Rob's Blog Archive

June 5, 2016

Understanding the Night










I did my first night hike when I was in the Boy Scouts.  We arrived at the trailhead on a Friday evening and hiked to a campsite we affectionately knew as, "Crying Meadows."  Being summer in the San Bernardino Mountains, making camp consisted of laying out a groundcloth.  Nobody had headlamps.  We used backpacking flashlights. 

A couple of years later, on a training trip for the Sierra Club Basic Mountaineering Training Course, I set up my tent in the dark for the first time.  Again, I had no headlamp,  but my flashlight was designed so I could comfortably hold it in my mouth.    My gear often had lots of drool marks.

I got my first headlamps while in graduate school and have not used a flashlight on a camping or backpacking trip since.  Headlamps improved steadily over time.  My night skills, however, changed little.  I did learn how difficult it is to route-find at night, particularly without a good headlamp, but that only took one or two nights and occurred prior to 1980.

It wasn't until I trained for distance races like Race to the Sky and Iditarod that I started to really get the night.  Races run 24/7 and dogs usually prefer running at night when it's cooler.  Trails, too, are often harder and faster.  And, of course, the lack of daylight in Montana mid-winter means that more than half the running will be at night.  My being a nighthawk and loving the night and the cold didn't hurt much, either.

Over the years, I learned to do everything at night as well as I did during the day.  At least, I got close.  Route-finding, particularly in a storm, is harder at night than during the day.  That's true even with a GPS.  GPS's  are great for route-finding over distances greater than 100' or so.  Headlamps do fine for 30' or so.  I can see my lead dogs on a 16 dog team, 70' in front of me, but they're doing the route-finding and I'm just correcting their errors.  Unfortunately, critical route-finding takes place in this 30'-100' range. 

Still, with a good headlamp, I could see gait variations in any of the dogs in my team.  You learn that these are easiest to spot as rhythm changes.  Of course, each dog has his or her own rhythm which you have to know before you hit the trail hard.   

Additionally, you learn to turn your head to illuminate whatever it is you want lit.  My primary headlamp on Iditarod used a machined parabolic lens and produced a very well focused beam.  The headlamp had a penumbra that it lit a little, but if I really wanted to see something, I turned my head.  My headlamps now have a variable focus and a quick adjustment between a broad beam and a narrow beam , but even with one switched to the broad beam I often have to turn my head. 

The final thing that you learn is to sled or ski by feel more than sight.  I did a few ski-tours at night prior to moving to Montana.  Here, I probably do more than half after dark.  And, of course, most of my sledding is done after sunset. 

There are few things more satisfying than evening in a snow camp.  Leaning back on my Thermalounger in my tent, my legs on a foam pad and my sleeping bag draped over my legs, sipping hot chocolate, I get to ponder the day.  There is a satisfaction in knowing how to be outdoors during the winter.  There is a similar satisfaction in knowing how to be outdoors during the night.


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