8 Tips for Trail Running at Night

 Normally, I would have titled this post “How To Avoid Face-plants in the Dark” or, “Run Faster: the Tiny Squirrel that Sounds like a Cougar in the Dark is Gonna Eat You”.   But they (you know, the people who actually understand this stuff) claim a search worthy title is where it is at.  

Yesterday, I met Geoff in the parking lot of his work place for our regular post-work trail run.   A well traveled, flat, relatively well groomed out and back that can garner up to 7 miles, depending on where we start and where we turn around.  During the summer, we would take our sweet time lollygagging (what a fun word) in the parking lot and waiting for friends to join us,  before finally motivating ourselves to get on the trail.  We would be out there for hours, running, burpeeing, even sometimes stopping for a quick swim in the river, before someone would realize that even though the sun was still in the sky,  it was approaching 8 pm, and maybe we should all go home.

Last night, however, it was dark before we even started …and for what it’s worth, 38 degrees.

(Insert my disdain for winter here and daylight savings time here.)

There would be no swimming. There would be no lollygagging.  We had to get right to business. 

As we laid all of the extra items now necessary for this run on the hood of my car, head lamps, bear spray, reflective vests, I jokingly grumbled out loud that this was “bullsh*t”, as if Mother Nature herself would suddenly appear and apologize that for the next 5 months I have to train in the cold and the dark.  Of course she didn’t apologize, and instead gave a strong gust of icy wind, reminding me that I should thank my lucky stars that I get to run.  And so reluctantly, we ran.

night trail running

Make your best “I am not thrilled with this daylight savings time nonsense” face! (clearly I win.)

As much as I hate the cold and dark, I also love the exhilarating thrill of running through the woods at night.   My mind constantly bounces back and forth between the primal feeling of running through seeming nothingness, and an utter fear that the Blair Witch herself is going to step out from behind a tree.   Both of these feelings combined typically result in an awesome (and speedy) run, and last night was no exception.

 And also last night, between possible bigfoot sightings and trying to maintain a sub 7:00 pace without tripping and landing on my face, I decided to write this post.  So without further ado, some tips for trail running at night:

Trail Running at Night

Everything is Bigger in the Dark.

If I know my friends, they are  giggling with a “that’s what she said” joke at this point, but get your minds out of the gutter: I’m talking about squirrels.  And chipmunks, and all of the other typical woodland creatures that we “aww” at during the day, yet flee in utter fear from at night.   Remember, what sounds like a moose suddenly barreling towards you is most likely a tiny rodent no bigger than your hand fleeing from you, across foliage that seems to magnify sound by ten fold at night.   Be aware of your surroundings, but stay calm and in control.  In other words, do not make a mountain lion out of a mole. (ba-dum-dum).

Be Visible.

Sure, you are less likely (or not likely at all, depending on the trail) to encounter automobile traffic on a trail run. But you should still make yourself visible to others, such as cyclists, runners, or walkers.  Plus, I’m sure they will appreciate the fact that you make your human presence known, as everyone knows  it is highly unlikely that a glowing being barreling down the trail is a bear dressed in a reflective vest.  

Lights…and backup lights.

“The good news is that tonight is a new moon, so if our headlamps die, we won’t be able to see anything!” – Geoff 11/5/13

Wear headlamps, and bring a backup (I absolutely recommend Knuckle Lights, these things are amazing.)  This might seem like an obvious suggestion, but lets dig a little deeper.  When running at night on paved roads, you typically have the assistance of overhead street lights.  Further, unless you are running at 3:00 am, chances are the houses or buildings you pass will be lit up enough to act as beacons; a way to tell where you are, where you’ve been,  and where you are headed.

Now on the other hand, the woods at night are painfully dark.  If you are lucky, the moon may shine a little light through the trees, but that hardly changes the fact that every single tree looks exactly like the one before. Further, during the fall when all of the shrubs and trees are bare and everything is covered in leaves, it’s often hard to tell if you are even actually on the trail at all.

Which leads me to my next topic:

Know your trail.

Everything looks different at night in the creepy shadows of the forest.  That quaint old tree that looks as if it could home happy little Hobbits during the day time now appears to be something nightmares are made of. In other words, it is easy to become confused, disoriented, and lost in the dark.    Stick to a trail you know well, or that is clearly marked, even in the dark.  Getting lost in the woods at night could lead to a wide range of problems, such as:

  1. Interrupting your friend’s  prime time TV watching after you call them asking for a ride, as you’ve wound up clear on the other side of town.
  2. Adding far more mileage to your night time run than you were supposed to, which can anger your legs, your coach, or both.
  3. Racking up a HUGE bill when Search & Rescue has to come find and save you, and last but not least:
  4. Death.

Don’t do any of these.  Save the new trail explorations for day time.

Protect Yourself.

Last night, we rounded a corner on the trail and we were greeted by the glowing eyes of a very angry dog.  She growled, barked, and lunged at us, as Geoff grabbed for the bear spray AND a large stick.  I stopped immediately and held my ground, waiting to see what was going to happen next.  Thankfully a few seconds later, the dog’s owner approached on a bike, apologized, and said the dog was probably confused by all of the lights and had no idea WHAT we were (I thought dogs could smell, but what do I know).  I said something to the dog in that sappy puppy language (“Hey buddy, it’s OK!” or some other shmoopy dog talk) and the dog instantly put her tail between her legs and retreated.  The owner apologized again, we went our separate ways, and all was well.

Shmoopy puppy talk doesn’t work on all dogs, nor cougars, bears, or creeper humans who for whatever reason, feel the need to attack people.

No one wants to think of the worst case scenario, but unfortunately, the worst case scenario can happen, so be prepared.  Run with a partner, run with bear spray, carry a big stick, do whatever you have to do to protect yourself.

Layer Clothing.

Temperatures drop very quickly at night.  Layer appropriately.  It would probably be a great idea to check the weather forecast before you go; no one loves surprise blizzards or freezing rain storms.

Watch Your Step.


This only gets worse at night.

Tell Someone

Tell someone where you are going.  Tell them when you expect to be back. Cell phones don’t always work in remote areas, so do not rely on being able to call for help if it is needed.    (And to save everyone a lot of trouble, don’t forget to also tell them when you have returned home safely).

IN CONCLUSION...day light savings and winter may suck the suck the sunglight out of your non-working hours, but it doesn’t mean you have to resort to the treadmill or doing laps around your cul-de-sac.  


Do you trail run at night? What safety (and other) tips would you add to this list?


Leave a Reply


    • says

      Ack! Yes, I agree there! Thankfully up here in VT the only creatures to really fear are bears and the very very small possibility of a mountain lion, but both would avoid you at all costs. I do not miss the creepy creatures of the deep South…

  1. says

    Very funny and helpful. I run trails super early in the morning, so still pitch black. Another reason it’s great to run with a partner: two headlamps are brighter than one! Or, get a good bright one. I’m thinking I might need to trade in my little 24 lumen Tikkina for a 90 lumen floodlight this year.

    Make a point to enjoy the unique pleasures of nighttime trails. Last weekend, we heard an owl hunting very nearby in the woods, and chased some deer up the trail. The sky was perfectly clear and we could see lots and lots of stars, far more than in the city. And at the end, we were treated to a magnificent sunrise. A few weeks ago, I ran in the dark in the rain, and my sense of smell seemed magnified. I’ve never smelled such vivid damp earth and green, growing things. It was really cool.

    Have a great winter running season!

  2. says

    I’ve never run on a trail, just plain ol’ hiking. These are some good tips should I ever decide to do it, though.

    And this should win title of the year: “Run Faster: the Tiny Squirrel that Sounds like a Cougar in the Dark is Gonna Eat You”

  3. says

    Heck, I don’t usually even trail run during the day!

    I did have a discussion with a friend at our party last weekend. She lives out in the country, decided to go out at night, and only made it to the end of her driveway before she saw glowing eyes. She went back in, then back out, but didn’t make it much further til she saw glowing eyes again.

    Heck, I didn’t even really enjoy walking the dogs at night a few weeks back! Actually, it was still warm so kind of nice, and while I had some blinking lights on me, I didn’t have a light to see with & realized that I couldn’t see to pick up their poop!

    • says

      Yep! I run with it often. It’s in a small can, not one of the huge ones that you typically see bear spray come in, so I can stick it in my hydration pack. Bears, dogs, people…I hope I never have to use it!