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.
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.
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.
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