Night hikes. Have you ever done one on purpose? If you are like us, there has surely been a time or two you’ve white-knuckle hiked down a mountain trail in the dark. You may have been without a headlamp and cursing the person(if it wasn’t you) who hours earlier promised you wouldn’t need a map and there would be no way you could ever get lost. Been there, right? If that’s your only experience with night hikes, take a deep breath and relax. If well planned in advance, a night hike can be a mystical, memorable experience for the family. And it might even help cure some fears of the dark at the same time. We won’t leave you hanging.
Wait a sec, why am I doing this?
Although it may seem like an odd idea, going for a walk or hike at night with kids can actually be a gratifying, memory building experience. Your kids will feel like they are doing something special and out of the ordinary while at the same time learning not to fear the dark. There’s great nature out there you can only see and hear at night. Maybe you’ll hear a Great Horned Owl or a loon. Maybe you’ll get a clear view of the Big Dipper or a shooting star. Maybe your kids will want to talk. Maybe you’ll build a monthly night hike tradition with your kids that will be ‘your thing’ as they grow. Maybe you’ll end up with kids who are ready to curl up and go right to bed when they come home(keep dreaming!). One thing is for sure, if you follow our lead it’ll be a fun new way to experience the outdoors with your family. And that, is a good thing.
What To Bring
This part is pretty obvious, be prepared. It’s nighttime, so you’ll want to bring headlamps. Make sure your cell is well charged, it’ll be a nice safety net and easy way to snap some pics along the way. For clothes, go with the season and remember it’s always cooler at night, even in the summer. A hat and gloves are essential when it gets cold. Hot Cocoa in a thermos could be the mid-hike reward needed to get them out and you’ll be just as thankful to have it to scare away the November chill.
A night hike log book for your kids is a good way for them to remember where they’ve been and what they’ve seen. Have them pick trail names for themselves (and you) like the through hikers on the Appalachian Trail. They can record the time, date, lunar cycle, where you hiked and what they saw and heard. You may think this sounds cheesy but imagine a notebook filled with a few years worth of these adventures.
Times and Dates
Do you have Full Moon Beaver Fever? A full moon makes night hikes much easier and any sky gazing, while mostly starless, will still be exciting. November 28th is the next full moon, known to old timers and Leslie Nielson as the Beaver Moon. A cloudless night, while usually chillier, guarantees great trail visibility and long views through leafless trees. Once their eyes adjust, your kids will be shocked how much they can see under the light of the full moon.
Embarking at sunset is an easy way to ease into a night hike. It might even be an excuse to pack a snack dinner and have a picnic dinner. Starting early on a full moon night also gives you the chance to witness a cool illusion we are all accustomed to but rarely examine. Our brains incorrectly interpret a rising moon to look larger than normal. The moon’s size is not exaggerated by it’s proximity to the horizon or by objects much closer to us (like trees). For some reason, our brains misinterpret the moon’s size when it is close to the horizon, and we are treated to a gorgeous moon-rise. If you want to mess with your kids, have them stand on their heads to prove the illusion – the moon will look smaller(normal) when they are on their heads!
Where To Hike
At night, even for adults, it is easy to get disoriented on unfamiliar trails. For this reason, we recommend you plan your family night hikes at safe places you’ve visited many times. Would it be cool to hike Tumbledown in Franklin, ME and swim in the pond under the full moon? Yes, yes it would. Would it be a good idea to plan a family night hike like this with little kids? Probably not. At least not until you get good at it, then go for it. For beginners, let’s keep it simple the first few times we venture out at night.
A few close-to-home options:
Golf courses, although technically ‘closed’ at night, can be a great pace to take a night hike. You can follow the footpaths as far as you want and because most have a twisty-turny nature to them you’ll feel like you are going a long distance when in fact, the parking lot will be an easy bailout most of the time. Other easy starter night hikes include beaches and bike paths. The point here is to keep it safe and easy in the beginning. There’s no need to shoot the moon on your first time out.
The goal here is not to have a miserable time. If the weather is not cooperating or your kids are sniffling and tired, a night hike is probably not in the cards. But if the weather obliges and your kids have an extra hop in their step, they will love this. It’ll be a special event and one they don’t soon forget.