Many walkers seem to shun night time, making a beeline for home as the shadows lengthen. But now that the nights are drawing in and the days shortening, hill trips are increasingly likely to start or finish in the dark. You might even make a special effort to get out overnight for its own sake. There's a lot to be said for night walking: getting the hills to yourself when the less adventurous are safely tucked up in bed; seeing sunsets and sunrises from on high; starlight, moonshine and temperature inversions; the way that darkness renders even familiar landscapes strange and new. There's really nothing to fear in the night. If you're new to the notion then these pointers should help shed a little light on it.
At the risk of stating the obvious, you really do need to see where you're going. Modern LED torches are compact, powerful and energy efficient. Some of the best of the current crop are reviewed in a 2013 UKC group test (see here).
Backup batteries are a good idea, but what if you lose your torch, or it fails altogether? In these days of lightweight lamps it's arguably better to double up on torches, thus covering yourself for more possible cockups than batteries alone. If you're keen to save every gram then the emergency light could be smaller and less powerful than your primary torch. In this role something like Petzl's E+Lite would be ideal (see review here).
Torchlight can be dazzling in mist, rain or snowfall. With a high light source, such as a headtorch, ground detail can also appear washed out and shadows are cast forwards, making a stumble more likely. If this is proving problematic try holding the torch in your hand, off to one side perhaps, so that lumps and bumps are betrayed by their shadows.
It's often surprising how far you can go on eye power alone. If you're only turning on the torch to periodically check the map then try not to dazzle yourself, as it can take some time for night vision to recover. Pick a torch that has the option of a low power output. If possible use a red light too - most people find this colour has the least impact on their night vision.
In the pitch dark of a cloudy, moonless night, distant landmarks are going to be totally obscure, and the sphere of your vision will effectively shrink to the range of a headtorch beam. Conversely, with clear skies and a fat moon bright enough to cast shadows across the ground, you've got the next best thing to broad daylight, and it may be perfectly possible to negotiate complex terrain without the aid of a torch. Timing your nights out to capitalise on the available moonlight is clearly a good idea. Lunar-lit walking is especially rewarding when there's snow cover on the hills.
Unless you're utterly sure of your navigation then stumbling around in thick mist, at night, is only making things doubly difficult for yourself. Hours of lashing rain will be even less fun at night than during the day too. Benign clear conditions are safer and far more enjoyable, so if you're planning a night time trip then keep an eye on the forecast. There's no disgrace in being a fair weather night walker.
Darkness can do funny things to the sense of scale, steepness and distance, rendering hills confusing or even a bit scary. If you are taking your first tentative steps into night walking then it may be advisable to pick a location you already know from daytime visits. Shorter, less compicated routes are probably best, since even an area you thought you knew like the back of your hand will look far less familiar at night. Stick to obvious paths too, particularly in murky conditions.
Once you've misplaced yourself it's obviously going to be harder to re-orient in the dark than it might be in daylight, so it's far better not to get lost in the first place. It's worth being particularly attentive with your map and compass, religiously checking off your position against obvious landmarks as you pass them. If possible try to follow linear features such as fences or streams, and consider using pacing or timing to estimate the distance travelled. Even when features that are obvious in daylight are invisible in the dark you can still pick up clues from your surroundings - for instance the aspect of the slope you're standing on. A GPS would be a useful night-nav backup, but as always don't rely on it at the expense of more traditional skills.
It's usually colder at night, surprise surprise, and you'll probably be moving slower too. Dress appropriately. If you do become hopelessly lost, or stray onto dangerous terrain, then you may have to sit it out for the night and wait for daylight. Make sure you're carrying enough spare clothing to make this a viable option, and bring a bothy or bivvy bag.
Darkness may instinctively feel more sinister, but seriously, get a grip. There are no ghoulies or ghosties. That hair-raising cackle is just a bird; those spooky glowing eyes are only sheep. Probably.
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