If you have never planned a night-hike, and want to experience a moonlit trek through the wilderness, you have come to the right place! Here, we will cover the basics of planning and packing for a nighttime hiking trip, explain some of the key differences between day and night hiking, and discuss a few tips to make your night-hike as safe and enjoyable as possible.
Why Hike At Night?
Many of us have only hiked at night on accident, usually due to poor planning or because we spent too much time admiring the views along the trail. That said, there are lots of reasons to purposefully hike at night, and here are just a few:
- Enjoy a new perspective by viewing nature at night. Lots of animals are more active after dark, gathering food, hunting, scavenging, and exploring the environment. In some regions, nighttime hikers might come across nocturnal plants that bloom in the evening, releasing fragrant perfumes and displaying beautiful flowers. Without the bright light of the sun, nighttime hikers can gaze upon a sky full of bright stars, and might even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way or the Northern Lights.
- Make the most of fall and winter by learning to hike after sunset. In many northern and southern regions, fall and winter months come with drastically shorter days and long nights. By learning the skills you need to safely enjoy an evening hike, less daylight doesn’t have to mean less hiking.
- Beat the summer heat by hiking once the sun has set, or before it has risen. Summer nighttime hiking gives you all the joys of hiking in lush and green nature without the sweltering heat. Timed correctly, and you could start or end your hike with a sunset or sunrise, letting you enjoy the best of the summer sun without the sunburn!
- Become a better hiker when you hike at night. The absence of sunlight will reduce your field of vision, making it more difficult for you to see the trail and your surroundings. As a result, your other senses will become more heightened, and you will naturally become a more aware hiker. It will also require navigation skills that are greater than what is required during the day. Hiking at night can help you to become more physically accustomed to difficult or uneven terrain, and can even help to heighten your sense of hearing, making you more attuned to the world around you.
- Avoid crowds by hiking in the evening, when most families and individuals have abandoned the trails and made their way back to their homes, cabins, and campgrounds. Hiking at night can give you the chance to have nature all to yourself – unless you count the nocturnal critters!
Tips for Hiking at Night
Becoming a confident nighttime hiker will take a little time and experience, so feeling a little nervous to step out for the first time after dark is perfectly normal. Here are a few tips to help you feel more prepared, and to keep in mind while on the trail:
- Bring a hiking companion to keep you company, and to keep an eye out for your safety. Though inexperienced hikers should always travel with a companion, even experienced hikers can feel intimidated or easily startled by the darkness of night, so bringing a friend can help you to remain confident, as well as make better decisions.
- Carefully organize your pack to make it easier to find the things you need in the dark. Knowing where your things are, and always replacing them in their designated spot will help you to be prepared for any situation with or without light.
- Carry a cellphone in case of emergencies. Even if you are hiking to get away from the stress of everyday life, and want to be technology-free, you should always carry a fully charged cellphone with you to contact friends, family, or local authorities. Expect the best, prepare for the worst.
- Don’t rush no matter how well you know the trail. Without sunlight to show you your path, it may be more difficult to see the features of your terrain. Taking it slow and choosing shorter trails for your first few attempts at night-hiking will help you to successfully make it through the trip.
- Hike a trail you know well the first few times you hike at night. Without the light of the sun, it can become more difficult to navigate, and the chances of becoming lost or confused rise. Sticking to a trail you have hiked many times before will reduce your chances of getting lost, and help you to become accustomed to the other challenges of hiking without needing to navigate a new environment.
- Hike with a full moon to increase your field of vision on your first nighttime hike. A full moon will cast more light than a crescent moon and can help you to feel more comfortable traveling at night.
- Hydrate and eat as necessary to maintain your strength and energy on the trail. Though you won’t be hiking during the usual ‘meal times’, it is still important to plan for a hike as usual by including at least a few snacks and plenty of water in your pack.
- Let your eyes adjust to the darkness. This may take up to an hour, but once your eyes are fully acclimated, you will be amazed by how much you can see. You’ll of course be using a headlamp, but if you keep it on a lower setting, and avoid staring into a hiking partner’s lights, your eyes will adjust, and you’ll be able to see more than you’d expect. Turn your headlamp on high when you need to see a wider range or longer distance, but generally a lower setting makes your lamp last longer and allows your eyes to adjust. Use red light for reading maps as well. If you are hiking with a companion, be sure to never shine a light in their eyes and to practice good headlamp etiquette to avoid destroying their night vision.
- Pay close attention to trail markers to make sure you don’t get lost, and to stay oriented on your hike. If you step off the trail – to look at a cool rock formation or to investigate a plant – be sure to closely observe your surroundings to ensure you will be able to get back to the trail. This goes in conjunction with knowing your trail, and carrying an accurate trail map. Ahead of time, you should know your trail junctions, and which way you should be going. Making a wrong turn is generally not the safest approach.
- Plan your hike on a clear night to increase visibility. Clouds and overcast weather will reduce the light created by the moon and stars, and make it more difficult to navigate.
- Prepare to see wildlife while hiking at night, and be sure to research wildlife that are indigenous to the area before you head out to the trail. Though most critters you will come across at night will present no threat, there could be some that feel less than thrilled about you disturbing their evening activities. Remember, enjoying the local wildlife is a privilege, and you should always admire critters from afar without disturbing them or their homes.
- Share your location with friends or family, even if you are bringing a hiking companion – which you should. Letting someone else know where you will be and when you are expected to return is best-practice for all adventures into the wilderness.
- Start with a sunset or end with a sunrise to give yourself a start or end goal for the hike! Starting with a sunset can motivate you to be out and on the trail when you would otherwise be getting ready for dinner. Ending a hike with a sunrise can motivate you to wake up early, and help to keep you focused on the trail.
Must-Have Night Hiking Gear
- Quality Headlamp And Extra Batteries: Light is essential when hiking in the dark. Having a quality hiking headlamp is necessary for safety and comfort. You should also pack extra batteries. Don’t rely on your phone for long term light.
- Red lights: Whether you prefer a handheld light or a headlamp, choosing one with a red light setting is vital for night hiking. Red light is less harsh on the eyes, and won’t disrupt your night vision as severely. Great for reading maps or grabbing things out of your bag.
- Extra lights: Headlamps, handheld lanterns, handheld flashlights, and other lights are must-haves when you hit the trails in the evening. Bringing one extra light source adds a little weight, but increases your safety, and gives you another light around camp when needed. Small survival flashlights are great backup options we keep stowed away in our bags.
- Biodegradable toilet paper: If you plan to hike for more than an hour or two, you should add a roll of biodegradable toilet paper to your pack. This will make it more comfortable to quickly relieve yourself in the woods, and will naturally biodegrade when buried. You may need a poop bag in areas where burying your poop isn’t allowed.
- Bug repellent: Bug spray, a hat fitted with netting, and other bug repellent methods are vital to bring along on your evening hikes since insects often love the cool of the night.
- Compass & GPS Device: Should you unexpectedly tread off the beaten path, or accidentally wander away from the trail, having a compass in your possession can help you to get back on track. We hike with pre-downloaded GPS maps on our Garmin InReach and on our phones for safety.
- Fire starting tools: Firestarters, flint, matches, lighters, and other tools to create fire are good emergency additions to your nighttime hiking pack. Consider including storm or waterproof matches in your fire making kit in case of sudden or unexpected rain.
- First aid items: With less light to show you the path ahead, it can be easy to trip or scrape yourself on something along the trail. Because of this, you should always carry a basic first aid kit complete with antibacterial wipes, bandaids, gauze, etc.
- Food: Proper sustenance is important on the trail, which is why you should always include a few protein-heavy snacks or meals when you head out for a nighttime hike. Healthy lightweight snack options include jerky, nuts, trail mixes, and protein bars. If you are camping in bear country, remember a bear canister, or a bag and rope to hang up away from your tent.
- Knife: A knife is an essential tool for any hiking trip, including your nighttime ones. Knives can come in handy to cut you free from branches or brambles, can be used to cut pieces of bark or wood to start fires, or can be used to open food and other items in an emergency.
- Layers: Even if you think you won’t need them, toss a few extra items of clothing into your pack. Without the warmth of the sun, it can be easy to catch a chill, so extra layers are always a good idea in case of unexpected wind or temperature changes.
- Shelter: Even if you don’t plan to stay out overnight, bringing some kind of shelter is important when you set out for a nighttime hike. A sleeping pad, sleeping bag, or single person tent are all good options to add to your pack in case you end up spending an unexpected night in the woods.
- Water: You might not be sweating under the heat of the sun, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to stay hydrated while hiking at night. Bringing plenty of water will help you stay safe and energized on the trail, so be sure to bring more than you think you’ll need in case of emergencies. Water filtration is needed for longer trips.
Staying Safe and Confident On the Trail
You might not feel completely confident during your first few nighttime hikes, especially if you are someone who gets spooked by the dark. With your hearing and other senses heightened, the small sounds of crackling branches in the forest at night can be a little disconcerting. Combine this with the prospect of coming across startled nocturnal critters and the fears of getting lost, and nighttime hiking can sound somewhat intimidating.
While it is true that hiking at night requires a little more awareness and care than camping during the day, the natural fears of hiking in the dark are fairly easy to overcome. Preparation and attitude are all you need to confidently and safely set out after dark, which is why it is so important to do your research and start slow. With all the tips, tricks, and advice we have shared above, we feel confident you can become the nighttime hiking master you want to be.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about