Hiking in the dark: Staying mindful when the sun goes down

A couple years ago I was driving home to Bend Oregon after a fun day of waterfall exploration with my friend Erin.  As we headed through the Cascade mountain range, we passed a trailhead that would lead to an old volcano, Mt. Jefferson. This happened to be the same spot that I’ve been wanting to scout for a future trip where I would stay the night and shoot the Milky Way arcing over the mountain.

I got it in my head that we should do one more adventure that day. I easily convinced Erin of the prospects of this last walk of the day and we re-routed our drive home to take us to the trail head below Mt. Jefferson. From there, we planned to hike a couple miles up the trail to a clearing in the trees by a ridge that would give us an exceptional viewpoint of the sun alpenglow hitting the mountain. From there, we would start our ascent up the trail with the sun low in the sky. Hiking away from the trailhead shortly before sunset, it didn’t even register with me that we would be needing to hike back to our car in the dark (I never really think about it when I’m out by myself) and as a result, I failed to mention to Erin that we would be returning in the night and would need to bring a headlamp. I felt somewhat guilty that I led her into this situation but nonetheless we made it out safely and there were valuable lessons learned for both of us that evening. I’m glad I was able to be there as a guide for her as she got her first experience of hiking in the dark.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the under the stars chasing landscape astrophotography. There’s nowhere I feel more comfortable than sleeping on the ground out under the stars and I love chasing landscape photography views. hiking outdoors at night is second nature to me at this point; It’s where I feel most free and safe in this world, but I failed to take into account that Erin may not have the same comfort in the dark that I do. In fact, I've come to realize that most people do not feel comfortable being outdoors in the backcountry at night and try to avoid it at all costs. Humans tend to avoid things that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar as they can represent a threat to one's perceived safety. However, being outdoors after sunset can be a very rewarding experience. Once you are familiar with the night, you almost crave it (I know I do). You’ll get to see and experience the world like very few other people get to.

Here are a few tips for when the sun sets and you’re still outdoors away from your car (intentional or otherwise).

  1. Be mindful: I’m listing this as number one as it has the greatest potential to keep you safe and in an advantageous position during your experience. The trick here is to stay calm. Notice your senses becoming more acute: The retinas in your eyes expanding to absorb more light, the sound of your feet impacting the ground with each step, the mosquitos buzzing, the trees moving in the breeze, and your lungs expanding and collapsing with each breath. Take this situational awareness and use it to stay in the moment. It may feel uncomfortable at first but hey; If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. You’ll find that you can reach a presence of mind you never thought possible; a skill that carries practicality in all aspects of life for whatever situation you may find yourself in.

  1. You have more light than you think. Sunset does not mean the end of usable light. Even though the sun is out of line of sight, there are still three phases of twilight in which the sun’s light will be refracting in the atmosphere. You’ll be amazed how much light makes it into your eyes that you can use to see. I prefer not to use my headlight or phone light until the very last moment so that I can experience the changing twilight stages and see how far I can make it before using a light. While your vision will not be as clear as it is during the day, you can use your increased situational awareness of your other senses to guide you.

  1. Slow your walking pace a bit. Now that there is less usable light to work with, it’s time to slow down and make each step count. Shadows will become non existent so you need to be paying attention to your footwork. You’ll get really good at distinguishing rocks, steps, and logs on the trail in the low light. If you do happen to trip or stumble, no worries! It’s going to happen and you should not focus on the incident itself, but rather your recovery from the stumble. Stay positive and know that you can do this, it’s left foot, right foot just like you’ve done millions of times in your life.

  1. Nothing is gonna “get” you. Often people will associate the dark, the unknown with predators and monsters. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between perceived danger and real danger, especially when one of your main senses is essentially cut off. You may take acute notice of sounds and start to over think them even when the logical side of your mind knows you’re safe. When your presence of mind goes it becomes very easy to spiral down into a negative feedback loop of self doubt and anxiety. Remember, it’s okay to feel threatened and uncomfortable once in a while. Accept that these feelings are present, learn what they feel like in your mind but know they don’t have to drive your actions. That rustling noise you are hearing is most likely a deer.

If you’re interested in expanding your comfort while in unfamiliar situations, I’m a strong advocate of night time exposure. Try putting yourself in a nighttime situation and see how you handle it. Take baby steps if you need to but you’ll find that once you’ve spent a little bit of time under starlight, your world may truly open up. Simply existing out in nature during nighttime feels good; It’s hard to describe other than saying it’s a primal sensation. A hard coded and intuitive understanding that you’re meant to be nowhere else but here and now.

About the author

Mark Lehrbass holds a special place not only in the Food For The Sole family, but also in the family of co-founders Julie and Henry Mosier. Mark and Henry met in 2013 while working at a Starbucks in Bend, Oregon, and from their first interaction, a deep friendship was inevitable. Mark can best be described as a gentle, goofy giant (standing at 6’5”), with a heart of gold and an unorthodox sense of humor. Always earnest with intention to do right by those he holds dear, he has been welcomed into the Mosier family with open arms.

With Food For The Sole, Mark helps us cook in the kitchen, and handles our order fulfilment/warehouse management - when you receive a package in the mail, Mark is the man behind the operation, putting love and care in all along the way. Outside of the kitchen Mark spends his time with his dog “Princess Mia Pants” going on hikes and runs, and taking incredible landscape photos with a special focus on astrophotography.

Currently the best way to see more of Mark’s photography is through his instagram: Marklehrbass

OR - His website is https://www.marklehrbass.com/, feel free to check out his photography, who knows, you may even want to hang a print in your home!


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