When winter rolls around and the days get shorter, most runners find that they have to choose between doing their midweek runs in the dark or not at all. Although running at night does pose certain challenges, these can usually be overcome with a little preparation and a few adjustments to your approach. Most runners will consider their weekly mileage targets as reason enough to hit the trails after dark, but by adopting a nocturnal running habit, you will also be able to experience your favorite trails like you never have before. With the night’s quiet stillness, sparkling cityscapes, and an otherworldliness that heightens the senses, nighttime runs can be an adventure unlike any other you’ll have in your local haunts. If that’s enough to convince you that your next run should be after dark, these nine tips will get you off on the right foot.
Run a route that you are familiar with
Navigating unmarked trails in the dark is challenging enough. You don’t also need to make things more difficult by trying to find your way through unfamiliar terrain. Unless you are running with people who know where they are going, stick to trails that you know when running at night. Even when running your favorite haunts, you’ll need to be prepared for how different everything can look at night. If you aren’t usually very observant, you might want to do a daytime recce run so that you can make mental notes of landmarks that will still be visible and recognisable in the dark.
Pack a warm layer or two
Having appropriate cold and wet weather layers is not just about being comfortable – it’s a safety imperative. With temps dropping much lower at night than during the day, exposure is a very real risk. Always pack a spare layer or two when running after dark, taking into the need to stay dry and warm. While a light rain shell will offer protection from rain, it will do little to insulate you from the cold. That’s why I recommend also packing a light fleece or long-sleeve base layer (merino wool or synthetic). Besides being more breathable – and a better option when it’s not raining – a fleece or base layer can be layered with your shell at times of lower aerobic output.
Be prepared to run farther than you plan to
Given how a navigational mistake can easily add several miles to a run, you should be prepared to go farther than you plan for. Besides packing the aforementioned layers, you should also pack snacks, water and spare batteries (or an extra headlamp). On longer runs it’s advisable to also carry a blister kit or small first aid kit (useful on daytime runs as well as at night). If going solo, I also carry an emergency bivvy (4 - 5 oz and smaller than a 200 ml soda can) on longer runs that take me far from the trailhead. Although you’re unlikely to ever have to rely on such kit, it could be a lifesaver when you really need it.
If you run alone, let someone know where you’re going
When running alone at night, your biggest concern is likely to be the risk of injury and exposure. Even a sprained ankle could turn a 30-minute run back to the car into a two hour ordeal. Always let someone know where you are going and what time you should be back by. It’s best to give a time that’s an hour later than you expect to be back by – to avoid worrying friends and family if you take a wrong turn and end up taking longer than expected. Better yet, sharing live tracking with someone (available with Strava and ShareMyRun). Beyond these precautions, you will also need to exercise sound judgment in deciding where to run. Some places just aren’t safe after dark.
Get the right light
Some runners use handheld lights when running at night, but the vast majority of trail runners find that there is no beating the simplicity and hands-free convenience of a headlamp. Regardless of the option you choose, you’ll want to consider beam strength and quality, fuel source, run time and fit (in the case of headlamps). At the very least, you will need 300 lumen to illuminate the trail up to several meters in front of you, but the beam must also be focussed enough to give definition to features in the trail. A soft fuzzy light won’t cut it.
After that, consider fuel source. If your nighttime runs are going to be limited to four hours, a rechargeable headlamp will suffice (check the run time). But if you are going to go any longer than that, a dual fuel headlamp is better as you can swap out the rechargeable battery for some regular AAA’s when it runs flat. Lastly, consider how a headlamp fits. It should be comfortable and secure (not bounce) even when you make jarring strides. To improve comfort on longer runs, I often wear a folded Buff under my headlamp. One more thing – if you run alone or in a race, it’s best to carry a backup light.
Learn to see things differently
Even a good headlamp will flatten features in the trail. With the beam originating at a point very close to your eyes, feature-defining shadows will be minimal. You should expect this lack of detail to challenge your depth perception. Your eyes will probably need an extra half second to properly resolve rocks, roots and other things that can trip you up if you don’t properly determine their height and shape. Beyond discerning features in the trail, you also need to be prepared for how your surroundings will look different at night. Certain trees or boulders that were once so easily recognisable in daylight can seem completely unfamiliar at night.
Focus on keeping your stride short
Given how your eyes will need more time to make out features in the trail, you’re not going to be smashing out 4-minute kilometers on your night runs. It would be best to just accept that you have to run slower and find something else to work on (if your night runs have to contribute to a training goal). Many runners find that this is a good time to focus on form. Besides improving efficiency and lowering the risk of injury, a shorter stride and good cadence will help you maintain your balance and footing through techy sections of trail – especially important when your impaired visibility might cause you to put a foot in the wrong place.
Wear reflective clothing and run towards traffic if you run along roads
If your route follows a road at any point, you’ll want to make yourself as visible as possible. This can be achieved by wearing bright clothing with reflective strips, or – if you already own a lot of active wear and don’t want to buy a new top or pants – you can also get reflective ankle bands, wrist bands, or a waist belt at a fraction of the cost of a new outfit. And then, even if you deck yourself out like a Christmas tree, it’s still best practice to run on the side of the road that will have you facing towards the traffic. That way if a vehicle is going to pass too close to you, you can see it and get out of the way.
Leave the headphones at home
Given their ability to block out the sounds of wildlife, traffic, and other trail users – like the cyclist frantically ringing his bell while you’re grooving along to Taylor Swift’s workout beats – it’s best not to wear headphones when running at night. But, if you absolutely have to catch up on your favorite podcast, use only one earbud so that you can keep one ear open to what’s going on around you. And if you normally run with music, try running without headphones just once. You might find that the stillness and quiet of the night makes for an experience like none other.
Get out there
You now have everything you need to know about trail running at night, and you just need to get out there and discover it for yourself. That said, if it’s more information that you’re after, there’s a lot more where this came from. On this website you’ll find many more in-depth articles on everything from race preparation to trail running technique as well as many gear guides. You can find these under the different sections in the categories menu, or, better yet, sign up for my newsletter to get all the latest from Trail & Crag delivered straight to your inbox.