By Jeff Garmire
I recently led a group of trail runners on a nighttime adventure. It was a couple of days after the true full moon, but it was still the perfect time to expose a new group of people to nighttime adventures. It is the type of adventure that takes exposure, practice, and experience to both enjoy and be comfortable with.
My first real night experience went hand in hand with sleep deprivation. It was on the Arizona Trail and the final days of attempting to set the Fastest Known Time (FKT). With less than 50 miles to go, I really started seeing things. It was a shock. The concept and experience of sleep deprivation was foreign, and it was scary to see things that I simply knew were not there. The large shadows from the moon flickered in my periphery, and tangible hallucinations crept into my vision. A witch sweeping a patch of snow, a small safari guide crouched in the bushes, and an imagined log cabin became part of my world. It was not real, but it felt real.
“The concept and experience of sleep deprivation was foreign, and it was scary to see things that I simply knew were not there. The large shadows from the moon flickered in my periphery, and tangible hallucinations crept into my vision.”
It was a mental trick that I had to reason my way through. It wasn’t difficult to determine what was real, but it was such a strange experience that it took some getting used to. For the final 30 hours of the Arizona Trail record, I frequently had hallucinations that were out of place and not real. But, as time went by and more uniqueness popped into my vision, I began to feel comfortable in my unique state of being. It slowly moved from questionable, scary, and unnatural to familiar and entertaining.
At first, separating the difference between reality and illusion was strange. But the experiences I racked up made it much easier to accept and even enjoy. I didn’t seek out hallucinations to build up this experience, but I did actively try to get out on more night hikes and runs. My first big FKT taught me that efficiency and familiarity with night activity are beneficial across a wide range of recreation. After this first immersive experience of night hiking and sleep deprivation, I made it part of my training and learned a few things that make it easier.
Find the Right Frame of Mind
“The dark can be scary. Visibility is diminished, and tiredness quickly seeps in. The mind can easily wander and create unlikely scenes and scenarios that can lead to a mental spiral.”
The dark can be scary. Visibility is diminished, and tiredness quickly seeps in. The mind can easily wander and create unlikely scenes and scenarios that can lead to a mental spiral. This is where practice and familiarity are so important. Deer eyes glowing in the dark are a lot less scary if you have seen them before. But if you haven't, they can be a frightening sight. Having a background and experiences can be the difference in maintaining a rational mindset versus an irrational one.
A mindset can also be built on current feelings and information. For example, a friend said she was afraid to run or hike alone at night but then went on to say she continually listened to a podcast about people getting mauled by bears and attacked by wild animals. Will the dark still be scary? Probably. But, it will probably be a lot less scary if visions of getting eaten by bears are not front of mind.
Build Experiences to Draw Upon
I feel very comfortable with night hiking and running, but I still make a point to practice before a big effort. Even though training went drastically wrong for Cocodona due to injury, I got out on a two-hour night run/hobble the week before the race started. It was as much to gain confidence as to refind the familiarity with operating in the dark.
“The light is different, the surroundings are different, everything is different at night, and gaining experience can make anything after dark feel more comfortable.”
The light is different, the surroundings are different, everything is different at night, and gaining experience can make anything after dark feel more comfortable. This is exactly what I wanted to pass along by leading a nighttime adventure up the mountain just outside of town, and it went exactly as expected.
Passing on the Night Experience
A mile into the night adventure, one of the people around me mentioned they forgot to bring a headlamp. I anticipated this and brought an extra one, but left it in the car. She forgot a headlamp, and her phone (which could double as a flashlight) was also about to die. As a group, we were able to get through the eight miles and 4,000’ climb, all while having a great time. But one person's mistake was a good illustration and reminder for all of us. It was like the collective lesson was reinforced for the whole group.
We went slow enough that it wasn’t necessarily a physically taxing outing but more of a mentally draining one. We started at 9 p.m. and got to watch the sunset on our long climb. As it transitioned from day to night, the group collectively grew less talkative. Around midnight I reached the top with the back of the group, and views of the stars and the sprawling Gallatin Valley masked any mental fatigue.
“As it transitioned from day to night, the group collectively grew less talkative. Around midnight I reached the top with the back of the group, and views of the stars and the sprawling Gallatin Valley masked any mental fatigue.”
On the way back down, the group grew loopy. It was the classic middle of the night lapse in clarity. We all made it back to the parking lot in one piece, but quite late. It was a good practice not only on night excursions but also in seeing the effects that sleep deprivation has on others even after only a few hours.
The night is completely different than the day. It takes a different attitude, practice, and the right tools to make it an enjoyable and exciting way to get out into nature.