Running trails at night is a different than daytime. The experience is different. Your perceptions are different. For some, it’s exhilarating. For others, it can be intimidating. For some nighttime is the only time you can run trails over the colder months because of schedule and limited daylight. For some it’s a necessity in training for ultras. Regardless of the reason, here are some tips to make the experience better and safer, and maybe encourage a few of you rookies to give it a try.
Lighting – the brighter the better
Lighting technology has improved greatly and at much lower costs since the days when I started running trails at night, with dim yellow incandescent or battery sucking halogen bulbs. LED technology has made lights brighter, lighter weight, longer lasting, and more affordable. Sufficient lighting is an important part of enjoying the experience.
I recommend a minimum of 200 lumens, in general. Your individual needs may vary depending on your adaptability to dark and sensitivity to glare, terrain, speed, and length of runs, however, 200 is a good starting point. Lights in that range are compact and relatively inexpensive. You might want more if the terrain is technical or you want to run fast (relative to your own normal speeds). In general, err on the side of brighter.
Head vs hand vs body
Each has its pros and cons.
Head, pros: Keeps your hands free. Shines where you are looking.
Cons: Bright light by your eyes creates glare and diminishes contrast.
Hand, pros: Can be directed where you want. Coming from a lower angle can provide better contrast. Less expensive than headlight for comparable brightness.
Cons: Takes your hand away from holding a water bottle or grabbing something from your pack. The light moving with your arm swing takes getting used to. It also takes practice to train yourself to automatically change the angle of the light as you swing your arm to reduce the bouncing light effect.
Body, pros: Coming from a lower angle can provide better contrast. Keeps your hands free.
Cons: It’s likely to bounce more. Can get in the way of taking clothes on and off quickly.
Cold reduces battery life. If you are doing longer runs at night, you’ll want to keep your batteries warm. With headlights, there are different types of battery compartments to consider.
Front: Most of the lightest headlights have the batteries in front, part of the light compartment. In general these are more comfortable. However, they are exposed to the cold which will shorten their life. Also, they are limited in battery size. Once the batteries become too big, for brighter and longer lasting lights, batteries in front would bulge out and the lights would. At that point, headlights tend to have battery packs away from the light.
Back: Battery packs in back are attached to the strap, often with an additional strap that goes over the top of the head. A flat pack in back can be larger and more comfortable than in front. If you wear a beanie, it will help keep the batteries warm. If not, it’ll be exposed to the cold.
Pocket: Some lights have a pack that can be put in a jacket or pack pocket with a longer wire connecting to the light on your head. There, the pack stays warmer and the batteries last longer. Also, this type of pack can be larger for a brighter and longer lasting light. Taking the batteries off your head can be more comfortable once you figure out good wire placement. Another advantage is that you can change the batteries without taking the light off your head. However, the wire can become a problem if you have to take off your pack or jacket.
Carry extra batteries and practice changing them in the dark.
Rechargeable batteries generally don’t last as long as alkaline. I understand the desire to save money and reduce waste. However, while rechargeables may be fine for training, alkaline might be better when racing through the night.
One more tip, don’t shine you light in others’ eyes. When approaching someone coming the other way, keep your light down and to the side. If stopping to chat, turn off your headlight or point it down.
Perception of speed
In the dark, it can feel faster than it is; it can feel like you’re working harder than your pace would tell. I remember running the LT100, on the Colorado Trail section coming back into Mayqueen, how hard it felt like I was working, then dismayed when I looked at my watch at Mayqueen at how long it had taken me. Be aware that even familiar routes might take you longer. This may impact your ability to navigate, especially on unfamiliar trails.
Finding you way
Trails look different at night. Landmarks can be hidden. Even familiar trails can be confusing at night. Pay more attention to your surroundings and your progress along the trail.
It helps to have greater awareness of your surroundings. Your vision at night is already diminished. Adding headphones further limits your awareness. If you can’t leave your music/podcasts at home, turn the volume down so you can hear the natural sounds along the trail.
There’s danger in them woods. I’m not trying to make you afraid and deter you from running at night, just to make you aware that the risks, though small, increase at night. Be aware. Be smart. Running with others increases both the feeling and actuality of safety. And, if you get hurt, it’s good to have others around to help. There are fewer trail users at night, so much less likely that someone will happen upon you if you need help.
Be smart. Be safe. Have fun. See you on the trails.