Thursday 10 January 2013

In Praise of Night Hiking

Crescent moon above Strathspey

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for TGO magazine on the delights of night hiking, something I do often at this time of year. For two very different reasons I’ve been reminded of this piece and have decided to post it, slightly edited, here.

The first reason is that this autumn and winter there has been a string of stories about walkers needing rescuing because they’ve been stuck in the dark without a torch. Maybe it’s just that they’re reported more often but it seems to me that there have been more of these incidents than in other years. Now, hiking without a torch or headlamp is indeed foolish, as mountain rescue teams repeatedly point out. I carry one year round. However most of the rescue stories make the assumption that night walking is to be avoided if at all possible. I disagree. Walking in the dark is part of the whole outdoor experience and something to be relished not feared.

The second reason is that for the last three nights I’ve been watching the excellent Stargazing Live on the BBC and have been inspired to go out and watch the night sky. On two of the evenings the sky was clear and after the programme I went out and looked up at the great winter constellation of Orion, the brilliant planet Jupiter and the myriad stars of the Milky Way and thought with astonishment of how much we know about this unbelievably vast universe and how we are slowly exploring it.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on walking in the dark.


Early in the autumn of 2011 I was camping high in Coire Garbhlach above Glen Feshie in the Cairngorms when I was woken by a powerful gusty wind shaking the tent. Reckoning I would get no more sleep and knowing it would be light in an hour or so I packed up and set off into the black night. Slowly the darkness started to resolve itself into shades of grey. The hills were almost black against the slightly lighter overcast sky. The ground was mottled, tussocks of grass pale, clumps of heather dark. I could see just enough to walk without my headlamp, though I did stumble a few times on the uneven ground. Once my eyes had adjusted to the dark I began to enjoy being out in the night, out in a mysterious world that held the promise of innumerable possibilities. The coming of dawn, with flat light and a grey sky, was a disappointment. The world was ordinary again.

Crescent moon above the Cairngorms at dusk

Having walked in the night many times I wasn’t concerned at the idea of hiking down the rough corrie in darkness though I knew I would need to take care and progress would be slow compared to daytime. Time passes differently when walking in the dark anyway. The concentration required, even on easy terrain, means that the minutes flash by unnoticed. This is when walking without a light. Once you switch on a torch or headlamp you are locked into its beam. All that exists beyond that cone of light is blackness, broken only by faint silhouettes of trees or hills. Inside the light the world is familiar but it is so small and restricted that I find it confining and much prefer to allow my eyes to adapt to the dark and to walk in the night not apart from it in an LED bubble. Only on the darkest nights or in the densest forests do I use a light when walking. I always have one handy though so I can switch it on if I walk into a black space under a tree or boulder and suddenly can’t see. I may need it to check the map too. Whilst a light does affect night vision a little I find my eyes recover in a few minutes if I only have it on briefly.

When there’s a big bright moon a light may not be needed anyway, especially on open terrain where the ground is visible though rather pale and eerie and you can see faint shadows. Walk into a forest however and the bright moon can be a problem. Where it shines in open glades and meadows the walking is easy. But as with the light from a headlamp outside the moon’s light all is black and invisible. I sometimes use a light more walking under a full moon than on a moonless night. Walking under a bright moon is wonderful though, with the landscape a shadowy reflection of its daytime self. The yellow-white light shines off pale rocks, birch bark, pools of water and anything light –coloured so they shimmer softly. Shadows are solid black with no detail – anything could be in them. Lit areas are cool, bleached of colour and tone. The world is lovely and mysterious.

When there’s no moon and the sky is a brilliant mass of stars walking is harder, not because you can see less but because that great canopy of the universe is distracting, luring the eyes upwards to gaze out into the infinite. I stop frequently then to star watch without risk of falling. At other times the sky is overcast and holds little of interest unless the wind tears the clouds apart to reveal a solitary star or planet, suddenly bright and sharp in the black sky, or a half-hidden moon. Mostly, though, an overcast sky brings the eyes down to the landscape, to the dark columns of trees and the unusual shapes of boulders. 

After sunset on Meall a'Bhuachaille

Whilst there is much more to see at night than is imagined by those only used to lit streets and buildings or who always use a torch or headlamp one of the joys of night hiking lies in the amplification of the other senses. Hearing becomes much more acute. Tread on a stick and the crack as it snaps sounds like a gun shot. The rustle of a mouse in the grass sounds like a deer is crashing through the undergrowth. (This loudness of sounds makes night hiking in bear country, which I have done quite often on walks in North America, interesting. Concentration and stillness is required to adjust sounds closer to daytime reality and realise that a bear would be making much more noise and it’s a small rodent you’re hearing). The sense of smell is stronger too. I’ve often smelt the rankness of a deer or the sharp stink of a fox without ever seeing the animal. The aromas of trees and vegetation are distinctive and sometimes I can identify what plants are around me by the smell.

Sometimes night hiking is unintended, as in the anecdote with which I began this piece. Often though I set out to walk in the night, especially in the winter months when darkness is long. Rather than cram as much as I can into the seven or eight hours of daylight I set off before dawn and walk long after sunset. Because finding a camp site in the dark can be difficult I usually select an area in advance where I know there will be some suitable ground and then cast around for the best area when I reach that spot. This doesn’t always work out in unknown country though. On the Pacific Northwest Trail last year I lingered on a summit to watch a dark red sunset. From the map I thought there should be flattish ground and water not far from the top. But the trail led down a broad ridge with nowhere to camp and no water. An almost half-full waxing moon appeared in the sky followed by a single bright star. I followed the stony trail as it zigzagged down, just able to see it against the darker undisturbed ground either side. Below a ragged edge of dark forest rose to meet me. Once in the trees I was in and out of the moonlight and the walk became hypnotic as I descended thousands of feet for several hours before finally reaching a meadow and a creek. It was a glorious descent and tired though I felt I was glad I hadn’t found a camp site any earlier.


  1. Couldn't agree more Chris. Night walking is wonderful. Or at least can be. I particularly enjoy night walking in the winter under clear skies and a full moon with the land caked in snow. The whole world lights up to the point, you just don't need a torch when your eyes have adjusted.

    On a slight tangent, even if I try to avoid using a head torch on such walks, when conditions don't allow in recent years I've become annoyed with the brightness and space of beams on most head torches. They narrow your focus too much.

    Nowadays, I much prefer using a hand held torch. Usually set on 'flood' and with a level of brightness 99% better than most head torches. And it's cheap. eg, I paid £25 for a 200+ lumen hand torch from a local DIY store. On a narrow beam it's too much, but set to flood, it's much nicer and pleasant to use than any head torch I've used.

    Anyway, wonderful post and some very valid points raised.

  2. Totally agree. Unfortunately with night running you can't turn off the torch and run by moonlight alone and you do end up in your own little bubble of white light. I often take time to turn off the torch, let my eyes adjust and marvel at the wonder of it all.

  3. Chris, you should try the Google Sky Map Android app if you're out to look at the stars. A really magical wee app.

    1. Yes, I've got Google Sky Map. It is wonderful. In fact I've recommended it in the latest TGO.