In the Unlikely Event
Editor’s note: In this monthly outdoors feature, we’ll investigate the potential hazards of outdoor adventures — what they are, how to prepare for them and how to survive worst-case scenarios in the backcountry and in life! Have a specific situation you’d like to know more about or troubleshoot? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll investigate.
While getting ready to go on a trail run during a trip to the Oregon Coast this winter, I looked at my headlamp in the drawer of the bungalow I’d rented for the week and briefly considered stuffing it into my running vest.
I ultimately left it behind. As it turns out, this was a big mistake.
It was 4:30 p.m. when I arrived at the trailhead, leaving me about an hour and a half before sunset — plenty of time for the easy five-miler I had planned. I’d run the distance thousands of times, well within that time frame.
I had not, however, run the entirety of that trail and about two miles in, I found myself at the bottom of a rather precipitous mile-long hill featuring grades that hovered in the high teens and 20s, topping out at an impressive 46%.
The subsequent downhill was no easier. Large, loose rocks and similar grades reduced me to a shuffle. I knew I was losing light fast and kept thinking about that headlamp I’d foolishly left behind.
Once I hit the flat, steady trail, I raced the setting sun back to my car. Dusk had begun to set in, but my eyes adjusted and I could still make out the shapes of rocks and roots. I had two miles to go and was determined to get back before total darkness descended.
Now that we’re into spring, the days are getting longer. But in your excitement to get out and explore new hikes, don’t overestimate your daylight hours in pre-hike planning. Getting caught unexpectedly and unprepared in the dark in the outdoors can be a challenging situation. In addition to limited vision, the temperatures can drop and the likelihood of suffering an injury from a misplaced step or from getting lost can increase; and if you are lost or cannot physically make it to your car, you may have to spend the night in the woods. Having a plan and knowing what to do in the event of an issue will help keep you safe.
“If you notice that it’s starting to get dark, evaluate what you have with you and your comfort level hiking in the dark,” said Anna Roth, the Washington Trail Association (WTA) hiking content manager. “Make a decision early on as to whether you feel comfortable getting out safely with the stuff you have in your pack.”
Pre-hike planning includes calculating the amount of time it will take you to complete the route, taking into account terrain, altitude, elevation gain and distance.
“Give yourself a buffer. If the sun sets at 8 p.m., then you want to be back before then,” said Nancy Temki, co-chair of The Mountaineers’ Foothills Hiking and Backpacking committee. “People who are new to the trail are more nervous about hiking in the dark, but it’s usually much safer to continue hiking in the dark than it is to stay out overnight, especially if you’re not prepared,” Temki said.
Of course, heading out prepared will give you the best chance of staying comfortable and safe should you be unable to reach your car in the dark.
“One of the 10 Essentials is shelter and extra layers, emphasizing the need to stay warm if you are stuck overnight,” said Roth.
Another good rule of thumb is to leave your itinerary with a friend or family member; this way, if you don’t return that evening, they can call Search and Rescue and provide your general location.
In the event you do find yourself caught in the dark and are unable to get back to your car, the following tips will increase your chances of staying safe throughout the night.
Stay dry, stay warm. Keep your core insulated as best you can. “You can sit on your pack and try to get your raincoat over your knees if that’s all you have,” said Temkin. “A cheap and lightweight hack is to carry a garbage bag. Just cut a hole for your head and use it as an emergency poncho.”
Temkin also suggests emptying your backpack and using the contents for insulation. You can also stick your feet inside to stay warm and dry.
Snuggle up. If you are with a friend and it’s cold, then get cozy. Skin to skin contact with someone can prevent hypothermia. The core and armpits are the warmest areas of the body and can generate heat quickly.
Remember that the peak or lake isn’t going anywhere. If you notice that the sun is starting to set and you don’t have the proper gear with you to get back to your car before dark, then turn around and make a plan to return to the destination with plenty of daylight and the right gear.
“There’s no shame in turning around and staying safe,” said Temkin.
She also noted that those on a loop hike should consider turning back around if continuing along the loop means navigating trickier terrain, like a river crossing or washout.
Test your source of light before you leave. There’s nothing worse than getting caught in the dark, only to find that your headlamp is dead. Sure, you can use your phone, but the flashlight feature drains the battery quickly and it’s not ideal because phones are not hands-free. Always bring an extra pair of batteries or a second source of light.
Stay put, but keep moving. If you are injured or are forced to stay the night for another reason, stay where you are, but move your body to generate heat. If your injury allows, swing your arms, walk around in circles, do jumping jacks, just keep the blood flowing.
Staying near the trail will help a Search and Rescue team find you more easily or, if you decide to head back on your own in the morning, you reduce your chances of getting lost.
As for me, I narrowly managed to beat the sunset. My running app showed that I ran the final two miles at race speed, with my feet flying over rocks and roots as I chased down the last flickers of light. My legs carried my body effortlessly thanks to all the adrenaline pumping through my veins. Just before cracking open a beer to celebrate when I got back to my lodging, I tucked my headlamp in my running vest, because, well, you never know when you’ll get caught in the dark.