With summer temps starting to redline the thermometer it’s getting harder to get out for a run and beat the sun. But what if you could just hit the trails in the cool of night? Karl’s put together this guide to trail running at night so that you can do exactly that. Did someone say ‘sunset runs’?
I’d always wanted to try trail running at night, even though my usual escapades see me kick off at the first hint of light, not the first hint of dark. Distant, sweeping views and predictability were about to make way for a small bubble of light and mysterious shadows. Here’s what I learned from my first night trail run.
Before charging off into the night on your own, consider going with someone else to take the edge off. The last thing you want to do is get lost, stuck or worse under the cover of darkness when everyone else is tucked up inside watching Netflix. In my case, I decided to partner up with my fearless UTA50 crushing wife Sarah. A trail boss, day or night.
If you can’t find a buddy (or even if you can) it’s worth letting others know of your route and when you expect to be back for safety purposes.
Before Heading Out
It’s important to understand what you’re about to run into, because you won’t see most of it. Check things like the trail conditions under daylight, the immediate weather forecast and fire hazards. It’s also a good idea to familiarise yourself with the overall route and possible exit points.
A headlamp is the number one essential item that you need to run at night. Without one, it’s virtually impossible. Although I have heard of people running at night purely under the light of a supermoon, but that’s another story.
There are a variety of different headlamps available that have varying levels of light they cast, all measured in lumens. I was lucky enough to get hold of the upcoming 2019 Black Diamond Spot which boasts a huge 325 lumens. I gave this to Sarah to take for a spin and I wore my usual Black Diamond Iota with less lumens at 150. Make sure you also take spare batteries and maybe a backup headlamp for longer, wilder runs (the Spot has a 65 hour burn time on high though, so if you’ve got one of them you’ll probably be ok!)
To save yourself from getting lost, make sure you take a fully charged phone with GPS enabled. It’s your map*, your lifeline if you need to make an emergency call and also a backup torch. Certain phones also have functionality where you can share your location for a period of time with your contacts. There are also apps that do this. It’s a good idea to let friends or family know where you are going, especially if it’s a long distance or really remote run. You might also want to download offline maps if you won’t be able to rely on reception.
*Best practice is to also bring a physical map as batteries die. Many runners avoid the need for this by only running at night on trails they know well.
As day turns to night, the climate can change drastically. As soon as the sun drops, there’s a noticeable drop in temperature that can be exaggerated by wind and sweat. You need to be prepared for these changes, so pack some extra protective clothing.
For us, it was a reasonably windy day so Sarah packed an easily accessible Black Diamond windshell in case she needed it after dark — the 2019 Distance windshell comes in at under 100 grams, packs into its own pocket and uses a techy new environmentally-friendly and water-resistant coating, sweet!
We also included an emergency blanket and bandages. If the weather is particularly cold a beanie or a properly warm set of layers are good survival gear if you have to spend the night.
Hydration & Nutrition
These are possibly more important than in the daytime; in the event that you inadvertently take a wrong turn and need to spend a night on the trails waiting for first light some food and water will help you stay alert and clear headed . But again if you’re well prepared, it’s unlikely this will happen. And if it does, you get a night under the stars without a soul around! (trying to put a positive spin on it here).
Starting At Dusk
We arrived at the start of one of our local trails about 30 minutes before the ‘official’ sunset time. This meant we got to enjoy one of my favourite times of day before voyaging into darkness. It’s sublime when there isn’t another soul around and you’re out in the sticks. Stop and listen for a few minutes before you start and soak it all up.
When there’s still some light remaining it allows you to get familiar with the terrain and your surroundings. Your eyes will slowly adjust to the darkness and your night vision will be fully charged. It’s like turning the volume up slowly on the car stereo when your kid wants Justin Bieber, rather than BANG, full-volume, surround-sound Biebs; you have to ease yourself in to these challenges! Save the batteries on your headlamp, there’s no need to switch it on just yet as your eyes can still do a lot of the work.
Once it starts getting challenging to read the terrain underfoot and see what’s approaching, it’s time for headlamps. There’s no set time you should to do this, just a gut feeling that says ‘maybe that last tree branch came too close’.
The Black Diamond Spot is ridiculously powerful and the level of light can be adjusted by holding down the button. Starting with a slightly lower level of light allows you to save a bit of power. It’s also easily adjustable and super comfortable on the forehead. Whatever headlamp you use, make sure it will hold its position whilst running and has a well-focused beam.
Move the beam of light to a position in front of you that allows you to see the detail in the terrain with a bit of what’s coming up next. You may need to tweak it as you go.
Back In Black
When night sets in, it’s an intense level of darkness. If you’re deep in a trail away from civilisation, there are no street lights, house lights or car lights. Just you, your headlamp and maybe a bit of moonlight if it’s near full on a clear night.
It can be pretty unnerving at first if you’ve never done it before, which is why it’s a good idea to run with someone else. But there is something mysteriously exciting and motivating about it. As you run through the dark, try to relax. New sounds start to activate around you, sometimes pretty loud and unfamiliar. But this all adds to the experience and makes it feel so different to running during daylight hours. Your mental load increases when you run in the dark. You’ll find yourself concentrating more intensely on where you’re going and what you’re stepping on, or about to step on. So don’t rush, it’s ok to slow down below your usual pace as you’ll start to enjoy it more.
The temperature is noticeably different after dusk and drops a few degrees after nightfall. If a wind picks up, even running may not completely take the edge off and it can feel even cooler. Wearing some light protection against the wind makes all the difference and leaves your body temperature where it should be so you can crack on and enjoy the experience.
Also be aware that there may be wildlife around, so stick to wider trails if possible. It’s not uncommon to come close to freshly spun spider webs or see the odd python here and there.* But it’s their hood so leave them to it if you encounter them.
As you explore, keep adjusting the brightness of your headlamp until you find that sweet spot in front of you where you can better react to what’s coming. I found that it’s the detail immediately in front of me that I wanted more of, rather than 5m into the background. My headlamp was only pumping out 150 lumens and didn’t push that deep into the distance, so I utilised it for my immediate terrain. Sarah’s 325 lumens definitely made a noticeable difference so she ran in front.
*If you do run into a spiderweb simply stop and walk backwards, you only get caught in a web if you dance around like a fly. Also don’t stress, dangerous spiders don’t construct the kind of web you’re likely to run into.
Go For A Trail Run At Night
It was awesome — a completely different experience to trail running during the day. You have to try it to know what it feels like. Your senses get activated in so many new and exciting ways and you really feel energised after running. I’m already lining up the next one.
- 2x Headlamps (one for backup)
- Spare batteries
- A fully charged GPS-enabled phone
- Space blanket / warm gear if running in colder weather
- Lightweight wind or rain protection
Photos by Karl Reynolds | magiccloud.com.au
Trail Running Tips