Hiking in the Dark – Why Would You?
Do you remember the first time you hiked in the dark? Was it unplanned? Many, if not most of our day hikes end up at dusk or near dark – mainly because we frequently start late. We do it to avoid crowds on our local/regional day hikes. Having done a few backcountry trips, I can tell you that we try to finish before dark. However, there was this one backcountry trip……
The allure of the Appalachian trail was enough for me to fly out to the east coast from sunny San Diego. While hiking the entire A.T. is a dream, my friend and I would settle for a 7-8 day section hike. Decidedly, we would make this interesting and hike one of the hardest sections of the trail-The Maine 100 Mile Wilderness. In previous blogs, I’ve written how it was the one of my greatest challenges. This section of the trail was unforgiving. At 12 miles per day, we could easily make it out in time. A miscalculation of the terrain caused us to fall behind schedule. Well, my friend was doing fine. At half my age and a Marine, he was like a darn gazelle on the African plain. We had to make it out by a certain day to meet family and for me to catch a flight home. Anyhow, by the end of the first day, I experienced night hiking with a full, no – overloaded backpack.
I learned many things on that trip. Mainly, if you bite off more than you can chew on a backcountry trip, you just suck it up and go with it. The first night hike wasn’t extreme by any means, just different. As night fell, I broke out the headlamp and concentrated on the trail beneath my feet, occasionally looking up front for my friend – who must have had built-in night vision, because he wasn’t using a headlamp. I was starting to think that the government must have put night vision implants in their Marines, but as I would learn later, your eyes will adjust to the dark with pretty good acuity. Fortunately, after a couple of hours we stumbled on an empty campsite and settled in using our headlamps. Sleep came quickly after a long day on the trail.
With each passing day and night, the novelty of nocturnal trekking wore off and at times became drudgery. Much of the trail in the Maine Wilderness is composed of obstacles. For the duration of the 100 miles, every other step seemed like I was stepping on a tree root. Navigating a trail made of roots with the 40lb pack was tough. Even with my acquired “trail legs”, the root jumping ritual gets old quickly. By the way, the A.T. is fairly well-marked with the white blazes on the trees or rocks every 100-200 ft. – during the day that is. At night, the supposedly bright blazes get absorbed by the darkness. Often, my partner would hike ahead to find a campsite and I would trudge along through the darkest forest east of the Mississippi. I was usually so tired, that I didn’t give the darkness much thought. Thinking back, it was probably downright spooky. In Maine, the forest canopy is so thick that you don’t see many stars at night. Sometimes, the trail is only 2-3 ft. wide and the forest so thick and dark that it seemed to close in on me.
Did I mention that a good portion of the A.T. in Maine is built out of logs and cut lumber? The trail is often surrounded by water and much of it passes through creeks, streams and swamps. The “bridges”, many of them built by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, provide a way to navigate these watery areas. At night, the bridges seem narrow, loose and rickety. One slip and you could end up knee-deep in muck. Looking back, I can’t say that it was enjoyable. Fortunately, the swamps in Maine are not home to anacondas or gators. But, as you make your way over these logs late at night, don’t let your imagination wander too far. Occasionally, I would stop and scan the swamp with my headlamp, hoping that I would not see a pair of green eyes looking back at me.
On one night, I was in a particularly thick part of the forest near Joe-Mary Lake and lost the trail. My friend was probably 15 minutes or so ahead of me scouting out the campsite as usual. For a minute, panic set in as I couldn’t see the next blaze. I gathered my wits and focused on what appeared to be the trail and scanned the trees and rocks with my headlamp. A faint blaze appeared 50 ft. ahead on a tree. Was it a blaze or a faded piece of bark? Eventually, the trail became more apparent and 20 minutes later, I would find my friend setting up our home for the evening.
Summertime brings out the bugs on the trail and they love lights. One night, we were taking a break on a boulder and we had our lamps on. We scanned the area around us and saw something moving about 20 ft. away. Suddenly, it flew at us and thumped my friend in the head, me in the chest. It was the largest iridescent moth ever. It continued to dive bomb us and we would run away screaming until we realized that we just needed to turn our lights off. After sneaking away in the dark, we would turn our headlamps on hoping that Mothra was long gone. As the adrenaline faded, we continued to be hounded by smaller moths until we made camp.
By the 6th or 7th night, we would be putting in 12+ hour days and able to hike well into the darkness without headlamps. You really do gain confidence and your eyes seem to gather in every bit of light possible. We even braved a river crossing at night. Fortunately, the water was only to our knees so it wasn’t too bad.
Near the end of this trip, I was a seasoned night hiker. Did I enjoy it? No, not really, it was done out of necessity. On the A.T., the “green tunnel” really makes the night seem darker. I never realized how pitch black it gets in the woods. I think it comes from just being a city dweller. However, many thru-hikers absolutely enjoy night hiking and can knock down some serious mileage. Is it risky? Yes, you just have to know what the acceptable risk is.
Some tips for night hiking, based on my limited experience:
– Have a backup headlamp or flashlight, plus spare batteries
– Know the terrain and assess the risks of hiking in the dark.
– Water crossings at night can be dangerous. Have an idea how deep the water is. Always loosen or unbuckle your backpack straps.
– If you lose the trail, stop and gather your wits. No need to panic. GPS works in the dark too.
– Don’t let your imagination wander too far. You probably aren’t surrounded by alligators.
– When moths attack, turn off your light
I will do night hiking again, perhaps next time it will be under the wide open sky of the John Muir Trail. 🙂 Hike your own hike my friends, and don’t forget the headlamp.