The mountains at night can be hazardous, but also wonderful. With months of long nights looming, Carey Davies gives some tips for exploring the dark side.
Being on a mountain in the dark is often seen the result of a mistake somewhere along the line. ‘Benightment’ is a common cause of accidents and emergencies, and one of the main commandments of safety advice is to avoid or be prepared for it. Fear of the night is also extremely well ingrained in our biology; we are conditioned to see danger in the dark, and overcoming this can mean wrestling with some deeply ensconced demons.
But with the right knowledge and preparation, hill walking at night can be a positive choice rather than an emergency predicament. Seeing the silvery glimmer of moonlit rocks or watching the sunrise from a summit is a rare and wonderful thing, like discovering a whole new side to a friend you’ve known for years. It can also be a way of breaking your hill walking ambitions beyond winter’s restrictively short days. Here are some basics for seeing the light of night walking safely.
1. Start small
As with any new skill or experience in the mountains, don’t bite off more than you can chew at first. Find a modest hill or mild moor where the route-finding is straightforward; on well-defined paths, or with plenty of ‘handrail’ features. It should also be close to civilisation or a road, with clear escape routes back to safety. Go with someone else for the extra backup of company.
2. Pick the right night for it
Scrutinising the weather forecast is important for your first night-time forays. The ideal would be a calm, warm night with a big shining moon and clear skies, although such a confluence of factors is rare (you could even say it’s once in a blue moon, geddit?) in Britain. The second best conditions would be calm and warm to avoid the extra pressure and hazards of wind and exposure.
3. Be prepared
It goes without saying that you need all the same backup equipment for night walking as you would for the day time (fully charged phone, first aid kit, whistle, emergency shelter, spare food), but it’s worth remembering that help may be harder to obtain. A sleeping bag and bivi shelter could be a sensible back-up if you need to wait out the night.
4. Be a solid navigator
Needless to say, navigating at night can represent a formidable challenge. Know your navigational onions before attempting it. Hire a guide or go on a night navigation course if you are unsure.
5. Stay grounded in time and space
The night changes our perception of a lot of things; heightening tension, intensifying sound, but also warping our perception of time and space. With no visual clues beyond your headtorch beam, you might overestimate or underestimate how far you’ve travelled in a given time. Be aware of this and trust your navigation techniques.
6. Keep calm
In the wilds at night primal fears can crowd out rational judgement. Remember to stay calm; letting panic set in will only get you into worse trouble.
Carey Davies is the BMC hill walking development officer. Follow him on Twitter: @BMC_Walk.
EXPERT Q & A: Alan Rowan
His sleep pattern disrupted by stressful shift work, Alan Rowan completed almost a whole round of Munros at night, an experience documented in his book ‘Moonwalker: Adventures of a Midnight Mountaineer’. He shares some of his hard-earned advice.
Q. Where is your favourite place to go night walking?
A. Probably the Cairngorms. The paths are often wide and easy to follow. The pale granite shines wonderfully under moonlight. Plus a lot of the walks are long, often taking 9 to 10 hours. In summer the nights in Scotland are so short; you get a sunrise at 3.30 in the morning. You can set off at sunset, walk right through the night and then see a sunrise in a few hours. It’s amazing and strange to watch the landscape completely change this way in one walk.
Q. Do you choose nights with a full moon?
A. I tend to look for good weather over moon conditions. Although that went wrong a few times because the forecasts are often written with day walkers in mind, so what they say doesn’t always work. It’s not easy to walk in bad conditions at that that time in the morning – you feel like you should be in bed!
Q. Hill walking at night must be strange at times – ever had a spooky encounter?
A. Quite a few, aye. In Knoydart I was dehydrated and I kept imaging I was speaking to people – it was just trees and echoes. In the remote Bendronaig bothy I was having a normal conversation with a man and woman by the fireplace when I got a cramp in my leg. I woke up, realised I’d been asleep and was alone. I thought I’d seen ghosts and left sharpish. I also saw myself walking up towards me at one point, but it turned out to by my own shadow falling on a cloud inversion. Your mind plays tricks on you when you’re tired and alone.
Q. Any key safety tips?
A. I tend to stick by handrail features and good paths. Most of the Munros are okay for that. I also tend to avoid massive river crossings. I crossed a river in Knoydart at night in December once. By the time I got back to the car my boots had iced to the gaiters. I had to drive for half an hour with the heater on to get them off. That was pretty silly. But if you’re careful there’s no need to have experiences like that.
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