Night Hiking Safety Tips: How to Hike in the Dark

Last Updated: June 25, 2022
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

No matter how many times you may have walked a trail under the bright sun of noon, or the fading twilight’s purples and oranges, no hike is the same once the darkness comes. A night hike is a new version of your favorite activity. Night hiking is a truly unique way to experience your favorite trails or brand new places. When the night arrives, new life emerges from the small dens and cracks where they reside throughout the day. If you get the chance to hike alongside these, take it.

Adding a night hike to your hiking trip can be a truly memorable experience, as night hikes bring a new level of beauty and experience to the hike. As beautiful as hiking at night can be, it can be dangerous if done wrong. That cliffside you see coming from hundreds of feet away in the daytime will sneak up on you at night. Night hiking requires a certain level of caution and preparedness. It’s nothing to be truly afraid of, but finding and following the right night hiking safety tips is an absolute must. 

Why Hike, or don’t Hike, at Night

Like I mentioned before, hiking at night is a wildly beautiful experience that brings a landscape to you in a completely different way. The night forces you to slow down and take the time to listen to everything that is going on around you, as well as pay closer attention to every single step you take. Night hiking is a natural way of pushing you to stop and smell the roses on a new trail or one that you have walked so many times. 

This experience challenges you in a way that hiking in the day simply can’t. Start out on an evening hike and watch how everything changes as the sun continues to dive down. Night hiking opens doors to brand new experiences. There’s a fascinating load of science behind hiking at night and how your body, particularly your eyes, functions at night. For example, the rods and cones in your eyes work together to bring a crisp and colorful picture into your mind. At night, the rods, which are in charge of color, don’t receive enough light to process different colors. In short, in the dark, we are all colorblind.

While hiking at night is fascinating, there are plenty of reasons why staying inside is sometimes the better option. Night hikes can present certain dangers that you don't normally encounter in the day. The dark brings unprecedented dangers like cliffs that appear seemingly out of nowhere, and an inability to see the various roots and branches that are trying to trip you up. These dangers can be mitigated with the right night hiking safety tips. We’ll explore each aspect of night hiking and provide the right guidance that can act as a headlamp in the dark of night. 

Hike as a Group

If you are going out to hike at night, bringing friends or family along can make the experience more fun, as well as safer. Hiking as a group provides a level of security that can sometimes be only mental, but that can be exactly what you need at times. Plus, night hikes are a great social activity as there are plenty of fun activities that you can only do on a night hike. Learn a story that demonstrates how night vision works, or see how people can hike safely without their harsh white light turned on. Night-time hiking gives a group the opportunity to get on a new trail and learn more about themselves and each other.

Hiking in numbers can also function as protection from wild animals. I feel the need to clarify, there are no wild and crazy animals that only come out at night to suck your blood or feed on your arms and legs under a full moon. Keep the monsters in the movies and go out at night without fear. A night hike should not be filled with high levels of fear and worry about the wildlife.

For the most part, a lot of little critters and bigger animals are sleeping quietly at night. The nocturnal animals pose very little threat. Bats and raccoons keep to their own unless you’ve filled your pockets with delicious trash. Which, if we need to remind you, is always a bad idea in the woods.

Go Slowly

At night, you’re rarely going to be hiking to a destination with grand and sweeping views. Why? Well, you’re not very likely to see the mountains that are miles away with the light of your headlamp. What I’m trying to say is, there’s no rush to get where you’re going. Night hiking is about enjoying the process, rather than getting to the destination. 

Not only is there no need for speed, but there’s also more of a reason to slow down. It’s far more likely to trip on a root when you are sprinting along the trail, rather than taking intentional and slow steps. The faster you move, the more likely it is that you’ll also miss the turnoff on the right trail. All of a sudden, your night hike can turn into an overnighter. 

A night hike doesn't need to be a long experience. You can pick a designated trail that is only a mile long, but it will still take a good amount of time. You need your night vision to adjust, and night hiking is just a slower activity than normal. A night hike is all about the time and how you choose to spend it.

Bring Plenty of Lights and Batteries

Personally, I’m a huge fan of night hiking without a headlamp. It can be a jarring experience at first that sounds like it’s only for lunatics and madmen. When you hike at night, a headlamp will only light up a certain area of the trail you are on. If your eyes are given the proper amount of time to adjust, you can start to see the entire forest around you. That being said, if you’re not comfortable hiking without a light then, by all means, bring plenty of lights. 

To be well prepared, bring multiple lights with a stash of extra batteries on hand. If you are relying on the headlamp to lead you on your way, it can be dangerous to watch those 500 lumens disappear into nothing. It doesn’t mean you need to drive your car back on the trail just to have the headlights, just some reserve AAA batteries and maybe another headlamp in case yours goes ka-put. 

Practice Headlight Etiquette

Have you ever felt frustrated by those people that drive with the brightest lights in the world because after they pass you, you can’t see the road for the next twenty seconds? This is comparable to someone walking up to you and trying to have a conversation with their headlamp pointed directly in your eyes. 

Sometimes proper headlight etiquette can be hard to follow. We forget that theirs a bright light strapped to our head, essentially turning us into a lighthouse. When a friend comes up to chat, it isn’t natural to always reach towards your head and turn off the upstairs light. It is, however, incredibly important. 

Proper headlight etiquette means remembering that you have a light on your head. Whenever you look towards someone, point the headlamp away, or turn it off. At the very least, turn it to the red light option. The color red doesn’t blast the cones of your eyes in the same way that white light does, so it won’t leave you completely blinded. 

Be Mindful of Wildlife

As it is with the daytime, you aren’t the only living creature that will be out and about at night. I’m not saying that you should walk around in fear of an owl swooping down and carrying you off into the abyss. Nocturnal animals are accustomed to living in the dark. They, like your friends, don’t appreciate bright lights being directed towards them. 

If we had eyes that were proportionate to our bodies as owls’ eyes are to theirs, we would have eyeballs the size of grapefruits. Imagine how much light our grapefruit eyes would take in. Now imagine what it would be like for a camera’s flash to go straight into your new, giant, eyes. Probably not nice, right? 

Animal sightings are pretty uncommon in low light conditions. When you do see them, they'll run off while you're taking photos and forgetting about your night hike. Experienced hikers know to look for the glow of the animal's eyes under their light to stay safe and avoid them.

Dress for the Weather

Sometimes the summertime heat can fool you into thinking a night hike will be a warm and relaxing experience. There are places in the world that have a 75-degree fluctuation in temperature between the daytime and the night. With such a huge swing, you need to be prepared to hike at night, because it’s guaranteed to be a bit different than during the day. 

It will most likely be a lot colder than you were experiencing during the day, and you'll want to stay warm on the night hike. That means bringing along an extra layer or two in case the temperature keeps on dropping lower. If you’ve been out all day in the sun and got a little burnt, those cold temperatures are going to feel even colder.

It can’t hurt to dress as if you were going for an autumn hike. You can take layers off if you get too hot, but you’ll be prepared for anything. Keep in mind that the night is not completely void of things like rain, so come ready to take on any level of weather. Most hikers love the layering system and dress appropriately by overpacking and taking the right safety precautions for cooler temperatures.

Pack Food and Water

It might seem ridiculous to need to even mention bringing water and food, but hiking at night can feel vastly different than prepping for a normal hike. It’s necessary to remind everyone that these are two necessities that we still need at night. Night hikes can serve as a great new way to have a traveling dinner on the trail as well. Turn your headlamp on its red-light setting, and set out on a night hike with a picnic basket at the end. It's a date the will make you use night vision and all of your other senses to get to know each other so much better.

Bring loads of treats along with you, as well as plenty of water. I suggest bringing a thermos of a hot tea or hot chocolate to counteract the colder temperatures that I just mentioned. It can do wonders for your soul and make night hiking much more enjoyable.

Go with the Familiar

If it’s your first time night hiking, you may find that in order to hike safely, you should choose a familiar trail that you have hiked often. The last thing you want is to find yourself in rough terrain and off-trail, so choosing your favorite trail that you know well is a great pick. This will help you to move forward without a ton of light. Who needs light when you have hiked a trail so many times, it’s almost muscle memory? 

A familiar trail can prevent a dangerous situation from arising. Here, you’re fully relying on your other senses. A familiar trail means that you have experienced these other senses in the same space before. Even without the sun, you will know how to navigate the different trails you hike all the time. 

Tell Someone of Your Plans

Just like with a normal hike where you have the light of the sun, it’s a bad idea to head out for a trip without telling anyone where you are going. The best idea is to always let someone know where you are going to hike and when you plan on being back. This way, they will know that if they haven’t heard from you by a certain time, they should start looking. 

Even on a familiar trail that you’ve hiked with hiking clubs, by yourself, or with the most amazing person that guided you every step of the way, you can still get lost. Accidents happen day or night, which means taking the proper precautions. 

This is one of the aspects of hiking that many people forget to do. It’s also one of the easiest things to do. Tell a friend or family member that you’re headed out to hike under the night sky and you can feel a sense of safety the entire time you are out. 

Hike Under the Moon

The natural light of the night varies greatly between the full and new moon. A full moon will light up the forest in ways that you can never achieve with a headlamp, but the new moon will leave you in the complete dark. 

If you pick a night with the full moon, you’ll have a ton of natural light coming down and lighting up the path. If you want to see the starry night sky, a new moon may be a better fit. If you are lucky enough to get far out into the country, you can escape the light pollution and truly see what the sky holds at night time. 

It’s important to remember that even without the light of the full moon, you can still see rather well. Humans have a decent level of night vision that just needs time to develop. It will, however, disappear instantly when there is a bright flash of light, so leave the flash photography at home. Nocturnal wildlife is filled with incredible adaptations to let them see better at night. While we don’t have these adaptations, we can still make our way around. 

Dangers of Hiking in the Dark

Hiking in the dark can add certain levels of danger to your hike. This can be as simple as a twisted ankle from a root you couldn’t see, or getting lost from missing a turn on the trail. Sometimes these dangers are just amplified from the dangers of hiking during the day. Nighttime can make things much more difficult, and therefore, more dangerous. 

Here are some main things to look out for while hiking in the dark. Some are the same risks you take when hiking at the peak of the day, but it’s important to remember they are still present at night. 

Getting Lost

Taking a wrong turn in the daytime is easy enough. Trust me, I’ve ended up on the wrong trail one too many times. All of a sudden, when the light goes away, getting lost at night is so much easier. You can’t see the small trails as easily as you can in the daylight, and it’s much more difficult to read a map in the dark. 

I highly suggest taking the familiar trail or going with a hiking club or other group at first. This allows you to get the experience of hiking at night. Once you have a higher level of experience, you can set out to find new trails that will challenge you. Remember, tell someone where you are going. If you get lost, someone will come to find you. 

Falling

Falling becomes much easier at night. We can get disoriented from the lack of light and are more prone to missing a root that is sticking up in our way. Not only will we fall more often, but it can also be a bit more dangerous as well. We can’t see where we are then falling, and don’t know how to best protect our body during the fall. 

One of the best ideas for hiking at night is to take high steps. It can feel a bit funky at first but will save you from hitting unexpected hazards and ending up falling on your face. 

Extreme Weather

Extreme weather conditions occur during the day and the night. They aren’t biased towards the hikers that only go out during the day, so you need to come prepared at night. When the extreme weather hits, it can be even more dangerous at night. Rain makes it nearly impossible to see, and lightning will take away your night vision in an instant. Extreme winds can lead to falling branches that you can’t see coming. 

No matter what, check your local forecast before going on a night hike. This way, you can be aware of what weather may come. Don’t make the mistake of heading out in extreme weather conditions that you didn’t expect. It can be one of the most dangerous, and potentially fatal, errors. 

Dehydration

A common thinking error while hiking is that you don’t need to drink as much water when it’s cold outside. This is actually the complete opposite. It becomes incredibly important to stay hydrated in the winter, or even during the cold evenings that you are out on a night hike. 

Proper hydration allows for your blood to move easily around your body. This is how all of your little fingers and toes get warm. With dehydration, blood struggles to get where it needs to go, meaning chilly little piggies that won’t want to go to the market. 

Foot Problems

Speaking of chilly little piggies, another danger of hiking at night is experiencing issues with your feet. There are loads of different ways that you can twist an ankle simply due to the lack of visibility at night. Wear sturdy hiking boots and watch where you step to best avoid any foot injuries while hiking at night. 

Rivers and Streams

Crossing moving bodies of water during the day is difficult enough. First off, I would suggest finding a trail that doesn’t require any crossing of rivers or streams unless there is a bridge set up. It is an incredibly dangerous situation to cross rivers without being able to see the other side well or even see into the water. 

In general, heed caution when approaching rivers and streams. They are dangerous beings that sweep people off their feet when they are at their best. It’s best to simply not add them into the mix. 

Snow and Ice

Snow and ice can actually help you out in the night time. The little bit of light that may be coming from the moon will reflect off the snow and light up the world around you. Even though it may bring a bit more light, it can be treacherous to move across.

With low levels of light, you won’t be able to see the texture of the snow very well and may miss a huge gap or hole. This can lead to a lot of time spent digging yourself out of a posthole or finally accepting defeat and laying down.

Black ice is a tricky creature no matter the time of day. At least during the day, there is the possibility of seeing some light glimmer off the ice. At night, that light barely exists and black ice lurks in the shadows, waiting. 

If it’s snowy and icy out, hike with microspikes or YakTrax. They’ll give you the grip you need for the unexpected moments of slipping and sliding. 

Wild Animals

Wild animals can pose a threat at any time of the day. Nighttime is not an exception to this rule. Nocturnal wildlife is just as dangerous as other critters during the day. It’s important to remember, you can still wake a bear if you walk over its den. It’s not only nocturnal animals that you need to be aware of. Carry bear spray, even though the chance of seeing a bear at night is significantly lower. 

Hunters

Hunters head out in the early morning light and the late twilight to get the animals that are the most active during these times. It can be a dangerous situation to be in the middle of. There are people out there with guns, looking to shoot something that’s moving. Try your best to not be that thing that’s moving. 

Look up the local regulations and be aware of where hunters may be at. You can take other precautions like wearing blaze orange during hunting season, which will really help. Also sticking to the trail is a great way to make your presence known. Try not to be a surprise to anyone, or anything. 

Getting the Right Gear for Night Hiking 

In order to have the best, and the safest, experience while out hiking at night, you’ll need to have the right gear. A lot of this has to do with the simple, and obvious, fact that it’s dark outside at night. Most outdoor gears wasn’t made to be used at night, the headlamp or flashlight being the one exception. 

Some brands have made specific gear for use at night, utilizing things like glow in the dark faces on a compass, or reflective stitching on paracord. 

Headlamps or Flashlights

The most obvious piece of gear on our list is a light source. This can be in whatever form you are the most comfortable with, but headlamps provide a hands-free option that makes hiking with trekking poles or lacing up a boot at night, that much easier. 

There’s an overload of options that come with the different brands and styles of headlamps or flashlights. There are a couple of things that you need to keep your eyes open for when shopping around. First, make sure you get a light with the ability to change the intensity of the white light. This helps to save on battery as well as see a bit further when you need to. It’s nice to adjust the brightness at night to meet your personal needs. 

Secondly, you want a headlamp that will have the red light option. Like I mentioned earlier, the red light doesn’t kill the cells in the rods of our eyes like a bright white light does. This allows you to keep your night vision intact while still being able to see. Plus, a red light is much softer and enjoyable when reading a book in your tent, or talking to a friend close up. 

The last thing that you should pay attention to is the number of lumens that the headlamp produces. In general, the higher the lumen output, the brighter the light is. This isn’t always true, however. Some lights don’t reflect the light effectively and can have a high number of lumens, but not make too much light in a focused direction. Keep in mind, the brand puts the lumen count on the box, and this is the maximum output of the headlamp. That also means it will die much quicker if you are functioning at a higher output. 

For the most part, a headlamp that is at or above 200 lumens should be sufficient. Personally, I carry a headlamp with a maximum output of 500 lumens and keep it at a low setting for most of the time. 

Three brands that stand out amongst the others are Petzl, Black Diamond, and Energizer. All three of them make quality headlamps that last a long time and give off a great level of light. Did I mention you should bring extra batteries? Your night vision won't run out while night hiking, but your AAAs will.

Nighttime Photography

If you’re trying to capture the night sky with your camera, you may need to look into an extra gear. This could be as simple as getting the right app installed on your phone, or getting a new lens for your camera. Night hiking is a great opportunity to practice a new skill like this. Getting into night hiking can be a great entrance to other hobbies as well.

Nighttime photography can be difficult, but when it is done with patience and determination, you can get a stellar shot of the stars that is unmatched by other forms of photography. 

Glow in the Dark Compass

Like we’ve talked a lot about, it’s possible to get lost when you’re night hiking. If this ever happens, it’s a good idea to have something like a glow-in-the-dark compass that will help you find your way back.

If you've ever dropped something while night hiking, you'll know that it's gone forever. Something that glows in the dark is a great move for when you may accidentally drop it into the leaves. It’s hard to find things, even with a bright headlamp. If it’s glowing, you are much more likely to find it to then find your way.

Backup Batteries and Portable Charger

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have extra batteries along with while night hiking. It’s important to check the level of the batteries you have in your headlamp already, and more important to have backups. If you end up out for a longer time, you may find yourself using up all of the juice quickly and needing more. 

A portable charger, like a battery stick, is also a great option. Some headlamps are rechargeable so you need to have the cord on hand and ready to plug in whenever the time comes. Either way, just make sure you have a way to supply more power to your light. 

Lighters or Matches

A lighter and matches should be a part of everyone’s basic kit that they pack before leaving home. At night, if you end up in a situation where you may have to stay outside overnight, you’ll be grateful that you have a way to start a fire without having to rub two sticks together. 

Bringing a lighter and matches shows that you are prepared. Don’t forget how important it is to also know how to use these tools. Learn how to build a fire, so if the time ever comes, you’re ready to set up shop and stay the night if need be. 

Don't Be Afraid to Get Out at Night

A night hike with the proper equipment, and more importantly the proper mindset, can be one of the most fascinating experiences you may have outdoors. It is a completely different experience than day hiking and will allow you to experience the trail in a brand new way. Many people like to hike during the day, but feel afraid to hit the trail in the evening.

Getting a different perspective of the trails that you feel the most connected to is a valuable insight into your relationship with the world. Hike the trails you love, and do it at night.

Night Hiking Safety FAQs

Here are our answers to your most commonly asked questions about hiking safety at night:

Is It Dangerous to Hike at Night?

Night hiking is only dangerous if you go out unprepared and ill-informed. The right equipment and the right knowledge will make night hiking a perfectly safe activity that can easily be done with kids or alone. While it can seem scary, night hiking is an incredibly fun activity once you get the hang of it. It only takes a few times until you’re itching to get back out at night.

What Do You Need for a Night Hike?

The biggest things you should have on your list for a successful night hike are a headlamp, extra batteries, and all of the normal things you take on a hike. It’s just not that different from a normal day hike! It can be easy to forget that you still need food and water in the dark, but these are key to bring along. Everything that normally comes along often can be illuminated and used the exact same way.

What Should You Not Do While Hiking?

Things to look out while night hiking are the nighttime critters that we aren’t accustomed to encountering throughout the daytime. That means we shouldn’t be wandering off trail or approaching any wildlife for any reason. The nighttime critters are also not used to seeing us, so it’s much easier to surprise them when out on the trail.

Ian Standard is an outdoor educator and wilderness guide based in Anchorage, Alaska. Most recently, he worked part-time at Alaska Crossings, a wilderness program for at-risk youth, and is currently studying for a Master of Science in Outdoor & Environmental Education at Alaska Pacific University.
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