It’s that time of the year again.

No, I’m not talking about the Holidays or Christmas shopping.

It’s time to break out the cold weather clothing, put on a tough face, and head out into the darkness. (For those of us in the northern hemisphere, anyway.)

Shorter days — made shorter by the end of daylight savings time — make it nearly impossible to train through the winter without running in the dark.

I don’t know about you, but I’m at least a little scared of the dark. Night running is intimidating, it’s more work, and it’s an easy excuse.

Which is exactly why many runners end up skipping the darkness, either by bailing completely, or by slogging it out on the treadmill. Neither of which are ideal.

So today we’re going to break down everything you need to know to feel comfortable, safe, and excited for months of running in the dark.

The Benefits of Night Running (And Yes There Are Some)

Believe it or not, there are actually benefits to running in the dark. At least for the positive thinker, there are.

For starters, your ability to run in the dark opens up a lot more time to run. You’re no longer forced to rush home from work and cram in a few miles as the sun goes down, or sprint out of the office during a lunch break. You free to go home, stick to a normal schedule, and run whenever you get the chance.

On top of that, I find running in the dark a refreshing escape from the visual noise of screens and lights. It focuses your vision, blacks out the background, and allows you to zero in. A route that you’ve run hundreds of times before, suddenly becomes a new experience.

You rely more on your other senses, listening, smelling, and feeling the road or trail. It’s relaxing.

And finally, running at night is great practice for ultramarathons. Many ultras over 50 miles in distance require at least some running in the dark. Either through a pre-dawn run, or running through the night.

The night offers new challenges, and if you’ve had little experience — especially if it’s late in the race and you’re already tired — those challenges will feel like mountains. Training at night is great practice for race day.

Safety Tips to Live By

When it comes to night running safety, concerns are drastically different between roads and trails. On the road, you have cars and other humans. On the trail, the terrain is your biggest challenge.

For that reason, I’ve split the safety tips into 2 sections. You may notice a little overlap, but my hope is that this will make things easier to follow.

For the Road

See and be seen.

That’s the most important consideration when it comes to running the road at night. Runners often make the mistake of assuming that drivers can see them … and we both know what happens when you assume. Even if a driver does see something, they can’t always tell that you’re a moving human, and may not take proper precaution.

Use the following tips to make sure you can see, are seen, and don’t find yourself in a place you shouldn’t be:

1) Wear reflectors around your joints: On your ankles, knees, elbows, and shoulders. Placing reflectors on your moving joints, immediately differentiates you from a still object like a mailbox or lamppost. It also tells the driver which way you’re moving, giving them more context and reaction time.

Most running clothes includes reflectors, but often in the wrong locations. Pay attention to that when selecting clothing, or pick up additional reflective tape or straps to add.

2) Wear bright clothing: Reflectors only reflect when hit directly by the light, so throw on bright colored clothing to make sure you’re seen even when the reflectors aren’t. Besides, neons are in these days, right?

3) Carry a light: Even on the road, bumps, potholes, and sidewalks can all send you flying towards the ground. If your street isn’t well lit, carry a light.

4) Wear a flasher: When running on a busy street or in the middle of the city, throw on a flasher. It may look a little silly, but the flashing red or white lights may be just the thing that keeps you alive. If you can’t find one at your local running store, check the bike shop.

5) Be mindful of your surroundings: In general, runners are just as safe from human predators at night as they are during the day, but you should always be careful. Stay out of dark parks, away from quiet alleys, and on the side of the street with the streetlights. Just be smart.

6) Tell someone where you’re going or stick together: This is a good rule regardless of the time of day. Tell someone where you’re going, and if you can, bring a friend along for the run.

7) Ditch the earbuds: Remember, you’re sense of hearing will heighten as your sight gets impaired. Don’t block out noise by cranking loud music. Listen for cars, people, and anything else that might be coming your way.

For the Trail

For trail runners, the major concerns for night miles are getting lost, tripping, and wildlife, although for the most part wildlife is a non-issue. Here’s what you should do to stay safe on the trail at night:

1) Tell someone where you’re going: Just like on the road, you should always tell someone where you’re going.

2) Know where you’re going: In order to tell someone, you have to know yourself. Night running isn’t the time to explore new routes. If that’s unavoidable, or if you’re looking for an adventure, make sure you’re carrying a map or detailed instructions. It’s tough enough to navigate the trails in the light, and darkness only makes it more challenging. Even the most familiar trails may look unrecognizable after the sun goes down.

3) Carry a headlamp or flash light: This might seem like a no-brainer, but trails are dark at night. Most trail runners prefer a headlamp for night running, but companies are also developing handheld flashlights, and lights that go around your waist or feet as an alternative. Keep in mind, there’s nothing wrong with carrying more than one light.

If you’re going for a longer run, carry backup batteries or a backup light.

4) Slow down: Even with the best lights, darkness and shadows make trails more difficult. Slow down your pace a bit to accommodate the new challenge. Over time you’ll get more comfortable, and have a better feeling for how fast you can run.

5) Avoid technical terrain: This one is completely dictated by your location and activity, but if you’re just going out for a casual night run, avoid the technical stuff. Think of it as striking a balance between risk and reward, and enjoy the rocky, rooty terrain another time.

If you’re racing, on a trip, or just don’t have access to non-technical trails, there might not be anything you can do about this one.

6) Stay alert for wildlife: Just like on the road, you want to stay alert when trail running at night — only this time for wildlife instead of cars. That means keeping earbuds to a minimum, and paying attention to what’s going on around you.

Racing in the Dark

I love the first few hours of night running during a race. It offers a welcomed change from the miles you’ve already run, and allows you to clear out the clutter and focus on the race. If you’re starting a race in the dark, think of it as a good opportunity to get into a rhythm before the bulk of the race begins.

There are a few things to keep in mind when racing in the dark. The first, and most obvious, is that you want to make sure you can see. Weak headlamps are cheap and easy to come by, but won’t cut it for long hours during a race. The better your light, the better you’ll be able to run. I recommend investing in a strong headlamp or handheld light for racing.

Some runners struggle with tunnel vision when running through the night during a race. This is usually a result of a dim light, and another good reason to invest in something brighter.

If you’re running through the night, you can add fatigue to the list of challenges. As you get tired, foot placement and smooth running become more difficult. Be mindful of that as the darkness limits what you can see on the ground.

And finally, always have a backup ready. Either new batteries, or another headlamp tucked away in a drop bag or pack.

The Best Headlamps & Lights for Night Running

Below you’ll find some of my favorite headlamps and lights for running in the dark. Many of the links are affiliate links, which mean I’ll get a small cut if you purchase the lights (or anything else, for that matter) at REI or Amazon through my link. Thanks in advance for supporting Rock Creek Runner!

Headlamps:

  • Petzl MYO: A lightweight, bright headlamp perfect for long hours on the trail.
    • Perfect For: Ultrarunners and trail running
  • Black Diamond Icon Polar: My go-to if I’m carrying a pack. You can detach the battery pack, and put it in a pack or belt, virtually eliminating any head weight.
    • Perfect For: Ultrarunners carrying a pack, or runs that require a bright light.
  • Olympia Outdoors EX550: This is the newest member of my headlamp family, and it is freaking bright! The head is a little bulky if you’re running fast, but well worth it if you need the extra light.
    • Perfect For: Someone who really wants to light things up.
  • Petzl Tikka: My go-to cheap headlamp. It’s a perfect backup option, or for runs where you don’t need all that much light (on the road, at dawn/dusk, etc.)
    • Perfect For: Road running, a backup headlamp, or running at dawn/dusk.

Other Light Options:

  • Night Runner Shoe Lights: These lights, which clip on to your shoe laces, are fun and funky. While I wouldn’t recommend them as your sole light source if it’s really dark, they’re a great way to supplement another light, or to be seen on the road.
    • Perfect For: Supplemental lighting, and to draw attention to you from drivers.
  • Nathan Zephyr Fire 300 Hand Torch: I really appreciate how Nathan has transformed a flashlight into a handheld runner’s light. It straps on to your hand similar to a handheld bottle, so you don’t have to worry about grip. These also have a red light in the back, to help make you more noticeable on the road.
    • Perfect For: Someone who doesn’t want to wear a headlamp, road running, and shorter runs.

Don’t be Afraid of the Dark

Night running is an adventure. It’s an escape.

And it’s an easy way to open up more hours of your day to running.

I’ve talked a lot about safety, fears, and concerns in this post, but reality is that it’s still just running. Don’t let the darkness hold you back.

Embrace it as a fun routine change in your training, and light up the night with your run.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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17 thoughts on “Running in the Dark: The Ultimate Guide

  1. Very nice points. These tips apply to early morning runners as well where sun doesn’t come till 7, or 8 sometimes.

  2. I found that combining a headlamp and hand torch is the best way to illuminate technical trails at night. The greater depth perception gives me confidence to really open up on the downhills and flats. Plus the added lumens help scare away the boogieman that’s always drafting me.

  3. I use a headlamp in the winter even though there are streetlights, because in my village they can be few and far between so you get pools of absolute darkness in some places. Running in the early morning in winter you really need the fluo vest, headlamp and anything that makes you stand out. I also stick to pavements and avoid running in the road if possible. I don’t run trails in the dark at all though.

    1. I haven’t used them, so it’s hard to say. I have seen them used, and the appear to work well. My only concern is that my grip is rather loose when I run. In order to point the light in the right direction, I’m afraid I’d have to clinch my fish more than I would like.

      Do you have any experience with them?

      1. I’ve not, they look cool. I would agree that they might move around too much to provide good lighting for much running. But could be a good addition to a headlamp or something.

        Also, have you seen the waistband lights? They are supposedly good for helping reduce shadows for trail running, but I’ve never seen anyone use them.

        1. I have. A guy in my running group that uses one all winter. It seems to work pretty well! He also carries a handheld light to have more flexibility when it comes to where he points it.

  4. Sure, what you say makes sense, perhaps if you’re totally unaware of your surroundings. However, I can’t quite understand why any light whatever is needed in the city at night with all streets illuminated? If I can’t sleep, my favorite is to run at 2am, so quiet with no traffic and well lit.
    I carry a tiny light at night in the mountains and turn it on infrequently if I see a dark spot in the trail. It’s amazing what the human eye can see in darkness once you develop visual purple abilities. It’s also great proprioceptive awareness for your feet to feel the ground and react.
    It’s empowering to develop that sense with your natural night vision goggles of sort.

    1. Hey Claude, thanks for the comment.

      I’m going to guess you live in a place with few trees and bright stars. If you feel comfortable running your trails without a light, more power to you! But — aside from maybe a full moon or an open fire road — there’s simply no way I can safety run my local trails at 2am without additional light.

      Most of the streets where I live don’t have streetlights, so I, and just about every runner I know, feel more comfortable with some sort of light. When I lived in the heart of D.C., the streets were lit, but there were many dark spots along most routes. A flasher or light was definitely a wise safety choice, more for others to see me than for me to see the ground.

      All of our running situations are different, so if your streets are well it and you feel comfortable without taking precautions, that’s a safety call only you can make based on what you know about where you live. Stay safe and enjoy the run!

  5. Thanks for the advice! I much prefer running in the daylight with the sun on my skin over night winter running. Blah. But, I have no choice. I have a 50-miler and a 100-miler coming up this winter. I must soldier on and get out there!

  6. I think talking about how to fall properly is a good thing to talk about for night running. Especially on the trails.

  7. I’ve recently started night running, but have hiked at night a good deal. I think WHERE you have your light is pretty important. I’ve noticed that holding my headlamp in my hand usually helps me see things better than having it on my head. Hear me out…The lower the light beam is to the ground, the longer the shadows are cast on things like rocks, stairs, etc. I think this helps much in seeing objects in the trail. Try it!! I haven’t tried the waist or hand-specific running lights, but I recommend at least trying running with any type of light in the hand versus on the head. Has anyone else tried this and seen the difference?

  8. When I head out I have a NEON BRIGHT orange running jacket that I wear. I think I literally glow in the dark! One bonus for running at night right now is all the people who have turned on Christmas lights and it makes it pretty to run on the road. As well our community park lights up just about every tree in the park and it is simply breath-taking to run there at night.

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