You Hike at Night? Are You Nuts?

You Hike at Night? Are You Nuts?

When I tell folks that I enjoy hiking at night in the dark by myself, they look at me like I’m nuts. Well, perhaps I am, but when I’m asked why I would do something so dangerous, my response is simply this: I feel much safer hiking by myself in Mount Rainier National Park at 2:00 in the morning than I would in Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle at the same time. I have a pretty good idea about what I’m going to run into in the park, but no clue what kind of nut-case I’m going to stumble across in the big city.

Now, that said, I don’t actively go out looking for trouble. I know the risks, and I do what I reasonably can to mitigate them. For example, I would never hike alone in grizzly country, even in the daytime. One of the keys to staying safe around grizzlies is to travel in groups so the beasts don’t see you as an easy target. Also, I wouldn’t go wandering off trail, or on rough terrain where the likelihood of an accident is higher. I prefer areas that are more open so I can see where I’m going more easily, as well as what’s lurking nearby. In fact, I usually get situated in the location where I’ll be doing my shoot before it gets dark, and I don’t tend to move much until it’s time to hike out.

I always carry my Personal Locator Beacon where I can easily reach it. A PLB is a device that alerts authorities by satellite to initiate a search and rescue. It’s obviously for extreme cases where self-rescue is deemed impossible, and of course, I would need to be conscious and partially mobile to be able to use it. And I always carry bear spray on a holster on my belt. Even if I’m not in bear country, I find it reassuring to have a highly concentrated pepper spray readily available, just in case.

Finally, I always, always, let someone know where I’m going and when to expect me back. I don’t want to end up like Aron Ralston of 127 Hours fame.

It’s not that I don’t want the company of others, although I admit it is an amazing feeling to be out there in the wild in the still of the night with no one around. It’s just that it’s not always possible to find someone interested in doing the outing you’re planning at the particular time when you’re ready and able to go. But I have been on several photo outings with other Mountaineers where we all hiked out in the dark.

One example was the time six of us traveled to Glacier National Park and decided to photograph the Milky Way from a remote spot up in the mountains. We hiked up in the late afternoon amid throngs of tourists, and returned well after midnight in the spooky darkness, not a soul in sight except for our group.

Milky Way From Hidden Lake Overlook, Glacier National Park, Montana

Milky Way From Hidden Lake Overlook, Glacier National Park, Montana

On another occasion we hiked to Eunice Lake in Mount Rainier National Park to try to get reflections of the mountain in the lake at sunset. It wasn’t an interesting sunset, but seldom can you expect to get images worthy of National Geographic magazine by wandering out to a pretty location once and hoping for a miracle. This is a discipline that takes perseverance and many repeated trips to a location to learn its nuances and catch it at its best.

Mount Rainier Reflected in Eunice Lake at Twilight, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Mount Rainier Reflected in Eunice Lake at Twilight, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

So why do night hikes in the first place? Well, as I’ve already suggested, one reason is that it’s a good way to get away from lights when doing Milky Way or other celestial photography. And, of course, photographers love the magical light that tends to be most dramatic right around sunrise and sunset. Typically the locations where you want to be during these critical times are miles away from the trailhead, so you’re either going to hike in in the dark before sunrise, or hike out in the dark after sunset. It is possible to camp near some of these locations, but more often than not the spots that make the best campsites also are nowhere near the prime photo spots. Campgrounds tend to be in sheltered areas, while the best spots for compelling images tend to be the most exposed, so even if you backpack in, you’re frequently going to have to do some travel in the dark to get from your tent to where you want to be for the best images.

Some of my images that involved night hiking are pretty obvious, like the Milky Way and star trail photographs. Others are not quite as obvious. For example, this image from Spray Park in Mount Rainier National Park was several miles away from my campground at Mowich Lake, requiring a hike out in the dark after the sunset shoot.

Pink Mountain-Heather in Spray Park Meadow, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Pink Mountain-Heather in Spray Park Meadow, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

I also tried a sunset shoot on the John Muir trail in Yosemite National Park, but clouds to the west blocked the sun at the critical time. All I got was this earlier image of Liberty Cap and the Nevada Fall, but I still ended up hiking out after dark.

LIberty Cap and Nevada Fall, Yosemite National Park, California

LIberty Cap and Nevada Fall, Yosemite National Park, California

So it turns out that in the world of photography, as well as just about anything in life that’s worth doing, sometimes you have to go the extra mile to get the job done. And if that extra mile happens to be in dead of night on a lonely trail, well, that’s just the price we sometimes have to pay to fulfill our passion!

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4 Responses to “You Hike at Night? Are You Nuts?”

  1. Sue-Z says:

    Beautiful photo’s. I have tried several attempts to accompany you. This summer I will have hiking boots ready as soon as the sun goes down!

  2. Frances Trudell says:

    Lovely photos. So the secret is “hiking at night?”

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