiking, there are a few more caveats.

  • You’ll need to bring proper lighting, probably in the form of a headlamp which can be conveniently strapped around your head.
  • You’ll need to ensure the place you’re planning to hike at is actually open for night hikers, as not all parks, forests, and trails are open after sunset.
  • It’s an even better idea than usual to bring extra layers, as it gets colder when the sun goes down — and you may also consider trekking poles to help aid your stability in low-light conditions.
  • Hiking alone at night is even more dangerous than hiking alone during the day, which is already not the safest activity in the world… and besides, hiking with friends can be even more fun!

Where Can I Go Hiking at Night?

“I can keep all those rules in mind,” you may be thinking. “So I’m ready to go. But where are the night hiking trails near me?”

While most trails aren’t actually designated as being appropriate for specifically nighttime or daytime, it’s true that some trails specifically don’t allow hikers after dark — so the best move is to double-check the operating hours of whatever trail you have in mind.

Still not sure how to find hiking near you in the first place? There are many hiking guides available for specific areas around the country, no matter where you live. You can also rely on online resources, like AllTrails and guides published by the National Forest Service, National Park service, and other land management organizations to discover what kind of hiking opportunities are available in your own backyard.

That said, hiking is a great reason to travel — and is indeed one of the main reasons many take to the road, particularly in RVs and campers. If you’re looking for some great ideas for your next hiking trip, check out our guides to America’s best state parks, and all of the national parks. You could plan a trip all about hiking some of the most famous scenic trails in the country!

Night Hiking Tips

You’ve got the basics down, but there are still some ways to ensure your night hiking experience will go as smoothly as possible. Here are some of our best tips for hiking at night.

Stick to trails you know, if possible.

Although it might be tempting to try out a new trail on your night hiking excursion, you’ll be at a bit of a disadvantage since you can’t see your way very well. If you absolutely must do your night hiking on a trail you’ve never been on before, we recommend choosing a relatively easy one — and one where falling off a steep mountain face isn’t a possible hazard!

Bring lights — and backups.

You may think it’s easy enough to see where you’re going when you’re walking around town at night, but out in the woods, there’s no ambient lighting from nearby houses or street lamps to help. Wearing a headlamp or carrying a flashlight is essential, and for the best results, we highly recommend doing both — that way, you have a backup.

Don’t go alone.

Even seasoned solo day hikers are often uncomfortable navigating the forest alone by themselves in the dark. Hiking with a friend makes the experience a whole lot safer, since you have two sets of eyes and one of you can get help if it’s needed… and besides, having someone to chat with during the experience may also be a whole lot more fun!

Lighting for Night Hiking

We’ve mentioned having the right lighting for hiking at night several times. But what does the right lighting entail?

Image via Amazon

In most cases, a headlamp is the easiest way to light your path during a night hike. The powerful lantern simply straps around your head, ensuring you’ll be able to see your way no matter where you look. Black Diamond is a well-trusted outdoor equipment company that makes high-quality products, including waterproof and dustproof headlamps.

However, along with your headlamp, it’s also a good idea to carry a flashlight as a backup… or just to have some additional lighting if you need it.

Image via Amazon

A good handheld hiking flashlight will be small, lightweight, and bright. Each member of the hiking party should have their own lighting equipment, which will also give you additional backups in case anybody’s lights go out.

What are the Dos and Don’ts of Night Hiking?

As mentioned above, the basic dos and don’ts of night hiking are pretty similar to the dos and don’ts of regular, everyday hiking: you do want to ensure you’ve got all the gear you need and someone knows where you’re going, and you don’t want to do anything particularly risky (like hiking alone, not telling someone where you’re going, or choosing an unfamiliar hike when you’ll already be at a disadvantage in the dark).

Additionally, we recommend avoiding using new gear for a night hike, with the exception of maybe your headlamp or flashlight. You’ll want to be familiar with most of your gear, and you’ll especially want to ensure you’ve already broken in your shoes or boots!

Night Hiking Clothing

Speaking of boots: what kind of night hiking clothing do you need?

As with all hiking, outdoor gear should be moisture-wicking. Even if it’s relatively cool out, you can work up a sweat through exertion, and you don’t want to have that cold sweat stuck to your body.

Layers are also a good choice since you’ll be able to adjust your amount of clothing to your body temperature and the external temperature. For night hiking, when the weather is likely to be chilly, we recommend a shell or base layer, followed by a fleece, and then with an external, moisture-proof jacket on the outside.

Smartwool makes excellent products, though they do tend to be pricy. That said, a wool base layer is a great way to keep yourself dry, warm,  and comfortable since wool is moisture-wicking and soft.

Night hiking is a wonderful way to get a different perspective of a well-loved destination or to see the stars outside of the light pollution that can obstruct the view in cities and towns.

No matter where your wander feet lead you, enjoy your night hike, campers — and stay safe out there!

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