Hiking after Dark

In the Dark, Maine Appalachian Trail

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.

Tunnel Vision

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.

Sunset at Unknown Pond
Sunset at Unknown Pond

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

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.

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  1. One item that I like to carry for night hiking is sunglasses with interchangeable lenses. I use either clear or yellow lenses at night to prevent getting poked in the eye by branches that overhang the trail.

  2. Philip- the few times I have hiked after dark I’ve worn my head lamp attached to my waist. This position will cast a shadow even off of low objects.

    • Interesting. You must have a tiny waist to fit into the headlamp strap!

    • An issue with moving the headlamp from forehead to waist is that your ability to dodge face shots by lateral or overhanging branches is greatly compromised, making eye protection critical. When you have a lamp on your forehead, catching a branch in the face is something you’d almost have to *work* at: each such threat gets brightly illuminated in your foreground in plenty of time for you to react.

  3. My Petzl headlamp can unclip from the head strap so you can clip it onto other things like a belt. I’ve never tried this before but that sounds like a cool idea. I went off trail into a cave I found this past weekend on my trip so I’m really glad I brought my headlamp along!

  4. Snow/monorail + good moonlight + No headlamp = Awesome

    I literally don’t do anywhere without my Black Diamond lamp though. Outside of hiking and backpacking, that and my knife are my constant companions in my EDC.

  5. in addition to the head light, i use a bicycle light that is attach to my trekking poles. that cast a shadow on the trail which help depth perception and reveals all the detail of the terrain in front of me.

    • I really like that idea.

      Alternatively, if you don’t use poles, how about carrying a knuckle type flashlight like the ones used by runner? I think having a backup headlamp is a very smart idea but would that make a good backup to replace the second headlamp? Mind you, the arm position is not the same as when running (unless you’re power hiking).


  6. I carry two Photon Micros plus an extra battery (apparently REI no longer sells it)…


    At about 10 grams it was the lightest option I could find. For hiking after dark I use the hands-free clip to attach it to my waist belt.

  7. I bring two headlights and an extra set of batteries. I also put fresh batteries in the lights I have. I keep them in a zipper pocket on the back of my pack where I can easily find them–something I learned the hard way. Sometimes, I hold a light like a flashlight so that the shadows show up the texture of the trail better. I also keep a micro light clipped to my pack for quick access.

    I’m so familiar with some of my regular hiking trails that I’m not all that afraid to finish up after dark, however, with new territory comes challenges that can make things dicey.

    As has been stated, the peripheral visual cues are lacking at night. It’s even worse with fog, as I found out last Thanksgiving. I was backpacking with two grandsons in the mountains of Arkansas and I got us several hundred yards off the poorly maintained trail while hiking through what seemed to be the opening in the trees. We turned around, backtracked until we found the trail and continued. When the route started down the mountain, I knew we’d overshot the camping area, so we backtracked again. The clearing for our camping was off the trail a bit and it was only by accident that I found it.

    Later that night, I got completely turned around when I decided to take care of business at a lonely tree a couple hundred feet from the camp site. In the foggy woods, I couldn’t figure out which way was back to the tent. I got up on some rocks and was about to start hollering to get the grandkids up when I saw a faint glow where they’d left a light on to alleviate their fear of bears.

    • I has a similar thing happen to me over the weekend. I’d hung a bear bag and headed back to camp but couldn’t find it and had to backtrack several times. That hasn’t happened to me in a long time, but I was in a stealth site in the middle of nowhere so it rattled me. I eventually saw the flashing light in my camp and zeroed in.

  8. I did learn from that. I will always hang a light at the campsite when leaving it after dark. Had I been alone, I’d have had to hole up for the night in wet, miserable conditions, an embarrassing and dangerous situation.

  9. Good analysis. I hadn’t been bringing the extra batteries. Now I will. Thanks

  10. Good post Philip. I enjoy hiking at night and those early AM starts. I related to just about everything you mentioned. Making decisions while hiking at night is also more difficult, so it is important to think them out and not make them quickly, and being prepared is the key to that. With winter coming, this is a timely post.

    I carry a Princeton Tec Fuel Headlamp that’s been good to me and a Brookstone Waterproof Flashlight. I always carry one extra AA for the Brookstone and for longer hikes I will add the extra three batteries for the headlamp.

    • A great point Dan. It’s amazing how stupid you can be in 60 mile an hour winds above treeline. Preparation is the key to a safe journey in winter.

      You’ve really been cranking out some serious hikes this year. I’m blown away by the hikes you’ve been doing!

  11. My ability to estimate distances traveled is greatly reduced when hiking in the dark. I generally feel like I should already be at the stopping point long before I get there. Then again I have hiked right past where I have expected to stop also.

  12. I love night hiking, and I do it whenever possible. And, as a frugal Yankee, I try to preserve battery juice by walking as much as possible by pure moonlight.

  13. When I did my AT thru-hike, my wife, Jane, suggested I wrap some 3M reflective tape around my hiking poles. It was extremely prescient of her. On several back roads, getting into town at night, the lamp batteries went dead, but that tape was almost as good as a light, and with movement, drivers did see me and picked me up.

    Another night, in Vermont, I couldn’t find my hammock. I had gone to the shelter to be with the crowd and it really got dark on the return trip into the woods. I had made a habit of sticking my hiking pole in the ground near the entrance (my only “weapon” if I had a bear visitor in the night) and when I shined the light into the woods, I easily found the hammock.

    The other cool thing about the woods at night, with a lamp, is spotting the various animal eyes that are watching you. I got pretty good at identifying various species. Sometimes, moths and other insects looked like eyes too.

    • Dennis – I always put reflective guylines on my shelter for much the same reason. It’s saved my ass on many occasions.

  14. One thing to add is dealing with thick fog/mist at night. I’ve found that head lamps with a bright red LED option is a bonus in these rare situations. I once had mist/fog so thick (I live in the PNW) you could barely see your feet with white light but after switching to red it was not a problem. Not many headlamps have this option but after this experience I won’t buy one without it. The PT remix is what I use but I’m sure there are others.

  15. I am one of those who like night hiking. I didn’t use to. It took some practice and confidence.
    I hiked one of my toughest sections of trail at night(Catskills, Devils Path, Indian Head Mountain), no moon and overcast. So it was pitch black out.

    At first I was uneasy about the thought, but as I was doing the last few scrambles down, I realised I was having a blast.

    I try to set the brightness of my lamp so it’s not too bright. I find that the brighter the light, the worse the depth perception and tunnel vision.

    Another thing to consider is that color perception can be poor while night hiking. A leaf floating in a creek can look like a good rock to step on, mud can look like solid ground and other visual clues get lost.

    I have come to bring two very small/light lamps, one flood type and one narrow spot. I usually use the one with the flood setting for around camp and general hiking, but if I need to pick out distant objects, the spot is a near necesity.

    Having two lights also means you have a backup for when one fails.

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