There is so much talk around how spending time in nature during the day provides a healing balm, helping to relieve stress, reduce blood pressure, boost mood and many other conditions. Spending just two hours a week in nature has proven health benefits according to research carried out by University of Exeter Medical School. Psychologists have found that spending even 10 minutes outside has the equivalent effect of over 45 minutes in the gym on anxiety.
Getting out into nature in the day isn’t always possible, especially when wintery, shorter days take hold, and we can find ourselves spending more time at home than we’d perhaps like. The idea of nature based walking at night might seem a strange one at first. Perhaps you’ve tried it once or twice when you’ve had to get up early for a mountain walk or you’ve wanted to see the sun rise. However, spending time in nature at night can have its own set of benefits. The positive effects walking at night can have on our minds and bodies is less well known. Below, Alison Goodwin highlights the benefits walking at night can have on our wellbeing through her own experiences, and shows you how to enjoy safe walking.
For me, instead of succumbing to the settee in the darker months, it’s a wonderful thing to head outside at night. It feels like a mini adventure as you’re doing something different to your usual routine during the week or weekend.
Why is walking at night so calming?
From my experience, embracing the dark is a fantastic way of combatting the blues. For many years I suffered with S.A.D (seasonal affective disorder) when the long nights drew in. Yoga helped enormously with easing the symptoms, but surprisingly heading outdoors after sunset had a very positive affect too. Are night walks good for mental health? I’d say so. Walking at night has made my brain more focused, sharpening my attention in the present moment. This is because the primary sense (for many of us, sight) takes a back seat while our other senses start to overcompensate, making you feel very alive. My happiness levels would often receive a boost not only because it felt like an adventure, but because my mind was much less distracted. I found I became calmer because low and worrying thoughts quietened – even if just for a while.
So how did I come across walking at night? Since 2009, I’ve run yoga and contemplative walking weekends in the Lake District and North York Moors. After dinner we would regularly go for a 20 minute leg-stretch using the quiet, local roads and tracks. I noticed I always felt really well when we got back, but thought nothing more of it as I was usually busy chatting! Then some time later, I had an idea to do a yoga, mindfulness and safe walking at night experience instead. So approached Fabian from AFS Mountaineering to help me out. It was amazing, with all of us feeling a deep sense of reverence, joy and wonder for days afterwards.
Living close to the North York Moors National Park – an International Dark Sky Reserve where there is little light pollution – the opportunities for seeing huge, star-filled skies increase massively if clear. When this happens, it can invoke a sense of awe – an emotion many scientists now believe is more important than happiness. Awe helps you regain perspective on life, while leaving you feeling you’re a part of something much larger than yourself. Certainly, I’ve stood on top of a wild moor and seen planets, constellations and the Milky Way with my naked eye and it’s taken my breath away. No matter how many times I head out at night, this incredible emotion arises and stays with me for days afterwards. I feel much more connected to this wonderful world.
Whilst rural locations are great, this isn’t something that can only happen there – I’ve also experienced some great benefits when walking at night in more built-up areas too. Light pollution affected what I could see, but on a clear night you could still pick out a few of the brighter stars. Heading out on a full moon was also simply magical.
There were two differences with walking at night in a town or city. The action of walking increased my mood. As we know exercise is fantastic for boosting our mood and relieving stress. But this only happened when I felt safe walking at night.
When walking at night, there are some essentials you need to consider. Here are some of my tips to help you get out at night time – no matter where you are:
Safe walking essentials
Walk in a group
It can make you feel so much better if you walk in the company of others. In fact, when thinking about safe walking practises, it is a great way to improve safety and confidence all at once. As we know being social is brilliant for improving our mood, being in a group helps you feel safer. By doing this activity together, it helps build confidence and grow your comfort zones at a pace you’re comfortable with. It can also work well to dispel any worries about walking at night. Don’t have any friends that share your interest in walking? Try looking for local walking groups or walking event calendars on things like Facebook, Meetup and a whole range of other sites that help to build community and increase social interaction.
Locations: Where to walk at night
Walking at night works even better if the area is higher up and with fewer street lights so you can see more of the night sky. Seeing stars adds a magical dimension to your walk, although bear in mind light-pollution will impact on the number you can see. So if you’re in a city, see if any local parks or green spaces are still open in the evening. If you’re already in the countryside, head to a place away from any street lights. Consider reflective clothing as well to make you more visible and encourage safe walking.
It helps if you know the area well and where you are going, so thinking about places that you’ve walked or spent time in the daytime can be a good start. Places can seem very different at night so stay with the familiar to start with and keep your initial walks relatively short until you all build up your confidence.
When deciding where to walk choose a location where the ground is relatively even so there are less trip hazards. Although you’ll be walking with a torch it’s easy to miss the bumps in the ground.
Be visible: Take a torch and mobile phone
A very good investment for walking at night and to help you feel safe walking is a head torch – especially if you think you might do this on a regular basis. Otherwise, a normal torch will do. Be sure to check your batteries are charged before you leave, and if possible, take spares with you too. It’s best not to rely on your phone torch, if possible, as you’ll be without light if the battery runs out. Take your cell phone with you, just in case of emergencies and make sure it’s fully charged before you head off. You don’t always need reflective gear or specific safety gear, but if there are big sections where you’ll need to walk in the road, it’ll make you much more visible to any oncoming traffic and make you feel safe walking. Just be sure to take extra caution and be mindful of what you’re doing in order to experience in the safest way possible.
Wear comfortable shoes you can walk in
It depends on where you’re thinking of going for a walk. You’ll need different foot wear if walking in the countryside in the middle of the night compared with walking around a park. Trainers are fine for the latter, while hiking boots or comfortable walking shoes are a good idea for more adventurous walks, but bear in mind they really don’t need to be expensive to do the job.
Wear warm clothes and take a waterproof coat with you
Although you’ll be moving whilst night walking, in the darker times of the year our evenings can get much colder. So, wrap up warm so you don’t get cold. If you have specific walking clothes, that are designed to keep you warm against the elements, even better! Take a rucksack with you so you can store layers and waterproofs for your time outside. Maybe even take a warm drink and a snack with you too.
Walking at night to improve your mood: Night time walking Mindfulness exercise to try
- Before I do any activity, I like to gain a sense of my internal landscape so I can see if an activity has improved how I feel. So, begin this exercise by taking a moment to look inside and see how you feel emotionally, mentally and physically. Just a brief peak inside for a few moments. Then change the energy by shaking your body vigorously – yes it really does help!
- Start walking at a relaxed pace together in your group. It’s fine to talk and catch up but you’ll get more out of this if you have sections where you’re all silent. Perhaps set yourselves a time limit, e.g., twenty minute stretches at a time.
- While night walking, notice your breath and watch the inflow and outflow of air for a few moments. Follow this by bringing attention to your feet and which part of the foot is in contact with the ground at any one time. Then bring awareness to both your breath and your feet simultaneously and see if it’s possible to keep that focus throughout your activity.
- Pause every now and again to look at things, e.g., leaves that are lit up by streetlights, how the colour is different at night and so on. Essentially anything that you feel drawn to. Take your time to have a good look. This doesn’t have to be about completing something challenging, it can simply be about being outside and enjoying yourself.
- At some point stop where there is less light pollution and you have a good view of the night sky, turn your torch off. Be silent for this next section.
- Turn your gaze upwards to the night sky – especially if it’s clear and a full moon. See if you can pick out any details of the night sky in front of you.
- Survey any bright stars and fix your gaze on one of them. While focused on that point, be aware of your feet and breath once more. What do you notice about the star? Stay in concentration for a couple of minutes or so. Breath. Feet. Focus.
- Afterwards, expand your awareness outwards to include other stars, more of the night sky, clouds, buildings, trees etc., so you see more in your peripheral vision. Breath. Feet. Focus. Again, be with this for a few minutes.
- Then continue on your walk. Feel free to stop as many times as you like and repeat the above star focus.
- When ready, head back to your starting point. Before you head home, check in with yourself once more. How do you feel emotionally, mentally, and physically now?
About the Author: Alison runs a small business called Adventures for the Soul based close to the North York Moors National Park in the United Kingdom. She set it up to share her passion of wellbeing in the outdoors – but also because nature and mindfulness-based practises turned her life around. She discovered walking at night in 2017 after moving to the countryside – with incredible mood boosting benefits. Now her business not only shows people the wonders of the National Park, specialising in dark sky experiences, and safe walking at night, it weaves in wellness practises to boost wellness and nature connection too.