Everything’s different when you hike in the dark. Your ears perk up at every snapped twig or drop of rain; your eyes strain to focus on the smallest shed of distant light. It can be a hair-raising experience.
And it can also be exhilarating.
While everyone else is either tucked into bed or watching Leno crack a few jokes, you’re out trudging through the woods in complete darkness with the entire trail to yourself.
Flashlights and headlamps? Forget ‘em. Maybe you shouldn’t tromp down an unknown canyon trail in pitch black; however, when the full moon is blazing, and you have a pretty good idea of the terrain, night hiking offers a unique way to enjoy the outdoors.
By surrounding yourself in inky darkness, your other senses become more heightened: the smell of moss and earth become extra-rich and every sound you hear is clear and crisp. Much like hiking in the rain, it’s something you need to approach with an open mind.
Still a skeptic? Fine. But before you start stressin’ about finishing your hike by the time the sun sets, consider these reasons for wandering the trail just a little later.
Complete darkness is Zen
Silence doesn’t come easy when you live in the rough part of Los Angeles. So when young people from this city get a chance to experience the wilderness at night, it offers a rare chance for them to be truly alone.
Molly Hucklebridge, Environmental Education Director with the American River Conservancy, has been taking inner city youth on ‘night solo sits’ since 2010. She said it’s a way to help the kids conquer their fears about the dark and the unknown while helping them learn to trust others.
But it also provides these young people with a rare chance for meditation. After a guided walk through the dark, which lasts about an hour or two, the youth are left to sit by themselves in the woods.
“These days there are rarely moments when students are truly alone – free from friends, electronics, cars, or other distractions,” said Hucklebridge in an e-mail. “The quiet time can be soothing and students can think freely from distractions.”
Of course, it’s not just students who are blasted with constant distractions every day. Wandering into the wilderness offers everyone a rare escape and chance for reflection. And that’s great for mental health.
There are no crowds at midnight. No screaming kids or e-mail pings. Just you and your thoughts.
Finally enjoy those star-scattered skies
If you live in an urban area, light pollution will mask those brilliant starry skies. By fleeing deep into the woods, you can escape this ambient light and can finally admire the cosmos in all its epic glory.
In fact, more tour companies are developing guided night hikes to meet people’s thirst for star-gazing. For example, Discover Banff Tours, located in the stunning Banff National Park, just began offering a night walk through the popular Johnston Canyon last winter due to demand.
Tour companies in Death Valley National Park have had even more interest in such treks. This region was recently declared the largest Dark Sky Park in the world by the International Dark-Sky Association. That title pretty much guarantees more people will be trekking through the area, telescopes in hand.
But depending on your destination, you may have to hike a little farther to experience the most remarkable views. Consider heading to the top of a hill or mountain and admire the city lights below as well as the stars above.
Why not check out the nightlife?
Wander through the wilderness at dusk, one of the times when wildlife is most active, and you can almost feel the energy as the sun melts away.
And then as night blankets everything around you, things change. New sounds emerge and once-familiar surroundings become alien. Different insects crawl out from their holes and nocturnal creatures prowl the dark skies or forest floors for their next meal.
Night hiking provides a fascinating way to experience wildlife in a unique way. Veteran thru-hiker and author Dennis Blanchard knows this better than most people.
While thru-hiking the legendary Appalachian Trail in 2007/2008, a feat that takes several months, Blanchard often trekked at night to cover more distance. He was moving through some serious bear country in New Jersey one evening when his headlamp suddenly died.
He said one of the most surreal aspects of this hike was noticing the eyes of animals shimmering in the bushes. Watching his every move.
“There were times when I thought I was walking through a Disney landscape, eyes staring back at me and following my progress,” said Blanchard in an e-mail. “I didn’t know there were so many different colored eyes!”
Blanchard, who details this experience in his book Three Hundred Zeroes, points out that thru-hikers often trek at night to gain extra distance.
But you don’t have to be a hardcore thru-hiker to take in the beauty of a night hike. You just have embrace the darkness.
Do you hike at night? Tell us why in the comments below.
Do you prefer the trails less travelled?
Join like-minded trekkers by signing up for the S&TT e-mail list. Every week, you’ll get:
- Profiles of little-known hiking destinations
- Gear reviews for backpackers and hikers
- Feature articles on strange and off-beat hiking
Plus we’re 100% spam-free (and proud of it)