Sunset marks the starting gate for a whole new genre of adventure, although with one major caveat: it's dark outside. Have no fear, outdoor enthusiasts - you will #EmbraceTheDark in no time with the following essential night gear for your next nocturnal expedition.
Every adventure-seeker has been there at least once. You've done your research, selected the route, and are ready to hit the trail. Then, naturally, life intervenes. You receive an unexpected business call, a project falls through, family matters need attending to, and the net result is that your timely adventure plans become unfeasible - especially during these shorter, darker days.
While many recreationists who fall victim to these circumstances opt to bail on their original plan, stocking your closet with the right gear can significantly mitigate the effect of daylight on your plans. Wait, let's rephrase that - the right gear will enhance your expeditions well beyond the constraints of daylight. Nighttime hikes, bike rides, runs, and even paddles just simply add an element of adventure that identical daytime ventures can't match.
But there's obviously one glaring catch: you need the right gear to facilitate these nocturnal activities. A headlamp or flashlight is a clear necessity, but which variety or style of headlamp is best suited for our region? Which reflective gear is preferred for running, hiking, biking, or kayaking? Is it legally required to have certain gear for a particular activity?
Don't worry, friends - we will answer all of those questions and more in this article.
Expedition Essentials: Night Gear
This article is a little bit of a "two-for-one special" since we're covering an #ExpeditionEssentials gear review for nighttime exploration. Unlike our typical gear reviews, we'll be breaking this category down by essentials for the following specific activities: hiking, running, mountain biking, and paddling. Yes, we at Expedition Detroit recognize that a lot of the following gear items can be used interchangeably between recreational activities. That being said, even items as fundamental as a headlamp vary in utility for sports like mountain biking vs. hiking. More on that in a bit.
Planning for a nighttime hike involves the lowest barriers to entry and most versatility of gear choices for new nocturnal adventurers, so we recommend starting with acquiring special hiking gear for exploring your favorite local trail post-sunset.
Start with the basics: you should always dress in layers, especially for the cooler-to-freezing temperatures that fluctuate in the Detroit region this time of year. If you start out before sunset, bring along an extra layer to pull on when the temperature inevitably starts to cools off.
Here's a crash-course on layering:
Base Layer ("underwear layer"): Arguably most important layer; goal is to wick sweat off your skin.
Middle Layer ("insulating layer"): Should retain body heat to protect you from the cold
Outer Layer ("shell layer"): Largely weather-dependent; shields you from wind and rain and provides extra insulation.
Any of these layers can be readily purchased from your local outdoor retailer or a leading national retailer like REI. Specifically for nighttime hiking, however, your outermost layers should be well-suited for the elements and have reflective qualities. We live in the north, so your middle layer at a bare minimum should provide enough warmth to handle freezing temperatures. Likewise, your outer layer should be waterproof for sleet and snowy conditions. For visibility purposes, also look for jackets that have reflective attributes like reflective logos and other hits that light sources will pick up.
The final clothing items that you should include in your pre-night hike checklist are for your extremities. Regardless of whether your middle or outer layer features a hood, we always recommend a warm beanie or similar hat to cover your head and ears. Gloves or mittens are also an essential, especially if you plan to carry trekking poles with you. Last but certainly not least, don't forget warm and durable hiking socks to ground your trek.
There are very few absolutes in life, but this is certainly one: night hiking requires a good headlamp. Yes, you can also carry a flashlight (and may want to include a back-up one in your pack), but we strongly recommend a headlamp due to the versatility that it provides for your hands.
As you may have noticed during past trips to your local outfitter, not all headlamps are created equal. Volumes of research exist breaking down the different attributes of hiking headlamps, with the key differentiators being beam type, light (lumens) output, beam distance, battery life, light modes, charge input (batteries/rechargeable), and weight. Black Diamond's "Spot 400" and Petzl's "Actik Core" headlamps are the two market-leaders, although BioLite's 750 lumen headlamp has also recently been making waves into the hiking headlamp market.
Snowshoe Bonus: Your night hiking gear will also suit for any snowshoeing adventures that you should definitely plan for this winter! The only caveat is that you should also purchase snow pants with reflective qualities, but otherwise your night hiking gear will serve you well despite trading the hiking boots for snowshoes. Who doesn't love a two-for-one special.
While running and hiking certainly belong in the same recreational family - let's call them "trail sport cousins" - night running vs. hiking gear differ in several major ways. The bulkier gear required for night hiking is both impractical and potentially hazardous for running. Night running gear includes the same reflective qualities as hiking gear, but otherwise must be lighter and better suited for extensive cardio workouts.
The three most important factors for night running gear are visibility, warmth, and comfort. With visibility, a runner's goal should comprise of 360-degree visibility with equipment beyond just a headlamp. Especially if you prefer road running to trail running, you will significantly diminish the likelihood of injury from passing cars or distracted pedestrians if you wear equipment like one of the headlamps referenced earlier, plus additional illuminating gear like a reflective vest, LED "slap wrap" arm band, LED waist belt, and even a LED "LightSpur" heel wrap. Aside from the flashy LED apparel, your outermost layers - most likely a running jacket and your shoes - should also feature reflective qualities to catch high beams or other headlights.
For warmth, base layers remain a runner's best friend. While you may recycle some of your hiking base layers for your runs, you should always start your runs slightly cold since your body temperature will heat up noticeably during your run (dress for 15-20 degrees warmer than the current temperature). With temperatures in the 30s, you should wear lighter base layers with a vest or a mid-layer top, tights, hat, and thin gloves.
Last but certainly not least, colder night hikes require comfortable gear. If your base layers or accessories cause chaffing, inhibit mobility, or are simply too heavy, don't waste any time returning them for more comfortable fits. One extremely important gear item that should comprise of the utmost comfort quality is your socks. Trust us - your blister-less feet will thank you.
Mountain Biking Gear
When it comes to night MTB ventures, light is the name of the game. Beyond obviously acquiring a powerful front-facing headlight, you will also need to acquire a rear light (especially important if you plan on traversing main roads to reach the trail head). Yes, you need the red light - Michigan law requires nighttime cyclists to ride with a rear red reflector visible from 100 to 600 feet away, or a rear red lamp visible from 500 feet.
When it comes to lights suitable for mountain biking, not all headlamps are created equal. The three most important aspects for deciding on a front-facing headlamp are luminosity, beam pattern, and mounting options. For the Detroit region's MTB trails, headlamps with at least 1,000 lumens should be adequate (note: this is significantly more than hiking/running headlamp lumens).
For beam pattern, the easy rule to remember is that broader is better: the broader a light’s beam, the more of the trail it will illuminate, which in turn creates a much smoother riding experience. Also don't forget to review the beam's light color qualities before riding out in the dead of night. A "warmer," yellower light will help your eyes adjust to and identify trail details; a "colder," bluer light omits a glare that our eyes struggle to perceive while riding.
Last, the two ideal mounting options for forward-facing headlamps are either a helmet-mounted light or a handlebars-mounted light. While there's some debate regarding which mount facilitates a better night ride, helmet mounts seem to have the edge based on the variability of light-placement options - especially if your trail of choice has several sharp, hidden turns. Or...hear us out...you could get both a helmet AND handlebar lights for unhindered illumination on the trail, which is the favored tactic for night riders willing to spend a little extra cash.
The Specialized Flux 1250 headlight checks every box from our three-factor analysis, and as such earns our unsponsored endorsement. The headlight comes with both handlebar and helmet mounting options.
Contrary to popular belief, winter does not signal the end of paddling season. In fact, neither does the sunset of even the longest summer day. For any readers who strongly detest crossing paths with another human on the trail, a winter, nighttime kayak will certainly be your best bet for having one of the Detroit region's water trails all to yourself (although we strongly recommend paddling with another paddler). Similar to the other activities listed here, however, there are some essential gear purchases to make before launching into the water - some of which are mandated by law.
Let's start with those legal reqs, shall we? The one universal requirement under Michigan law states that all unpowered vessels less than 26 feet long must have at least one lantern or flashlight shining a white light at all times while in motion (such as a headlamp). The ideal illumination of this light would amount to visibility from at least three miles away, although that is not a legal requirement. Michigan law also requires paddlers to carry either a wearable personal flotation device ("PFD") or a throwable PFD for each person on board a vessel.
One more legal note for night paddling before I'll retire my lawyer side for a bit. While most of the Detroit region's inner waterways fall under Michigan state jurisdiction, the Great Lakes constitute international boundary waters and therefore fall under the U.S. Coast Guard's jurisdiction. As such, special regulations apply to paddling along any international waters like the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, and Lake Erie. These include carrying (1) a mounting a "kayak light" that is visible from 360-degrees and (2) visual/audio distress signals.
Now that we have the legal requirements aside, all that remains for night paddling essentials is warm, water-proof or resistant clothing. As a general tip, you should always dress for the water temperature you'll be paddling in, NOT the air temperature. For cold paddling conditions, opt to wear a drysuit over your base and mid layers otherwise used for hiking, running, or biking. No need for an outer layer - your windproof, waterproof, and breathable drysuit takes care of that.
Quick Safety Add-Ons
Sport-specific gear aside, let's address the elephant in the article: night can make even the most passionate outdoor enthusiast uncomfortable, especially due to the increased risk of human or nature-induced harm. We absolutely understand that, so we wanted to share a few quick best practices for nighttime recreational safety (especially for newer recreationists):
Always tell someone where you’re going. Day or night, you should let someone know where you’re heading just in case you don’t make it back in the time that you expect to.
If possible, avoid going solo. Exploring at night can be intimidating and your mind can be your own worst enemy when you’re out there by yourself. Every snap of a twig or looming shadow can feel like a threat. If you’re just getting into hiking, running, or biking at night, go with a group of friends. If you're heading out to paddle, going with at least one other person should almost always be a prerequisite to even getting into the water after sundown.
Bring a cellphone for emergencies. Understand that you can’t always count on getting cell service.
Be observant. It’s easy to get turned around in the dark, even on a trail that you’ve traveled on several times during daylight hours. Watch for trail markers and turns. If you intentionally leave the trail for any reason, take mental notes on how to get back on track. When in the water - especially in busy waterways, which should be avoided at night if possible - stay on the lookout for other watercraft or potential obstructions.
Slow down. Darkness makes terrain more challenging, even on your local, familiar trails. Slow down and don’t expect to travel at your daylight pace.
Start on a familiar route. Especially if you’re new to night hiking, running, biking, or paddling, start on a trail that you’ve traveled many times during the day to minimize the lack of familiarity that may set in at night.
Be ready for wildlife. Most nighttime wildlife encounters are casual (and pretty cool), but your sudden presence on especially a mountain bike may prompt an unexpected and defensive response from otherwise benign animals. Listen and look for animals, not only so that you can enjoy seeing them but also so that you can respond to any hostile encounters if necessary.
Take advantage of a full moon. Have you ever hiked in the middle of the night without your headlamp on? It's truly an ethereal experience that nearly eliminates most of the darkness-related risks described above. 10/10 recommend.
If you're still with us by now, you have our utmost respect and appreciation. This article turned out longer than anticipated, but we truly wanted to provide a comprehensive "one-stop-shop" for all matters related to nighttime adventuring. We hope that this article will prove useful for inspiring, equipping, and protecting the Detroit region's next legion of nocturnal explorers and outdoor enthusiasts.
Whether we prefer it or not, our natural environment becomes shrouded in darkness for a solid portion of the year. Let's embrace that wholeheartedly, yet responsibly. This article provides the gear and knowledge to get your mind and body in the right place for nighttime exploration. All that's left now is to get out there.
And, as always, we can't to see you out there.