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Planning a Hike: Sunrise and Sunset Times

You may be forced to eat in the dark if you get into camp after sunset
You may be forced to eat in the dark if you get into camp after sunset. This gets old, fast.

No matter how fast you hike, the distance you can walk in a day is largely a function of the number of hours of daylight you have at any given time of year. This is an especially important consideration in autumn and winter, when there are so few hours of daylight.

While it’s possible to hike in the dark, it can be difficult to see in the dark on a rough or snow-covered trail, or worse on a bushwhack. Whenever possible, I like to get to camp before sunset to take care of tasks that are best done with some daylight such as finding a good campsite, gathering wood, resupplying my water and hanging a bear bag.

To put this into perspective, I recently had a hiker email me to ask whether if he and his buddy could hike 17 miles in one day in late October on the first leg of a backpacking trip in the Wild River Wilderness in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

The first question I asked him was whether he knew how many hours of sunlight he had per day and when sunrise and sunset were. 

He prattled off about his route and how fast he and his buddy can hike, but he never answered my question – which lends me to believe that they were probably “benighted,” a somewhat dated term used to describe the unpleasant experience of hiking after sunset.

Sunset and Sunrise Calculator
Sunset and Sunrise Calculator

Web Page: http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php

While hiking after sunset with LED headlamps is a lot less consequential today than when it was before headlamps or flashlights were invented, it’s a hardship that I prefer to avoid. Granted, I do my share of alpine starts in winter, where we get up, eat breakfast, and break camp well before dawn, but it’s different when you know that sustained daylight is just an hour or two in your future.

Depending on your location, twilight may provide enough light for you to see without additional illumination, but barely
Depending on your location, twilight may provide enough light for you to see without additional illumination, but barely.

In addition to knowing the time of sunrise and sunset, it’s good to know when twilight is because it might provide just enough extra daylight to take care of your evening chores if you’re not in the shadow of big hills or mountains. While using twilight to find a campsite or hang a bear bag before it gets dark is pushing your luck, I’ve had to do it on trips to push through a bad bit of terrain.

So, whenever you plan a hike, one of the first questions you need to ask yourself is how many hours of daylight you have to hike and set up camp in. From there, you can plan out how many hours of hiking you have available, the approximate number of miles you can cover, and some possible campsite locations near the end of your day’s route.

18 comments

  1. I usually consider a 10 hour day a full day of hiking. This means that only the winter months, middle November to middle February, have fewer hours. Gone are the 14-16 hour days of summer. I agree, setting up camp and eating supper in the dark are not my favorite things.

    • Have a weekend trip coming up and sunset is at 5:39! Time to start bringing books to read before sleeping. Still worth it to spend the nights sleeping in the wilderness and climbing peaks during the day.

  2. You might like this site here that not only gives times, but also where the sun goes up, down etc. on google maps. Kind of nice :http://www.suncalc.net

    The worst part of winter hiking is that the nights are so long! It’s amazingly boring to lie around in a sleeping bag for 16 hours with nothing to do and the only place warm enough without moving much is the sleeping bag … :-)

  3. Here is FL we usually hike in the fall/winter/spring when the days are shorter. It is not unusual to have 12-13 hours of darkness so you have to plan well. When planning one should also take into account the difference between “official” sunset/sunrise and the amount of daylight you have in the mountains or deep woods. On our recent section hike the official sunset was 6:30ish but it was dark well before six down in the gaps. Cloud cover will also have an impact on useable daylight.

  4. I hike by what my Body and body clock say…I am not “Goal” orientated hiker and do not care so much about “getting there at all costs” , maybe in my youth, now I stop and smell and photograph and sometimes draw or paint the roses. I do not carry a Watch much any more. I just need a compass and two sticks and I can pretty well tell what time it is. And as far as Sunset well the Sun tells me. The whole idea for me is to get away from the Cling of Society and it’s various limits and tools. The only time I want to know what time it is, is in the morning due to False dawn which has fooled me a couple of times. I know you can’t use the Compass and two sticks system in the middle of the night, but you have the moon and I have my little weather Unit which has digital clock built into it.. And with the creation of the Petzel Tikka Headlamp series and freeze dried or dehydrated food I can set up camp and eat without a worry about it being dark. My favorite book(s) to bring along aside from a Poisonous Plant and Animal Guide are the Patrick McManus series of outdoor Humor. He appeared in Outdoor life for some 30 years on the backpage. Outdoor humor at it’s best and they say you sleep better after some laughing and a sleeping pill..er, sleeping aid..lols. that might be another good story for you..Legal Sleeping Aids and over the Counter Medications to bring and or Prescription medications.

  5. I love to night hike. I suppose it’s more like early morning hiking, but I really enjoy breaking camp early and logging miles before sunrise with my head lamp. I often plan my camp sites on the sides of mountains, so I can get to the summit before sunrise the next morning and have the place to myself. This also helps because I generally have a tight deadline to get back to my car, so logging 3 or 4 miles before the rest of world of is awake is a big help. On a well-marked trail like the AT, I’ve never had an issue following or finding the trail.

    I know from experience you really don’t want to do this in the fall. The trail becomes a lot harder to make out when the ground is covered in leaves, especially when the woods aren’t very thick. For reference, I did 49.8 miles in 3 days, averaging just under 17 miles per day in September. This included some early morning hiking and pushing fairly late into the evening. I’m planning a 3 day hike the weekend of November 8th in Southern Vermont and only doing 25.8 miles w/ 2 days of less than 10 miles and a “long day” of 12. I want to give myself plenty of time to find and make camp. I’ll likely pack up early, but don’t see myself hiking before day break.

  6. Definitely an important piece of information for planning hikes, especially long day hikes and overnights. For me, I like to throw in the moon times and twilight times as well. Knowing this information not only increases your safety factor, but I find that it adds to the enjoyment, because you know in advance what your chances are of hiking in the dark, and also should conditions change, you’re well aware of what your up against for easier on-trail decision making. With winter hiking, its not uncommon for some hikes to start and end in the dark.

  7. Other factors can be the phase of the moon, when it rises, and how much cloud cover there is. If there is a thick dark cloud cover, I don’t care when the sun rises or sets, it is just darker, add in some rain and it is black. But in dry weather with an early rise full moon and you can walk a few extera minutes to hours. Add in a light snow cover and you may be able to walk and even read without a light well after sunset.

  8. When trail hiking over moderate terrain I don’t see night as much of a problem. In my experience its mostly a mental barrier that once overcome opens up alot of possibilities. Just remember to carry an extra light source because replacement batteries don’t fix a broken bulb.

    I once did a night bushwask off a 4ker…never again. Worst 1am-4am ever.

  9. I just located a Mini-weather Station in a catalog that arrived today that is small then the one I wrote about.. The item fits on your Keychain..Features: Moon Phase, Temp and Humidity, memory function, alarm clock, with snooze, Calendar, date, day, year, built in compass and an LED light. Operates on two button cell batteries. To bad no Barometer..$14.99 at bitsandpieces.com

  10. Every GPS unit I’ve owned has also included sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset tables. Some have included tide charts (which aren’t of much use in the Whites).

  11. I like the SoLuna on my iPhone. Another choice is Moonrise (by AVIA) – they let you drop a pine on a map.

  12. A special note if you’re in dense forest and/or down in deep canyons (prime example is the Columbia River Gorge here in Oregon): Don’t count on any twilight after sunset–by astronomical sunset it’s already pretty dark. The Oregon (north-facing) side of the Gorge is in deep shade most of the day in winter. Add to that the dense cloud cover (usually raining) that we have most of the time for 9 months of the year, and you really want to be back to your car or settled in camp an hour before the sunset time listed on your local weather site!

    I personally don’t enjoy being stuck in my tent for 15-16 hours of darkness, so I don’t backpack between now and late February! YMMV, of course.

  13. Another thing I found with late fall hiking–reflective tent guylines are wonderful to find your tent after you’ve been wandering all over a big meadow by headlamp trying to find a way down to the stream (deep vertical banks on both sides) to get water! I won’t leave home without them! :-)

  14. I usually hike a bit before sunrise and want to be back before sunset. Don’t like walking around int he dark. This post about knowing how much daylight I have gives me a whole new way of scheduling my hikes. Annoyed with myself for not having thought about it this way. THANKS!

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