Beginners Guide to Night Running — on Trails

Darkness fell as I made the final push to the thin-air summit of Colorado’s 14,100-foot Handies Peak, and I flipped on my headlamp and waist lamp. After traversing the summit peak and ridgeline to the north, I plunged off the loose and rocky scree field and descended Grizzly Gulch. Once in the trees, the trail bobbed and weaved through dense firs and I picked up the pace. As I rounded a corner, my double light set-up illuminated a waddling porcupine’s backside. I came to a screeching halt, nearly rear-ending the unsuspecting mammal.

Night running on trails can be exciting and intimidating. It’s when all the forest creatures are out and about. Predators are on the prowl, and it’s unfamiliar to us. Like the monsters under our beds when we were kids, our imaginations can get the best of us. Here are a few tips for tackling your next night outing on the trails, and leaving the monsters behind.

Multiple Lights

Unlike the relatively consistent, smooth surface of running in town at night, trails throw a few more twists and turns (and rocks and roots) at you. In order to see well at night on technical trails, I recommend a headlamp and a waist lamp. Your head lamp should be a good strong beam that can spot turns, objects farther ahead, and be used to identify if those glowing green eyes actually belong to a cougar, or just a deer.

For the waist option, a single strap headlamp with a soft light flood beam works best. I personally prefer Ultraspire’s new Lumen series waist lights, designed specifically for use on the waist. The goal of the waist lamp is to light up the area right in front of you, 5 -15 feet. Since the waist-mounted light is directed at a low angle, it works well to drop shadows on the backside of objects in front of you, making obstacles stand out more than with a head-only mount. Plus, it follows your hips as you navigate winding trails and technical sections, leaving you free to look ahead.

For your head, pick a high lumen count headlamp that has both a low beam and a high beam spot. I prefer the Black Diamond Icon for its 100+ meter high beam for spot-lighting those pesky green eyes you might happen across. Aim the beam to just merge with your waist light so the beams slightly overlap.

When combined, the two light systems work well together. The waist light always illuminates the trail directly in front of you, while the headlamp allows you the freedom to scan ahead, including side to side like you would during normal daylight hours. Lastly, having two lights gives you the added benefit of redundancy. If one light fails, you have a backup.

Blinking Red Rear Light

With the obvious safety features of a blinking red light for night running in the city, this can also be a great strategy for night running in the woods. Based on research in 1994, “Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage,” Scott E. Hygnstrom conducted a study that looked at the use of flashing lights for protecting livestock from predators.  Flashing lights imply to animals that hunt or feed at night that they have been discovered or are being watched. This is their deepest fear, and forces them to flee the area. It’s a simple, yet effective deterrent for trail runners to decrease their chances of nighttime predatory wildlife encounters.

Safety in Numbers

If you are going out at night, think about inviting a friend along. Having company on a night run can make it less intimidating. Also, if something does happen, you’re not alone. Remember, it could be 24 hours or even days before you see someone else, especially if the trail is somewhat remote. Don’t forget if you do go for a solo trail run at night, make sure to let someone know your plans: when and where you’ll be running, and when you’ll be back.

With a little bit of practice, trail running at night can be a fun, engaging experience. It’s a great way to open up a busy schedule and get in more trail time, not to mention the zero-crowd factor on high-use trails. Plus, as an added bonus, if you ever decide to sign-up for a 100-miler, you’ll be a seasoned veteran when it comes to the night portion of the race. How can you beat that? Giddyup.