Go Nocturnal: 6 Tips for Hiking After Dark

By the third quarter of the 2013 Super Bowl, it was completely dark out in the sleepy village of El Chaltén in Patagonia. My buddy and I had been camping two hours away at Laguna Capri and, on a whim, decided to hike down the mountain and into town to catch the first half of the game at a small café. We promised ourselves that, no matter the score, we would leave by halftime and head back up to our tent—where all of our food, gear, clothing, and headlamps were waiting—well before nightfall.

Credit: Lucas Kelly
Credit: Lucas Kelly

But, one round of cervezas inevitably turned into two, and halftime came and went. Before we knew it, we had no choice but to hike back up the steep trail in pitch darkness. It was disorienting and awkward to fumble our way blindly through the woods. We spent much of that evening tripping over roots and rocks, risking sprained ankles and skinned knees as we shivered in the cold, and strained our eyes while looking for our campsite. It was my first after-dark hiking experience, and needless to say, I had gone about it the wrong way. I was simply unprepared.

But, there’s no teacher like experience. I’ve since hiked safely after dark dozens of times, and have come to appreciate how peaceful it can be. No terrain or trail, no matter how many times you’ve hiked it during the day, is the same at night. So, if you can do it right, nocturnal hiking doubles your territory, helps you beat the crowds, and gives you a new appreciation for the still night’s air. To start, here are a few tips to keep in mind the next time you hit the trails after the sun has gone down:

1. Don’t go at it alone

You should always rely on the buddy system when going out into the mountains or woods, as the dark amplifies hiking’s inherent risks. Having another person with you diminishes the likelihood of getting lost, and you’ll also have help if something goes wrong. Plus, who doesn’t want a little companionship and someone to talk with while walking along an empty trail?

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

2. Always have a headlamp

Always—and this doesn’t just apply to nighttime hiking. I’ve found that it’s a good rule of thumb to carry a headlamp, like the Black Diamond Spot, and extra batteries in your pack any time you venture into the wilderness. This way, if you do get caught heading back down the trail after sunset, you’ll be ready. And, if you’re going out at nighttime, the spare batteries can be a lifesaver if your headlamp dies. Also, be sure to practice appropriate headlamp etiquette and tilt your light downward towards the ground, as to not temporarily blind your buddy.

All that being said, check the phase of the moon during your hike. If it’s big and bright enough, and the trail doesn’t have much cover (see: The Presidential Traverse During a Super Moon), you might not need to use your headlamp at all—but bring it anyway, of course.

3. Dress for the elements

The temperature can plummet after dark. A little trick I like to use is to always pack for conditions a little colder than expected. For example, if it’s predicted to be 50 degrees at night, I’ll prepare for it to be 40° or colder. You can always take off layers, but you can’t add what you didn’t bring.

I’ve found it’s better to err on the side of safety and comfort at night—even if it’s at the expense of a few more ounces in your pack. And, since it’s more difficult to keep an eye on the changing weather at nighttime, it’s always a good idea to be ready for rain and to pack accordingly.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

4. Hike a familiar trail

This proved to be our saving grace in El Chaltén. My friend and I had tackled the trail a few times in daylight before we hiked it in the dark, so we (sort of) knew what to expect. Simply put, it’s just a bad idea to be exploring new territory in the woods or mountains without the convenience of daylight. It’s not worth potentially getting lost.

Instead, choose a trail that you’ve done a few times in the daytime. That way, you have a sense of where you’re going and what’s in store. Enjoy how different the experience can be without the presence of the sun and with the trail illuminated by headlamp instead.

5. Hike slowly and carefully

It’s important to remain extra-alert and aware of your surroundings while hiking at nighttime. Branches, thorns, roots, and rocks can hamper your experience and send you falling to the ground. So, move deliberately and keep an eye on the section of trail that’s illuminated right in front of you. This, too, might mean moving a bit slower than you normally would on a day hike. If you encounter wildlife, be mindful, and assuming your bright light has likely startled them, treat the animal with the same respect that you would under any other circumstance.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

6. Think ahead, and bring food, water, and shelter

The same rules of daytime hiking apply after hours. Even though it’ll likely be cooler, it’s still important to stay properly hydrated and fueled. As such, even if you don’t feel thirsty or hungry, make sure you stop to have some water and snacks every so often.

Hiking at night also means you’re likely going to need sleep at some point. To prepare, have a light and a sturdy shelter you can quickly assemble when fatigue starts to set in. Opt for a lightweight tent or, if the weather is favorable and the skies clear, a hammock that you can crash in for the remainder of the night.