Last Updated on January 22, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
Confession: trail running at night is one of my most favorite things to do. I love the exhilarating thrill of running through the woods after dark. 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 run.
But, I know those feelings are not the norm. Many runners are often intimidated by hitting the trails at night for a number of reasons. Fear of animals. Fear of the unknown, or what might be lurking around the corner. Or maybe simply a fear of tripping on something you didn’t see and doing an epic face-plant onto the trail.
But, if you are hoping to participate in a longer distance ultramarathon, or even an overnight relay race like a trail Ragnar: getting comfortable with trail running at night is absolutely necessary. And just like most things, with time and experience, you can and will become more comfortable with trail running at night.
8 Tips for Trail Running at Night
So, you’re ready to dive into an after dark trail run. Here’s what you need to know before you go:
Remember: 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).
Wear bright, reflective clothing so that you can be seen. Sure, you are far less likely to encounter automobile traffic on a trail run. But you should still make yourself visible to others, such as cyclists, runners, or walkers. Further, they will appreciate the fact that you make your human presence known. Last time I checked, bears don’t wear reflective vests.
Plus – while this may sound silly – you need to be able to be found if something happens . My husband always jokes that if I trip and fall into a ditch, he wants to be able to see me so he can come rescue me. He’s joking, mostly, but he has a good point.
Bring 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 (or extra batteries) in case something happens to your main light source. 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. 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. 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 are familiar with, 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:
- 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.
- Adding far more mileage to your night time run than you were supposed to, which can anger your legs, your coach, or both.
- Racking up a HUGE bill when Search & Rescue has to come find and save you, and last but not least:
Don’t do any of these. Save the new trail explorations for day time.
One time while trail running at 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.
Temperatures can – and do – drop very quickly at night. Layer appropriately, or bring extra layers. 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.
Another obvious trail running suggestion. Watch your step: a lot of roots and rocks become much more camouflage at night, even with the assistance of a headlamp.
Before you leave for your run, tell someone you trust 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).
Trail running at night has it’s special considerations, no doubt about it. But when done safely, it’s nothing to be afraid of! So grab a partner, grab your night gear, and hit the trails!
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.