August 18, 2020

There’s nothing quite like watching the Earth go to sleep after a long, summer day, and spending hours running beneath a moonlit sky. Maybe it is the crisp, cool air on your face or the feeling of solitude. Perhaps it’s the feeling you get when the world around you is swallowed up in darkness. Running at night is a captivating experience that can inspire runners to go those extra miles.

For some runners, however, the thought of running at night is often accompanied with a bit of anxiety. The thought of venturing into the unknowns of quiet darkness can be unsettling and raise questions about safety. Knowing how to prepare and what things to consider can calm apprehensions and give the confidence to lace up and hit the trail or road after sunset.

The Skinny:

When you’re running at night, visibility is key. Make sure you can see and be seen by wearing a light, reflective gear, and avoiding dark-colored clothing. Pick a safe route and always let someone know where you're going and when you'll be back. And bring a phone in case you need some help.

If you want to experience what it’s like to run under a star-filled sky while the world around you is asleep, follow these 16 tips from night-running vets to keep it safe and have an enjoyable time.

Visibility is Key

Everyone wants to see and be seen, but when you’re running at night, visibility is key. Not only do you need to be able to see the terrain around you to be able to move through it safely, you also need to be visible to others. Being highly visible to other runners, mountain bikers and especially other vehicles is paramount for safety. Wearing a light, reflective gear, and avoiding dark-colored clothing are three great ways to get yourself noticed.

1. Wear a Light

While the stars and moon are wonderful companions to have during your evening run, they most often don’t provide enough light for you to run by. And while many roads are equipped with streetlamps, many are not. If you’ve ever taken a spill on asphalt because of a slight misstep, or tripped over a tree root, you know that if you want to see clearly, you need to bring a light with you.

Pro Tip:

The shadows cast by a light source from above your eyes will be hidden resulting in a very ‘flat’ view of the ground. When you wear your light below your eyes, like on a sternum strap or on your waist, the shadows cast by the light become visible and reveal the texture of the terrain. This dramatically enhances depth perception.

Those who have spent time running at night know that a good light makes all the difference. Being able to see what’s at your feet, to the left and right and several feet ahead will help you to navigate tough terrain to reduce falls, and keep you on the right path. A good light also dramatically increases your chances of being seen.

Woman walking dog. Kenzie Barlow walking her dog.
Kenzie Barlow walking her dog.

Etiquette Tip:

While a bright light can be awesome for the wearing runner, it can be very irritating when focused on someone else’s wide-open pupils. Consider that other’s eyes may be adjusted to a much lower level of light. A simple way to not give someone several minutes of night blindness is to be aware of where your light is pointing and simply put your hand over your it as you approach them.

2. Wear Reflective Gear

There is a lot of awesome gear out there with lots of options to choose from. There are also some incredible materials that are super-reflective. For running at night, choose gear that has a significant amount of reflective material incorporated into it. Any light around you, whether it’s the headlights of a car, a streetlamp, or the lights worn by another runner, will reflect off of this material, making you visible to others. This tip is an easy one. Do it. It could save your life.

3. Avoid Dark-Colored Clothing

Ninjas and stagehands have known for centuries that in order to go undetected, wear black. Contrarily, since we need to attract as much attention as possible while running through the darkness, it is important to wear lighter colors at night. Light-colored clothing will increase others visibility of you at night simply because light reflects off of lighter colors rather than being absorbed like it does in darker colors. And, it’s even better if your clothing has reflective material incorporated into it as well.

Pick a Safe Route

Pick a safe route and always let someone know where you're going and when you'll be back.

There are a number of elements for consideration that go into choosing a safe route for your night run. For instance, you probably would avoid running that knife’s edge or scrambling along a cliff in the dark. While these points seem obvious, here are three additional tips to consider when planning your night route.

4. Run a Familiar Route

You know those runs you can do while in your sleep or while blindfolded? This type of run is perfect for a nighttime excursion. In the dark, a lot of the larger but distant reference points are not visible. And without the sun, its easier to lose your sense of direction. This can make route finding more challenging. Also, knowing about that tricky stream crossing to keep your feet dry, or that spring where you can refill your water can reduce the trepidation caused by uncertainty.

In a 2013 Nature Review Neuroscience paper, neuroscientists tell us that anxiety can result from uncertainty because uncertainty about a possible future threat disrupts our ability to avoid it or to mitigate its negative impact. Familiarity reduces uncertainty and helps our mind to relax.

If you ‘need’ to run a route in the dark that you haven’t done before, Get as familiar with it as you can -virtually. Trail descriptions from blog or popular trail sites along with maps, elevation vs. distance charts and satellite pictures are a great way to get information about the route before you head out.

Reducing the number of unknowns will increase your confidence. When the worry of getting lost or running into something unfamiliar is significantly reduced, you can more fully enjoy your nighttime run.

Sign on mountaindn trail. Lambs canyon.
Lambs Canyon trail is one of hundreds of well-marked trails in the Central Wasatch.

5. Vary Your Running Route

Don’t create a pattern that a would-be predator can use to cause you harm. Running a familiar route doesn't mean that you need to run that route every time. In fact, it is highly recommended that you have several familiar routes to choose from. This is due to the unfortunate yet true reality that unkind strangers who want to cause people harm do exist. Running the same route or even pattern of route, for example, doing Roger's Loop on Mondays and Deer Creek Trail on Wednesday's, will allow someone to predict your future whereabouts. Vary your routine by starting at different times and places sporadically throughout the week. This will leave no pattern to follow.

6. Run a Popular Route

As awesome as it sounds to have the mountain and your thoughts all to yourself and to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before,’ choosing a popular route is usually accompanied with an increase in safety. It’s likely that there is more information in the form of maps, descriptions, GPX files, tips, etc. available about a popular route. It’s also likely that the often-trodden trail is better marked and presents less of a challenge in route finding. Just saying the name of a well-known route communicates a plethora of information that makes it easier to let others where you are going. And, the likelihood of seeing more people increases the chances of flagging down help if the need arises. Sometimes, it’s the ‘road more travelled’ that makes all the difference.

Keep Good Company - Be Good Company

It's awesome to be in a group of people who inspire you and push you to achieve. It’s also a great feeling when you help someone stretch towards their potential. Shared adventures are often the basis of solid long-term friendships. There most definitely is strength and safety in numbers.

7. Run in a Group or With a Partner

Not only is running with someone or in a group more fun, it can help you stay motivated and improve your performance. The accountability to others might keep you from scrubbing your run when you might feel a little off. The comradery and conversation also helps to keep the mind awake and sharp during longer runs.

Research shows that groups, with their combined skillsets, tend to make better decisions which will help to keep you safe if something unexpected happens. Even if you never need it, it’s nice to have the promise of assistance with a problem or injury. And, in a group, you’re less likely to be bothered by others.

There is an additional bonus to doing something adventurous with a group - courage. A Psychology Today article indicates that being in a group can also help us feel more courageous. Who couldn’t use that little extra boost as we head off into the dark?

Three people running at night in a tunnel of trees
A small group of trail runners take advantage of a pre-dawn start en route to the summit of Mt Timpanogos.

8. Tell Someone Where You’re Going and When You’ll Be Back

Whether you’re running with friends or alone, it is always good form to let people on the mainland know where you’re headed. This is particularly important while running at night because people are more difficult to find at night, should something go wrong. A simple note or text letting a loved one or friend know the route you plan to take will give you peace of mind that if something happens, others will know where to look for you.

Woman climbing up pass at night
Marci Pearson climbs to the remote Regulator Pass during a night section of the Millwood 100. Her crew knew her intended route and when to expect her at the next checkpoint. Photo credit: Melissa Soper

Be Smart, Use Your Phone

In addition to the obligatory selfie, a phone is an invaluable tool that can help you be safer when running at night. It can help you plan, prepare, communicate, track and route find. And if worse comes to worst, the flashlight on your phone just might get you across the finish line. However, it’s not going to be much use if its out of juice. So, make sure it’s charged and ready to go before heading out. That’s an obvious tip, so we won’t count that one. Here are a few more worth counting.

9. Bring Your Phone

Even if you’re really good about telling someone where you’re going to run, there is a chance that you might need to change your plans either unexpectedly or deliberately. Maybe you take a wrong turn by mistake, or the temptation is too great, and you decide to channel your inner Ferdinand Magellan. Maybe you start to feel sick mid-run, and need to have someone pick you up. Having your phone with you, will give you the ability to communicate. Even if you don’t end up needing it to reach out for assistance, it’s nice for both you and your loved ones to know that you can get in touch. Keep in mind, the safety net of being able to make a quick call is only as good as the local cell service.

10. Track Your Run

Sometimes running with others isn’t possible. Perhaps it is a scheduling issue, and you don’t have local running friends who can run at night. Maybe you haven’t connected with a local running group. And then there are those who just prefer running alone. Regardless of your reasons for running alone at night, it is still important to stay connected with others during your run, in order to stay safe.

Apps like Strava have a beacon that you can turn on and send to three “safety contacts.” This is equivalent to letting people know where you are headed, but a zillion times better. If you run into danger, and don’t come home when expected, those who have access to your beacon cand help locate you and bring you back to safety.

11. Check the Weather

Who would have thought that one day, your phone could give you weather updates right there on the home screen? Use your phone’s weather app to check the weather right before you head out because a calm evening run can turn wild and scary really quickly when an unexpected storm moves in. Being exposed to elements that you weren’t prepared for even in the daytime hours can be terrifying, but adding the darkness to it, makes it downright dangerous.

Make sure you check the weather even up to a few hours or even minutes before heading out, because in the dark it’s harder to see the weather changing before it gets to you.

National Weather Service Forecast
Typical weather forecast from the National Weather Service

12. Carry Your ID/ICE

Most smart phones have some way to put - In Case of Emergency (ICE) - contact and medical information into your phone in a way that can be accessed without needing your phone’s password. Include your name, age, current medications, allergies, and also, a primary contact and at least one secondary contact. Spending a little bit of time to put this into your phone is a good just-in-case investment. Whether you’re an iPhone or Android user, here’s a PC Magazine article that will walk you through the steps. You may also want to keep a printed version of your ICE info with you as well.

Have a Situational Awareness Mindset

Situational awareness is more of a mindset than a hard skill. In a 1995 paper, Mica R. Endsley broke it down into three key components:

  • Perception of the elements in your environment
  • Comprehension of the current situation
  • Projection of their status in the near future

Your brain combines these three components and decides to either just keep doing what you’re currently doing or take some additional action. You’re level of attention, experience, training and innate abilities will influence the quality of you’re decisions. Here’s a few tips to help out.

13. Ditch the Earbuds

While bringing noise makers to deter wildlife predators is a good idea, bringing the kind of noise that only you can hear, aka, headphones is not a good idea. Headphones while running at night just mutes out one more of your much-needed senses. You need to be able to hear what’s around you, especially when it is difficult to see . All of our senses work together to keep us safe from harm, and shutting things like hearing out, only makes it that much more of a challenge.

However, if you must have music, an e-book or podcast playing to keep your mind off your aching muscles or wandering crazy thoughts, try turning the volume down or leaving one earbud out to allow some outside sound to enter in.

Man running at night on mountain trail. Mike KcNight navigates the Lambs Canyon trail to Millcreek Canyon in the Wasatch, which is habitat for moose, bears, cougars, and other wildlife.
Mike KcNight navigates the Lambs Canyon trail to Millcreek Canyon in the Wasatch, which is habitat to moose, bears, cougars, and other wildlife.

14. Run Against Traffic

Even with lights and reflective gear, if your nighttime runs find you sharing the roads with cars, it is important to make sure cars can see you. Running against traffic on the shoulder of the road will point your light in the direction of oncoming motorists so that they can see you loud and clear. The better they see you, the better chance they have at giving you the space you need to run safely home.

15. Use Running Poles

Ascending and descending terrain can be difficult in the daytime, let alone at night. To maintain balance, our brain takes in signals from our inner ear, vision and proprioceptors and processes them to figure out how we are moving and oriented in space. A Sports Health article explains that proprioceptors are soft-tissue sensors that tell the brain how much tension is on our muscles, tendons, and ligaments. For example, it is through these sensors that we can tell we’ve stepped off a boardwalk onto a sandy beach without looking. A handrail improves our balance because it allows us to get additional proprioceptive input when we go up or down a set of stairs.

Leki trail running pole
Lightweight trail running poles are easy to deploy or pack.

Even with a good light, our vision is diminished at night. Running poles give our brain two additional sets of proprioceptive inputs that help us understand ground contours and our position in relation to them. This significantly improves our balance. And there is an added bonus. A 2010 Northumbria University study shows that running poles reduce the load on your legs, giving a physiological benefit in endurance applications.

In short, running poles can help us move more safely, more quickly and for longer through varying terrain.

16. Bring Personal Defense Gear

Those noises you hear while on the trail may frighten you into tiptoeing. But unless your training run also doubles as a hunting excursion, treading lightly may make you become the hunted one. And just like we humans are frightened by loud noises, so are say, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes and bears.

Bringing your own noisemakers like bear bells will make you sound big, and should ward off the creatures that lurk. If you don’t have bear bells, clapping loudly or hollering a big, “Whoop-whoop” sporadically mid-run could also do the trick. If you are running with friends, keeping up a conversation using your outside voices will also let animals know that you are there and you are a force to stay away from.

Don’t Let Fear Stop You

Running at night can be an exhilarating experience, but it does come with added risk. Don’t let fear stop you. Fear is an emotion that tells you - there are some important things that you should pay attention to. While this list is not exhaustive, we have tried to make it a good list of things that should be considered.

  1. Wear a light
  2. Wear reflective gear
  3. Avoid dark-colored clothing
  4. Run a familiar route
  5. Vary your running routes
  6. Run a popular route
  7. Run in a group or with a partner
  8. Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back
  9. Bring your phone
  10. Track your run
  11. Check the weather
  12. Carry your ID/ICE
  13. Ditch the earbuds
  14. Run against traffic
  15. Use running poles
  16. Bring personal defense gear

Please Leave a Comment

Tell us your favorite tip for running at night. It could be one on the list that you’d like to add to, or it could be one that we completely missed. We read all the comments and we’d love to hear from you.

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