Finding trails – Trail running in the dark

In Finland even in the South we live part of the year in pretty much darkness. The longest day of the year is around Midsummer June 21st. After that the days start to get shorter and by Christmas it’s the shortest day of the year 22st of December when Helsinki gets only about 5 hours of daylight.

As the sun rises only just barely above the horizon and sets pretty quickly after that you don’t really get to see it that often if there are clouds or buildings in the way. This can be a bit daunting at first but you get used to it in time and find good in every season which is truly amazing phenomenon here. You can experience the whole entire life cycle of nature in those four seasons during the year.

As BAU needs to continue, we need equipment to manage the changes in this environment and a headlight and proper clothing is a must for running in autumn/winter even if you stay on the marked and well lit paths as parts in between may be completely without light.

What the darkness feels like depends on the amount of snow and this is the reason why we Finns are always excited and happy about the first snow. A whole entire new world emerges and there suddenly light again! Running in winter/snow is completely it’s own thing again and I will definitely post about that too when the time comes.

Trail running equipment

So what do you need to head out there in the darkness? What to wear when it’s getting closer to 0 outside? What routes to choose?

Headlight
Invest to a good headlight

If you intend to go into the forest and not run on any lit paths (usually gravel paths are well lit here) headlight is a must. The better brightness, the faster you can run. It is also a good idea to get one of those models where you can just turn a wheel at the back to adjust the brightness because the thicker the forest, the more light you need.

The other thing I have found really useful is adjustable angle of the headlight. This is really helpful when going up and down and at different speed as you can easily adjust the beam to head further of closer.

Clothing

Around September we might still get some really nice and sunny days, but equally we might get first frost on the ground. By October we are well closer to 0 than +15 with the average high around +10 degrees. We will start to get cold rain which every now and then turns into wet (and cold) sleet. Add wind to that and the weather can be quite nasty at times.

Good weather proof clothing is recommended so thin windproof, water repellent and breathable jacket and pants is a good idea. Sounds like an impossible combination but there are several good Finnish outdoor clothing brands that offer these kind of clothes so you do not need to be wet or cold if you dress right.

Shoes with spikes on the soles can be used for both trails and winter running. Extremely good for running on ice too!

With different layers underneath you will be fine with the jacket and pants until it gets closer to -10 degrees. Then latest you need to change the pants and jacket to warmer ones if you wish to run outside. At least for me -5 to -10 seem to be the breaking point when I need warmer clothes and more layers again.

You also need to have a hat and gloves with you. First thinner then thicker and I always also have scarf because I like to keep my neck warm. Hats and gloves should also be the kind that are windproof and rain repellent.

You are ok with normal trail running shoes until it starts to get really wet and cold then I usually swap to my ice bug shoes which have small spikes on the soles. They are a good investment since one proper slip and hitting your head might be all it takes. Very cheap life insurance!

Running in the dark forest do’s and don’ts

Needless to say look in front of you. Adjust the beam to head a bit in front of you maybe two/three meters all the time. This way you can predict what is coming and your legs will follow and dodge the obstacles by the time they get there. If you point the light too close you won’t be able to advance as fast and here the adjustable angle of the headlight becomes handy.

Routes

Start with the routes that you know from summer time when there was light as paths and trails get all mixed up when your view is limited and you can easily get lost. Use your sports watch navigation and breadcrumb functions if unsure. These help especially if you get lost to find your way back the to trail.

When you are more familiar with running in the dark just head out to new paths as you would normally, but keep in mind the tips below.

Watch out for…

Watch out for branches, rocks and especially wet darker spots. They are generally slippery and hazardous. Clean rock or gravel surface is perfect for doing a bit of spurts but branch covered paths are the most difficult ones to manage with just a small vignette like view with the beam of light.

These images are from my first run this Autumn with the headlight and I must say I was again surprised how “awkward” it felt. Every year you look forward to the “dark running season” to begin. It is its own thing completely, but when “season” does start the first time you feel strangely jumpy in the forest.

It takes time to get used to the pitch dark again, and especially running there again. You start hearing things like the “swish, swish” sound which ends up being your own jacket or pants and seeing thing in the forest which turn out to be a stump and not an animal standing.

The head light changes your view and when you cannot see as much as you have your other senses take place. Soon you will learn that there is nothing to be afraid of and the branches of trees are not animals attacking you. Still sometimes after months “into the dark running season” I get a complete jump scare as a dog appears with their owner or another trail runner in the dark.

I highly recommend to try trail running in the dark. It’s not only darker, but also more exciting and brings a good variety to your trail running routine.

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