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Trail Tips

Lights Out

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Five keys to running in the dark

This article originally appeared in our November 2006 issue.

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Photo by Patitucchiphoto

Fall might bring welcome respite from the summer heat, but the prospect of decreased daylight and limited weekday trail time can feel like an unfair trade-off. But the time change doesn’t have to chase you off the trails–these common-sense steps will help you navigate the hazards of running in the dark right through to spring or the long night of your next 100-miler.

1. The way you know is the way to go. Pick familiar terrain that you are comfortable with, advises adventure racer and ultrarunner Star Affolter, who often trains on the trails near her Tennessee home in the pre-dawn hours. “I choose trails that I have run before so I don’t risk getting lost,” says the two-time Primal Quest competitor. “Things can look very different in the dark, and it’s easy to get
turned around.”

2. Get your gear on.

The middle of a moonlit trail is a less-than-ideal place for a wardrobe malfunction, so use the seasonal change as an opportunity to re-evaluate your trail gear. Don glasses with clear lenses to protect your eyes from “invisible” branches that have the potential to gouge your delicate optical orbs. Wear well-fitting clothing that won’t snag on shrubs or trees and select shoes appropriate for the terrain to reduce the chance of tripping over unseen obstacles. For your running partners’ and vehicular traffic’s sake, consider wearing reflective clothing to make you more visible in the darkness.

3. Use your headlamp.

A lightweight headlamp and/or
handheld flashlight is essential for night travel, according to Jim Farmer, another Primal Quest competitor, team captain and lead navigator for Team Rock Creek Outfitters. “A good headlamp that fits well is crucial,” says Farmer, who suggests finding a model with multiple intensity settings to save on battery life. “You definitely want the strongest light possible, but you don’t want something so heavy and bulky that it’s bouncing around on your head and killing your neck.”

Since the advent of LED light
technology, headlamps have become smaller, lighter-weight and brighter. One of the most compact
headlamps on the market is Petzl’s Zipka (a retractable-band version of the popular Tikka), which weighs a mere 65 grams
including batteries.

“Always make sure the batteries in your headlamp are fresh, especially if you’re out there alone,” says Affolter. “And if you’re running on trails at dusk, go ahead and put the lamp on so it will be ready when you need it.”

4. Common sense counts double. Running in the dark compromises your field of vision and increases risk of injury, so basic safety precautions become even more critical. Running with a group is preferable, but if you do find yourself going solo, bring a cell phone and tell someone the route you’re taking, as well as the time you plan to return. Leaving a note with your run itinerary on the kitchen countertop or the car is another smart precaution, and whether you’re alone or with others, a basic first-aid kit and a whistle to communicate your location are necessities.

5. Have a positive outlook.

Ultimately, running trails after dark is a matter of self-confidence; the more you dwell on the possibility of injury, the more likely you are to end up sidelined. “Confidence is key,” says Farmer. “Instead of trying to look out for every root, rock or fallen branch under foot, keep your focus a few steps ahead, then trust that your feet and legs will adapt.”

Emma Williams, an avid runner, cyclist and triathlete, lives and writes in Chattanooga, Tennessee and southwestern United Kingdom.