I am not a huge fan of hiking after dark but it’s something you need to be prepared for on day hikes and backpacking trips. Despite your best planning efforts, it sometimes takes longer than you expect to reach your destination and you need to hike by the light of a headlamp. This is particularly true on winter or off-trail hikes when trail or route conditions can slow you down far more than expected.
If you don’t carry a headlamp with you on hikes, you really should, together with a spare set of batteries. The consequences of not having a headlamp if you need one are simply too high to risk it.
I go as far as to carry two headlamps on hikes including spare batteries, but I do a lot of very long, high mileage day hikes and bushwhacks that often end with a hike out after sunset. Bringing a second headlamp means that I can quickly switch between the two without fumbling around in the dark.
The two headlamps I use are a Black Diamond Icon and a Black Diamond Spot. The Icon is insanely bright, throws a 100 meter beam, and lasts up to 75 hours on its high setting. While heavier than the Spot because it has an external battery pack, it’s worth carrying because I find that my eyes need a lot of light to see at night. I carry the Spot as a SOL backup and mainly use it inside my shelter when I want something less bright and easier to sleep with in my sleeping bag or quilt.
If it’s clear that darkness is going to fall before I’m off the trail, I take my headlamp out of my pack about 30 minutes before sunset, so I can have it easily at hand before complete darkness descends. It’s hard to predict exactly when it will become too dark to see and I don’t want to have to stop and fumble around in my pack for a headlamp in the dark.
Hiking in the dark is very different than hiking in daylight. For one, you have far fewer visual cues to help you see where the trail is. For example, if you’re hiking on an un-blazed or poorly blazed trail, it can be very easy to lose the trail if the ground is covered with rocks or roots. It’s even worse in autumn, when the ground is covered with dead leaves.
A big part of the problem is that you can’t see the normal peripheral visual cues on the sides of a trail that are clearly visible in daylight. These can include blazes, trees and shrubs, stone or log borders, retaining walls or sloping contours. Take these cues away, and it can be difficult follow a trail beyond the tunnel of light thrown by your headlamp.
Depth perception also becomes more challenging at night because a bobbing headlamp doesn’t cast a consistent shadow. It’s even worse in snow when the surface of the ground is more uniform and there are few surface features that are high enough to create a shadow.
Water crossings also become far more challenging because you can’t tell what part of a rock or stream bed is submerged and what part is above water For instance, hikers sometimes step directly into streams that have sandy bottoms because it looks like they’re stepping on solid ground.
As the days get shorter, it become increasingly difficult to ensure that you will complete a long day hike or reach your backpacking destination before dark. The best preparation is to hike with a headlamp (or two) and practice your route-finding skills in the dark to ensure that you are on the right bearing home.