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How do You Pass the Time on Long Nights?

Snow on a plain 2

Here is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of reader questions.
Jan-Willem Bol (@janwillembol) of the Netherlands writes:

“Ok, so the thing about hiking in winter is that there is always a fair chance of bad weather, the low temperatures and the long nights. That last one got me thinking. I don’t have a lot of camp experience – let alone in winter. I’m from the Netherlands and in the winter the sun sets at 4.30pm and doesn’t rise until 8.30am. That’s about 16 hours of darkness. I was wondering; what other people who go on hikes or camping trips do for so many hours? If the cold doesn’t kill you, how do you prevent boredom from doing so? Sixteen hours of sleep is borderline torture and cleaning your kit doesn’t take that long.

So what’s your camp routine when on an overnight winter hike? When do you set up camp? Do you start preparing dinner right away, or do you wait a few hours? And what do you do to kill the time? Play cards with your hiking buddy or simply talk into the night? Or do you carry a book or bring your dog? Or maybe you are the bushcraft type and carve your entire group their own personal cutlery? Whatever it is, I´d like to know.” – Jan-Willem.

How do you pass the time on those long hiking nights? Have a question you would like to ask? Submit it here.

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  • John Pavoncello

    Read. I used to carry a book on all my overnight hikes. Now I carry a Kindle. Light weight, battery lasts for a month or more and can not only have good reading material but I also keep a couple survival/emergency medical ebooks on there – just in case.

    • I’m a reader too. Never thought to carry my Kindle, it’s a Gen1 with no backlight so… Carrying the reference books on it is a great idea too.

    • Jesse Farmer

      What emergency medical/survival books do you recommend? I was looking at the SAS survival guide.

      • John Pavoncello

        Problem with the SAS and other “Military” survival guides is that they are ok for what they are ment for. Class material while learning hands on. There are lots of other resources out there that are simple and easy to use in the field. Realistically, emergency medical books are going to be vastly more useful in an emergency. If you can’t build a fire or make a basic shelter, you shouldn’t be in the woods anyway.

  • CB

    I usually bring my pigs to play Pass the Pigs. On one night trips where I’m not too concerned about weight I’ll bring cards and a cribbage board.

    One time a friend brought his entire Settlers of Catan game to a backcountry ski hut. That was excellent. But of course, I didn’t carry it.

    • Pass the pigs is one of our favorite games, if you can find a flat enough surface to play on. If not it makes for a tricky game :)

  • Colin

    This is the reason why I got a Kindle Paperwhite. Since it comes with a backlight, you can pretty much guarantee sufficient reading light without wasting your precious headlamp battery. And the Kindle has an insane amount of battery charge – easily sufficient for a 7 day trip, if not the full month.

    And of course, since it’s got like 2 or 4 gigs of storage on there, you could store a library on there. All for less than 7 ozs.

    • I have a Gen1 Kindle with the onboard keyboard – maybe it’s time to upgrade :)

      • Colin

        The Paperwhite is 7oz, that’s 3oz’s you’re shaving from your current Kindle, and it has backlight so you don’t get that feeling that your headlight might run out of battery. :)

        Not to mention it’s smaller and thinner — looks like an inch less for width / length, and half the thickness.

  • Joslyn Bloodworth

    If I’m in a group, I’ll bring cards. If it’s just me and my husband, I bring either a book, or my phone can be my e reader and my iPod, but that’s only for shorter trips. I’m planning on getting a iPod shuffle for longer trips so I can use my phone for books without running the battery down too much.

    • Or a small solar charger…?

      • Joslyn Bloodworth

        I’ve been thinking about getting a solar charger. I did end up getting a Shuffle for my birthday, which I’m really liking for my morning yoga and after workout stretching because it’s so small, but we’re looking at getting me a new phone and a otterbox that can double as my camera so a small charger is creeping it’s way up my wish list. :)

  • Michael Goehring

    In the ‘old days’ I relied on a paperback book and a little maglite for light to read by after the sun went down. Now it’s the Kindle- good for reading in all conditions- or an iPad mini, super light, good for reading, and also stores maps of the area, trail descriptions etc. The iPad allows me to write about the trip as well.

    On the harder trips, when we’re exhausted by 4pm, we look to spread out the camp chores to kill time. It can be a long time from then until bed time, and who wants to lie in the sleeping bag for 12 hours? Conversation is good of course, plus a little walk around the area, anything to keep me awake as late as possible (which is not so late generally)

    • That all sounds very familiar and about what we do.

  • Joel Lewen

    Have a cocktail and relax!!!

  • Karen

    Tell stories, share experiences, swap ‘how to ideas’, play “I spy”. I had a 1/2 size deck of cards that was pretty light weight but it went with my backpack when it was stolen so I’m looking for another deck like that.

  • nemo

    My husband, son and I are very much the amateur campers, but we enjoy playing games, the usual ones we play at home. Scattergories always gets us into arguments, and eventually, laughing, so we enjoy it. We generally avoid cold weather camping, but found ourselves once sleeping in yurt in a state campground on an unexpectedly cold weekend. It was the first time I saw a warning cautioning about bears and how to avoid attracting them. Because I was so terribly cold, I couldn’t sleep at all, but merely drifted into and out of a state of hallucination. I heard noises in the woods and became convinced it was a bear and we were done for. I spent a long time trying to decide how the bear would deal with the yurt when it attacked us. That kept me occupied for quite a while, along with plotting how to bring a microwave on the next camping trip. I so wanted a hot cup of tea, and a hot water bottle. (Still working on that one.) On the other hand, a warmer night found us lying in a field looking at the constellations. We don’t get to see many stars where we live, so that was a particular pleasure. We sometimes take along a telescope, star guides and a red light.

    • I have a folding star map that has glow in the dark markings so that you can use it at night for reference without ruining your night vision. Cheap and light and alot of fun with or without the kids.

  • Court

    Any downtime in the tent, me and my girlfriend experience will generally be spent listening to podcasts on a tiny sansa sandick clip+ mp3 player (about 30 grams). We either share headphones or use a splitter. The charge only lasts for 15 hours or so, so an additional battery charger is also useful to extend the life.

    • What are some of your favorite podcast to listen to? Just curious…

      • Court

        Here you go;

        This American Life
        Excellent long-form journalism about a range of themes – from light to serious. There are some excellent stories in there. “The Convert” and “Slow to React” are particularly good. The ‘Slow to React’ episode is not for children.

        Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
        Long form podcasts about history, using a narrative style. I particularly like the “Wraith of the Khans” series.

        The Complete Guide to Everything
        Two guys pick a subject and riff on it. It’s funny. You won’t learn very much.

        Stuff You Should Know
        Like an audio version of an encyclopedia article. It’s a bizarro world version of the complete guide to everything, where they actually discuss the topic at hand.

        The Filmdrunk Frotcast
        Four dudes bullshit about films, sports, pop culture, internet nonsense out of San Francisco. It has the word ‘film’ in the title, but that’s only a relatively small part of the discussion. It’s can get pretty crass, but in a good way.

  • Snctool

    I just kick back and enjoy the fire and dream up new ideas of gadgets to benefit the backpacking community. I love the design time. I am always designing in my mind a new more lightweight alcohol stove for everyone to enjoy. It is awesome time to relax and give up stress. C’est la vie!

    • Sometimes doing nothing is all that’s necessary :) Nothing wrong with that.

  • Solo gal

    I hike alone a lot, so I listen to my am/fm /weather radio. I know it is old school, but at night in the wild i often get distant am radio. I like to listen to base ball games in the summer as they take along time to finish. i do like having the weather radio, so I know if the lighting inside my tent is widespread! Also like to read my burnable books with headlamp. Lithium batteries rock for backpacking, less weight, last forever. I write a journal, draw or just daydream. I do try to stay up late enough so I don’t wake up too early.

    I have gone on short night hikes away from camp if there is a full moon and I feel confident with headlamp and trail. You can see the woods from a different perspective this way.

    • I love night hikes if conditions are favorable and agree that the backcountry can look very different at night. We like using our headlamps to spot the glowing (reflective) eyes of spiders :)

  • @janwillembol

    Thanks for all the great ideas so far. Reading is obviously a pretty popular way to pass time. The guys at Amazon probably will be thankfull to see the Kindle being used so much in the backpacking community ;)

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon is making a ruggedized/waterproof/solar powered Kindle white after reading this :)

  • Gaze into the fire. Tell stories (if in large enough groups). I like to snuggle in and gloat about being toasty warm. I carry a small notepad to write in – quick day synopsis, gear that needs tweaking, etc. My usual hiking buddy is my spouse, so we can usually find something to do.

    • Say not more. No really, don’t say any more!!! :-)

    • Sam

      I do a bit of wood carvingwhen little fingers have gone to bed. Some of the results decorate the woods, other end up as woodsmoke.

  • I do two things: I ask myself why I’m out there by myself alone in the middle of the woods. I do that every time.
    And I worry. I worry about the trees falling down (fallen trees being all over the place) and, well, that’s about all I worry about. Mostly I’m there to get away from the things that I usually have to worry about, which also includes falling trees, ironically.
    But sometimes I arrive at my planned campsite too late to have any spare time in the first place. Then I end up doing everything in the dark.

    • The real irony here is that you probably have a higher chance of getting hit by a falling great white shark than you do of a tree :) I hope one day soon you reach camp with time to spare and relax. Keep at it.

      • That’s funny. But there are fallen trees all over the place in the woods. One of the most frightening nights I’ve ever spent in the woods was when it became very windy. I could hear things falling everywhere. Yet I’ve never heard of anyone actually injured by a falling tree–in the woods. In town, it’s another story. Maybe it’s safer in the woods.

        • LOL – I was going to ask when have you ever seen a tree fall in the woods? But if you heard them that’s scary enough for me. Maybe we need to account for tree height and reach when selecting camp? Stay safe out there :)

          • You’ve never seen a fallen tree in the woods? Well, the problem with trees in the places I’ve been, is that there are hardly any places that aren’t under the trees. Some, but not many. There are fairly good places that aren’t under big trees and they aren’t bad but there really aren’t any “backcountry” campsites that can be found in open areas. But I agree, the danger isn’t that bad. The greater danger is me falling, not something falling on me. There’s hardly any other danger.

          • All I was saying it that I’ve seen plenty of trees that have fallen at some point. I’ve never been there when one is “falling” :)

          • Until last Saturday, neither had I, only this was only a large tree limb, not a tree.
            I was out twice over the weekend on short, two-mile hikes through the local woods. Temperatures were in the 40s and it was very windy. I hadn’t gone far on Saturday when clunk, a large tree limb fell to the ground about six feet away. It wouldn’t have been fatal unless it’d landed directly on top of my head but it was big enough to hurt some. Honestly, that was the first time I’d actually been that close to a falling limb or tree. I’m 68 and I’ve been going to the woods for a long time, too.
            I live in a thickly wooded suburban neighborhood and damage from falling trees is not unheard of, either falling on the house or the car.
            Haven’t seen any sharks anywhere, though.

  • ian loop

    what kept me busy, was my harmonica, every time i spent too much time with my thoughts, the darkness, the trees, and the noises of nocturnal animals sometimes really got to me. it was my first time in the woods on my own without a phone, or watch, any communication to the outside. the worst was not knowing how much i still had left to go. could have been 2 am. 11pm. 4am. i kept waking up every couple of hours shivering. i just decided to go into a meditative trance until i woke up in the morning. every once in a while i tried to get my fire going again after a 2 hour nap. but its preetty damn difficoult without a light source. it was an interesting night. i just sing and play music, write in my journal and meditate, spending time with thoughts. it can get pretty un easy. but thats part of feeling alive.