Keeping kids in the dark is a good thing when it comes to night hiking.
Hitting a trail after the sun sets can build confidence and resiliency in children. Here’s how to get started.
One of Laura Mylan’s favorite memories with her son occurred during an impromptu night hike while they were camping on Lake Superior. Although her son, who was eight at the time, was hesitant, they decided to traverse a dark path—thick with undergrowth—that led to the beach. “We were so in the moment—no screens, no cars going by, just me and my child in the natural world,” says Mylan, a media relations expert for the Children and Nature Network.
Hiking when the world is cloaked in darkness can feel risky and scary—but that can be a great antidote to life’s daily stressors. “Research shows that kids get a real sense of achievement and learn how to take on intimidating tasks from exciting, adventurous activities like night hikes,” says Belinda Kirk, who’s led adventure expeditions and is the author of Adventure Revolution: The Life-Changing Power of Choosing Challenge.
The key to helping kids see risk as beneficial instead of scary, Kirk says, is to undertake short-lived, playful challenges that build confidence, resilience, and the coping skills that help with anxiety. And night hikes, which provide opportunities to practice experiencing and managing fear, fit that bill.
“It’s also a great thing to do as a family,” adds Kirk, who frequently hikes after the sun sets with her partner and four-year-old son. Solving problems and facing uncertainty together builds trust, strengthens family bonds, and improves communication, she says.
And these nighttime jaunts don’t have to be complicated to be fun. With enough preparation, you can turn any night hike into an experience kids will talk about for years to come. Here’s how to get started, whether it’s a quick circuit around the neighborhood or a deeper dive into mysterious woods.
Before You Go
Planning ahead before you set out will minimize stress and maximize fun. Try these ideas to equip your family to tackle everything from the munchies to nighttime anxieties.
Involve kids in planning. Putting kids in charge can give children a sense of ownership and dispel fear, Mylan says. “Let them play a leadership role in thinking about the night hike—like picking the location, deciding how long you’ll be out, and figuring out what kinds of snacks to pack.” These tasks also hone kids’ executive-function skills, which include planning and maintaining focus.
Enlighten them. Prep kids beforehand about what they might experience in the dark and ask them to share any worries they may have, Kirk suggests. Some families might opt to do the hike during the day to test it out. And brainstorm strategies to combat the sudden onset of the willies. “When kids have information and feel prepared, they won't get so anxious,” Kirk says.
Grab some lights—maybe. Flashlights and headlamps are essential, but Kirk tries to avoid using them whenever possible—especially on nights with a full moon. “If you switch the flashlights off and let your eyes adjust, you can actually see more with your night vision,” she says. Flashlights and headlamps tend to narrow your field of vision to whatever’s caught within that bright beam.
Make kids glow. For anxious parents, Mylan also recommends outfitting kids with reflective tape or stickers. “When my son was little, he was a bit of a darter,” Mylan says. “So we'd make glow-stick necklaces to wear on night hikes, and I wouldn’t panic every time he [ran ahead] to look at something.”
Rope things off. Roberta McFarland, who consults for the state-mandated outdoor education program in Washington, suggests “having a rope that everyone holds onto as you walk, with adults at the front and back and kids in the middle.” The physical connection between hikers gives children a feeling of security and helps gets them comfortable with walking in the dark, she says.
On the Hike
Night hikes are infinitely adaptable to your family’s skill and anxiety levels. And as everyone becomes more comfortable, families can add additional challenges to up the adrenaline factor.
Start slow. If kids seem a little unsure about hiking in the dark, Upparent cofounder Alexandra Fung suggests checking out local arboretums, botanical gardens, and national parks, which often offer guided night hikes. “These programs automatically plug you in to a group as well as an experienced guide, who can safely lead you through the trail and help you learn about the animals and plants in the area,” says the mother of four.
Proceed in stages. Once your crew is ready for a solo challenge, choose your trail based on your entire family’s ability. If night hiking is new for your family, you might want to start with a walk around the block, then work up to a trail with easy and safe terrain. More seasoned hikers can seek out paths with drop-offs or obstacles.
Easy does it. Kirk estimates that the same hike takes twice as long to complete at night compared to during the day. So don’t be afraid to proceed slowly. To further defuse any fear, narrate the journey or have kids describe what they’re experiencing.
Know when to go. Mylan suggests setting out just before dusk and choosing a path that’s out and back rather than in a loop. “That way kids can experience the trail before it gets dark and look for familiar landmarks on the route back,” she says. “‘Oh, there’s that big rock,’ or ‘There’s this turn and now we know we’re almost there.’”
More Than a Hike
These ideas will help you mix up night hikes with fun activities that capitalize on the unique characteristics of being out at night.
“See” the world in a new way. Being out at night can be a perspective-shifting experience, says Rebecca Hershberg, a clinical psychologist and parenting coach. “Point out to kids that how the light and time of day changes can make really familiar settings, sounds, or textures different,” she says. Kirk enjoys hiking to the top of a hill before the sun sets, then watching how the land below changes as darkness falls. “It’s a magical way of seeing something in a completely different way,” she says.
Follow the leader. To ease kids into navigating in the dark, McFarland likes doing a “cat-eye” hunt. Cut reflective tape into cat-eye shapes, and stick them onto trees or rocks before the hike. Arm kids with a flashlight and have them lead the way, looking for the “cat-eye” reflections (just like real ones!) to see where to go next. “This builds independence in kids and the feeling of, ‘Wow, I’m the leader and the adults are behind me,’” McFarland says. (Be sure to remove all stickers after the activity.)
Stay in the moment. When our sight is impaired, our other senses often heighten in response. Hershberg suggests tapping into the mindfulness of the moment with a listening exercise. “Be quiet for 60 seconds and have each person count how many different sounds they hear.” Extend the game to other senses, like touch or smell.
Go on a scavenger hunt. All kinds of creatures come out at night. Come up with a list of flora and fauna to look out for and see how many kids can find. Check state park and nature preserve websites for which plant and animal species might make an appearance; children can also ID their finds with the kid-friendly Seek app.
Explore creepy-crawlies. Budding entomologists might enjoy moth trapping. Have kids shine a light on a white sheet that hangs between two trees. “You can attract loads of moths, look at them all, and then release them,” Kirk says.
Create stories like ancient stargazers. Challenge kids to come up with stories for shapes they see among the stars. “Just as different cultures over the years would look up at the stars and create stories about what they see, kids can get creative with their own myths and fairy tales,” McFarland says.