The Desert at Night
Nighttime Hiking Tips
Text and Photos By Gregory Jones
There was a full moon, and a gray haze covered the desert night. Each of my steps was placed with care, as I felt the ground through the black tread of my boots. The trees creaked through the wind, their contorted arms looming over the trail. Goblin spires of sandstone created a labyrinth to maneuver through ahead. Crickets scratched out a heightening symphony with their studded bows.
The rustling from a field mouse darting into the cover of sweetbush became amplified and menacing. Overhead, the dimly lit span of an owl broke from its perch, flying into the blind corridor of darkness ahead. Two pipistrelle bats split through a cloud of gnats before me, gathered by the light of my headlamp.
I turned out the light and watched the threaded apparitions of clouds circle around the moon. Stepping forward, I turned abruptly to avoid becoming tangled in a patch of spiders' webs glowing in moonlight. A lonely howl far off in the distance sparked nearby coyotes into a communal wail. I knew I was being watched by the shadows.
Now, could there possibly be any better way for a hiker to experience the real lore of the desert? In reality, there really isn't too much to be worried about when hiking at night in the desert. Sure, there are a few more creepy-crawlies, but it is actually a much more logical approach for those who want to see exactly how our desert works.
The great majority of our desert wildlife is nocturnal, and a night hike is absolutely the best way to experience it. There are however, important considerations specific to night hikes that will keep them safe and enjoyable. Choosing a familiar path is one of them. You will not be able to rely on eyesight alone to find your way. Sight may even cause deceptions due to shadows cast, altering the appearance of common daytime landmarks. Moreover, all of the visual qualities of an object -- shadow, texture, color, and form -- are altered by how and what quality of light touches them.
This will naturally slow the pace of the hike, so the length of night hikes should be adjusted accordingly. A hiking staff is an excellent addition to help keep an even pace, and also to poke around in any areas of unsure footing. As far as other gear, bring the same supplies and safety items you would on a day hike. All the safety precautions of day hikes should be considered in night hiking as well. This includes a gallon of water for each hiker, a rule of the desert that should never be altered.
There are three techniques which may be used in a night hike.
Moonlight hikes are one of the most popular during the warmer months. If going by moonlight, make sure to check the weather first, because a good covering of clouds is as good as no moon at all. Also find where the moon is in its cycle, and the time it will rise and set. The Farmer's Almanac is an excellent resource for this information as well as other astrological events such as meteor showers and the positions of observable planets. Most daily newspapers also list this information near the weather section.
Hiking by flashlight is the most common and generally the safest type of after-dark hike. It provides the most reliable source of light, and is overall the most comforting for most hikers. A regular hand-held flashlight with fresh batteries will work just fine in most situations. But if you plan to do a good amount of night hiking or know you will need to do some rock scrambling, you will find a headlamp highly beneficial. Headlamps leave both hands free to thumb through a fieldguide or search through your pack, with the light always shining exactly where it is needed. Either one you choose, flashlight or headlamp, always make sure to have extra batteries and a bulb stowed away somewhere.
For those brave naturalists, you just might want to consider hiking by your wits alone. This is the Zen of all hiking experiences. It does however, take a good deal of practice as well as some special techniques. Even if you do not ever plan to use this method, it is a good one to practice for extreme situations when the batteries of your trusty flashlight die, and the hiking gremlins have mischievously stolen the spares from your pack.
The rhythm of your stride is invariably thrown in deep moonless darkness. There is a general unassuredness of the surrounding landscape. The pace must be brought down to a speed which, at first, will feel unnatural, but is actually just the opposite. In this technique, the ground needs to be felt instead of seen. The eyes should remain unfocused, with a wide angle of view that best utilizes peripheral vision.
The area of the retina most sensitive to dull light and motion is located outside the area of sharp focus. Looking over a landscape in this way, instead of sharply focusing on objects, maximizes this area of the eye. Also, the line formed by the horizon can assist in predicting the distant landscape. When trying to find direction or see wildlife in darkness, bend down low and follow the line of the horizon. This creates a silhouette against the landscape, which will tell you what lies ahead.
Nighttime desert hikes can be an exciting change of pace. It's as if the desert has tried to keep its life a mystery, hiding it away in the darkness. So when you go out to discover its secrets, ignore all those campfire stories from your youth. Don't think about incantations, hauntings or the occasional alien abduction you might accidentally stumble into. You have far better odds of seeing a family of raccoons on their nightly forage, or a nighthawk swooping for its dinner. Enjoy the beauty of the nightfall in the desert.
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