Illustration by James Weston Lewis
Standing on a shelf of rock looking toward the High Peaks, I realized my mistake. I had no headlamp, no source of light, and the sky was already a bruised shade of purple and red. Shadows crept over the valley below. As I watched, the sun slipped away behind the mountains.
I was scared and set off at a run for the trailhead, knowing it was already too late. Dark would find me in the woods unprepared. As I moved, the light dwindled. It was like one of those spooky fairy tales, the path fading cruelly from view, then abruptly vanishing. It was pitch black under the canopy of trees and I was stuck.
This may sound like a crazy way to introduce the beauty of night hiking, but it’s important to start with the basics. A lot of forest ranger reports detailing the struggles of lost and stranded Adirondack hikers can be summed up in a single sentence: they didn’t bring a headlamp. That was me. It’s crazy how casually we leave behind such an essential tool.
The simple fact is that your headlamp (and your backup source of light and your spare batteries) are your superpower. They magically transform a scary Split Rock–style experience (which ended safely, thanks to a bit of unearned luck) into something cool and liberating.
So any time you leave a trailhead, no matter the time of day, the season or your intentions, you must have a trustworthy light shoved in your pocket or in your pack.
Now the fun part. A few months ago, I set off into the Hurricane Mountain Wilderness at three a.m. in total darkness, this time happily on purpose and properly prepared. My goal was to reach the fire tower on the summit in time to watch the sunrise. A clean, confident beam of light swept ahead of me on the trail, like a guiding spirit.
Night hiking can be a little eerie, especially when you’re solo. Outside your tiny pool of illumination, everything is ink black. Shadows shift like dark curtains. It feels at times like a journey through an underworld. On this night it was perfectly still at first: no wind, no birds, just the sound of my boots scuffing over pine needles and rock. Crossing a boardwalk through a wetland on the flank of the mountain, I paused to look at the stars and listen to a few sleepy frogs chirruping.
One obvious question is … why? Why come to a place as beautiful as the Adirondacks only to travel the woods in a tunnel of darkness? There are some practical answers. To reach mountain summits at sunrise, you have to begin your climb in the middle of the night. Getting on the trail super early is also a great way to beat the park’s swelling crowds. It’s also a simple fact that in late autumn and winter, daylight is scarce. Many backcountry trips of any scale will have to begin or end in darkness—often both.
But there is also beauty and a meditative peace to night hiking. The trek up Hurricane was dreamlike. A simple stream crossing was transformed into a Japanese wash painting. A patch of moss and fern caught in the glare of my light flashed neon green. The sense of physical touch, fingers brushing tree bark and stone, felt more intense.
As I moved, the sky started to simmer through the trees, a lilac predawn glow so faint it seemed at first like something I was imagining. Then in the last half-hour of climbing, the birds came awake. A banditry of chickadees moved through the shadowy hemlocks just above my head. Darkness and stillness were replaced by mother-of-pearl colors and echoes of birdsong.
The rocky crown of Hurricane was a revelation at that hour. It smelled of warm dust and pine. The distant mountains all around were dusk blue, topped in mist; it was still night in the valleys.
I had the summit to myself. Maybe the biggest reward of night hiking is the solitude, the sense of a deeper remoteness, a more primal wildness.
Up ahead stood the metal tower with its little cabin on top. Scrambling up, the view opened even wider as the eastern sky unfurled. Just after five a.m. the sun flushed red on the horizon, coloring the Adirondacks with rose light. In that moment, as the last darkness washed away, the world felt ancient and entirely new.
Brian Mann is a correspondent for National Public Radio who makes his home in Westport when not traveling on assignment. He’s lived in the Adirondacks since 1999 and is a former reporter for North Country Public Radio and a longtime contributor to Adirondack Life.
IF YOU GO
Hiking in the dark can be a pleasure—magnificent night skies and little traffic on trails and summits. But Department of Environmental Conservation forest ranger Rob Praczkajlo reminds hikers to consider the following:
• Bring two headlamps with backup batteries. Do not rely on your phone’s flashlight.
• Bring a water-purifier. Hikers often require rescue because they’re dehydrated. Most Adirondack peaks are covered in streams and other water sources.
• Night hikers tend to spend more time on a summit, stargazing and appreciating the scene. Carry a 400-level synthetic insulated jacket, even in warm weather, and an 800-level in winter. Expect below-zero temps at high elevations any night of summer.
• Wear supportive, well-broken-in footwear that’s appropriate for mountain terrain.
• Only hike if you’re in shape for the physical exertion required.
• Bring a paper map and compass. Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Sign in at the trailhead.
• Consider a locator beacon. Today’s technology is incredible and subscriptions are inexpensive.
• Accidents happen. No matter what your plan, even if it’s a day hike, be prepared to spend 6 to 8 hours on the trail should you need to be rescued. That might mean a long night on a mountain.