Guest post: hiking in the dark

A few weeks ago, Brent and I went on a hike on a northern section of the M-M Trail we’ve been hiking in stages. Our hike was fairly unplanned, and we didn’t begin the 7.5 mile trek until nearly 5pm. As it was the middle of October, we knew we wouldn’t have much daylight left to hike in, but we’ve night-hiked before so I wasn’t too concerned.

Both of us brought flashlights, though I doubted we would actually use them.

We reached the summit of Little Monadnock Mountain just as the last light of dusk faded from the sky. We could barely see an outline of Grand Monadnock Mountain looming in the clouded distance. We still had another three miles of hiking to get down into the town of Troy, and I knew if it was this dark on the summit, it would be darker within the trees. The overcast sky wouldn’t help either.

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Previous night hikes with Brent have always been on familiar trails. The first time he asked me to lead the way without flashlights was near the Horse Caves at the base of Mt. Norwottuck—a section of trail that he has done countless times. I trusted his knowledge of the trail to get us out of the dark woods safely.

Another time, we had to hike in near darkness through trees brought down by a bad snowstorm. They completely covered the trail; we had to weave through and around on and off the trail. I had no idea how he could see where he was going, let alone keep us on the right path.

Brent has instructed me on these trips to use peripheral rather than direct vision, and to pay extra attention to the other senses (particularly sound and feeling) for guidance. I always just took him at his word, feeling blind and following his silhouette through the trees.

On this trip up Little Monadnock, though, I think I finally got it.

Neither of us had hiked that section of the M-M before. We just followed the white trail blazes, trusting they led us in the right direction. But as it grew darker the blazes became harder and harder to see. I thought I could see one up ahead, but when I focused on it, my vision would blur and I would see nothing.

I’d look away and swear it was there again.

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I grew panicked fairly often and would have to talk myself down. I wanted my flashlight; it would make it so much easier to see, but I didn’t want to ruin anything for Brent. I knew he enjoyed testing his senses like this. I just wanted the comfort of knowing for sure where I was going. It also felt silly putting all of my trust in him to lead the way.

Slowly, I began to realize that my peripheral vision saw contrasts clearer than my straight-on vision. 

Offsetting my gaze from a direct line of sight allowed me to see details more clearly, even in the dark. So when I thought I saw a blaze, but it would be gone when I looked straight at it, it wasn’t that I was seeing things; it was literally just how my vision works in the dark.

The other thing I noticed was when the trail made a sharp turn that we missed we would know instantly that we weren’t on the trail any longer. With all the freshly fallen leaves, every step was crunching through the debris (perfect for a shelter, according to Brent), so I thought it would be difficult to tell when we crunched on trail-leaves or not-trail-leaves. Yet it was obvious.

The ground simply felt different under my feet. 

It was softer, not as compacted perhaps. I would take a step or two and say, “Well, this isn’t the trail,” and back track. I was so surprised at how easily this was perceived.

My final realization from this night-hike was how much more in-tune with my surroundings I was. Normally on a hike, I’m scanning my vision around looking at everything, stopping to notice a wintergreen patch, or partridge berries, or a chipmunk hole. I chat away about everything that comes to mind with the knowledge that how loud I am is most likely frightening away any wildlife well before I arrive.

But at night, all of my focus was on where the next step. Am I on the trail? Is that a blaze on the tree up there? Neither Brent nor I spoke for most of the descent, except when we were trying to determine where the trail went through an open field or down a rock face. As a result of being so conscious of and in tune with our surroundings, we would get very close to an animal before it noticed us, or ran off. We heard deer fleeing our approach, bounding through the dry leaves only feet away.

One animal didn’t know we were there until we were right on top of him. Brent said, “I think that’s a blaze” and pointed ahead when suddenly a ruckus began in some bushes on our right.

As I stood there in the darkness, I found myself horrified at what was coming for us. 

I was a few steps behind Brent, frozen in place by the sound. I imagined all of the creatures it could be. I wanted to call to Brent for protection, but instead stayed silent. I closed my eyes and listened.

I could hear something clambering around in the bush then slowly begin scratching a tree. As the sound changed it occurred to me that it was slowly climbing up the tree next to the trail. This animal was horrified of us, fleeing our surprise approach and trying to hide. It was probably on the trail right in front of Brent when he spoke. We listened as it climbed up and up the tree, rustling branches, scratching bark away from the trunk.

When the noise stopped, Brent whispered to me for my flashlight. We turned on the obtrusive beam and searched the ground and tree for our animal friend, but couldn’t find him. We laughed at how ungainly he seemed and wondered why he made such a fuss. We had snuck up on him. We were both so involved with our surroundings and quiet that we literally had walked right up to this creature. If Brent had not said something, we may have passed by with little notice from him.

This hike out taught me that mindset is everything when confronted with unknown surroundings. As soon as I let go of my panic at not being able to see clearly, I could see enough to follow the correct path. When I focused on each footstep and drew my attention into a tight circle around me, I could feel when I stepped off the path and knew instantly to backtrack. And being so close to everything around me made my mind quieter, and animals even seemed oblivious to our presence in their territory.


  1. Night hiking sounds very interesting. I have never thought of doing this. Your post is really interesting I fully enjoyed while reading.