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The dark winter is approaching on the northern hemisphere. At my latitude (67½°N), the sun sets at 15:00 by now, and a little more than a month away the polar night will start. So far, I'm virtually not doing any outdoor activities between October and February, due to the dark, cold conditions. But I still crave for the mountains!

How can I still enjoy outdoor life when daylight lasts only a few hours?

Some thought:

  • Headlights, but last only a short time
  • Full moon, particularly with snow-cover, should be quite bright. Bright enough for longer trips?
  • Any other thoughts?
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    Headlights only last a short time? Get a new one! Seriously you can find headlights that provide adequate light and get 72+ hours per battery change. – Russell Steen Oct 30 '12 at 23:14
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    Move to New Zealand October thru February. – Olin Lathrop Oct 31 '12 at 0:27
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    For setting up a tent in the dark you really shouldn't need a bright light. Learn your tent and its parts. Learn the routine you need to use to set up and break camp. Set a routine for where you store items. Then you will be able to get by on very dim light. I have set camp just using starlight once - no problem as I knew where everything was. – Rory Alsop Oct 31 '12 at 22:55
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    @gerrit -- I would either get a headlamp which toggles (low/bright) or carry one for each purpose. However, as Rory mentioned, you should be able to pitch a tent in almost pitch black. Truly bright light should be saved for when you really need to see details. – Russell Steen Nov 1 '12 at 13:26
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    @RoryAlsop true, good idea, should work, unless it's windy perhaps. I did once put up a tent in pitch black without any artificial light, but that was not planned (person with the light missed the bus); I lost some pins that time, but it had been 9 months since the previous time and it was the first time I ever put up a tent in the snow (which continued during the night). But probably I could use less light than I'm used to doing. – gerrit Nov 1 '12 at 21:42
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Carry a low lumen headlamp and a brighter torch (flashlight). Use a long lasting, low lumen headlamp for basic activities and only use the torch when you really need the extra light. This is the headlamp I use (and we read, play cards, etc. in addition to hiking after dark). It's the Petzl Tikka Plus 2.

For torches, I recommend looking into Fenix products. They offer very good lumen/duration/weight trade offs. Yes, Fenix tends to be quite pricey, but my experience is that no one else offers the same lumens and duration for the weight.

Full moon is not something you want your life depending on (and it would). Cloud cover can shut down the moon pretty quick and for long periods of time.

  • Also, there are many good headlamps (Fenix, Zebralight, Princeton Tec) offering several light output levels from dozens of lumens to hundreds. They can last dozens of hours in the lower output modes, so it’s perfectly possible to just use one headlamp and toggle the modes according to need. – zoul Apr 3 '13 at 8:15
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"How can I still enjoy outdoor life when daylight lasts only a few hours?"

There is a plenty of ways: orienteering (on skis/snowshoes), skiing and multi-day ski trips, training in emergency/rescue operations.

A certain change of mindset is required to keep outdoor activity an night, because it provides some challenges:

It's harder to see what you are doing

So take a good headlamp, take an emergency set of batteries for it and take a spare headlamp if you are going solo. It's easy to set up a tent or collect wood in headlamp light. It's harder to do ropework, but it's definitely doable with some practice.

So this is a merely technical issue, which one can adapt to. But also

It's harder to see the environment

The real problem is you can't see the environment outside of your torch beam and you can't see too far anyway.

This means that you can't travel on difficult unknown terrain. I mainly mean steep slopes, rocks, drops, ... So you can walk and you can drop a rope, but you don't know where to go and what you'll find at the end of the rope (or two ropes down).

What you can do?

  1. Choose easy terrain, that you can predict will give you no surprises. Like hills instead of mountains.
  2. Or know your terrain beforehand: either you have visited this place before or you have studied it when there still was light (useful for training sessions).
  3. Don't try to cross hard unknown landscape, except in emergency.

A good map is a must; it will provide your brain a lot of information you usually get from you eyes. That's a fundamental difference between day and night orienteering.

Anyway, don't be overconfident. And expect to have your speed something like 2 times lower.

It's harder to find and rescue

If you are going to remote areas, take a friend or two. If you break your leg it'll take much longer for emergency guys to get to you and to find you. It takes ages for a large group of people to find an unconscious man even in a tiny 1 km * 1 km forest at night.

And if you are lost and start to worry/panic, he will help you calm down (or vice versa);)

Starter's kit

  • Take a day skiing trip along a known track
  • Take a two-day trip like this
  • Join an orienteering competition or organise your own
  • Plan a short 2-3 day trip on some easy and not too remote terrain
  • If you are planning a summer mountain trip with you friends, organise a training for them in a known place

TL;DR

You can do a lot of things at night, but acting in a dark world is fundamentally different. Adaptation is required and a group of friends is required too.

Still sitting near a bright fire and chatting with you friends after a long day (night?;)) of cold and dark adventures is one of the best moments you can get.

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From experience, traveling under a full moon works well. Warning: The shadows are inky dark. You will still need a torch or headlamp, but in the open you can turn it off. I have done winter trips by dogsled where we camped after 10 p.m. in December.

You actually want to be out during a waxing gibbous moon -- between first quarter and full. This puts the moon in the sky before the sun has set.

I'm not as high latitude as you, but even here at 54 N winter makes for long twilights. Camping at sunset still gives you well over an hour of reasonable twilight for setting up camp. If you can get a routine that allows you to break camp in the dark, start traveling at first light, and make camp at the end of twilight, you can make the most of the day.

Everything takes longer in the dark. Everything takes longer when it's cold.

Day trips aren't bad. You can follow a broken trail on snowshoes just by starlight. We had ultra marathon team snowshoe races that started at 5 a.m. and the last teams often didn't get in until 10 p.m. (75 km for senior boys) At the time of the long race, in late February sunrise was around 8:30, sunset around 5:30, so most of the last team's race was run in twilight or darkness.

For overnight dogsled trips (1-12 days) our routine was fairly high impact and so only can be done in areas that are lightly used. We ran 2 people per sled with with 4-5 dogs pulling the load. At night the routine was:

Stop. Unload night lines Unharness dogs and attach to night lines. Unload sled Select a fire spot. Two people cleared/packed fire site. 2 people fed dogs. 6 people cut wood. Dog people joined wood cutters when done.

Campsite people built fire, started buckets of snow to melt. Fired up coleman lantern to give working light and use as beacon for the wood cutters.

We would cut about a cord of wood into 3-4 foot long chunks.

By the time enough wood was cut (about 1.5 hours) water would be hot. Come in, find your pack to sit on, make yourself a cup of hot cocoa, hot juice (flavoured sugar), or coffee. Meanwhile supper was on the edge of the fire.

Most people would change footwear at this time, taking off their day footwear and putting on their campwear.

Supper would happen. After supper getting everything really dry would take another 2-3 hours depending on the day.

Between 9 and 10 most people would move 2-3 logs to the space by their sleeping bag, and crash for the night. No tents, just sleep with your head toward the fire on a foam pad on a tarp. Some people are good at waking up when the fire is almost out (I'm one...) and throwing another couple of logs on. The hot choc bucket was left near the fire. sometimes people would wake up, go take a pee, and grab a cup of hot something. Often a few others would ask him to fill up their cups too.

In the morning we'd start moving about 6 -- a couple hours before it was light enoough to easily see. Build up the fire, make breakfast. The half that was breaking trail on snowshoes would set off at first light, while the other half took apart the camp, packed, harnessed (don't forget the night lines...) and set off about an hour later.

Morning was harder: The dogs are really full of zip first thing in the morning and you do not want to steer a sled through trees that you can barely see. So while we were willing to push into darkness in the evening, we wanted decent light to set off in the morning.

Trail breakers needed enough light to navigate. Following an existing trail, especially if broken, in the dark is ok, but if the trail is not obvious wait for light.

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