This is an article I wrote that was recently published in Camp Business magazine that has gained popularity there. Although written for camp professionals, any adventurer can try these fun activities!
Night hikes are pretty common for stargazing, but what if it’s a cloudy night? Don’t worry—there’s plenty to do in any kind of weather—as long as it’s dark!
First, here are some night-hike rules:
- No flashlights or lights of any source are to be used. While a light helps to see the small area that it illuminates, allowing our eyes to adjust to the minimal lighting in our surroundings actually allows us to see more of what’s around us. (If needed, the hike leader can bring a small red light.)
- Keep quiet. Night-hike leaders can decide how “quiet” they want campers to be, but the quieter they are, the more they will hear in nature.
- Listen carefully. Not only will hearing instructions help to stay safe on the trail, but those who are not listening may miss out on some cool information and activities!
- Stay on the trails. Of course you’ll choose a trail that’s not near a cliff for safety’s sake. A fairly flat trail with minimal holes or rocks works best. For hikers with concerns about running into predators, reassure them that if you stay on the trail and all together, these things won’t want to bother the group.
Materials: everyone needs their own set of hands and ears
Talk about all of the nocturnal creatures and crepuscular creatures (that means animals that are most active at twilight) the group can think of. Whether bats, coyotes, deer, or rabbits, many of these animals have something in common: their ears! Their ears are big so they can hear better, which compensates for their reduced ability to see at night. Their ears also often can move independently. That means they can focus their ears the same way to hear better in that direction, or they can point them in opposite directions to hear more of their entire surroundings.
Create your own “deer ears” by shaping your hands around your human ears. Test the hike participants’ hearing by walking around them while saying nursery rhymes and see if they can tell what you’re saying. Change one or two of the words and see if they notice.
Materials: small squares of colored paper
Many people are surprised at the realization that they are colorblind in the dark. This is a good opportunity to talk about two of the photoreceptors in our eyes: rods and cones. Rods help us see in low-light situations, making them important for night hikes. And cones help us see color. This experiment will help hikers tell if their cones are being used at all during the night hike.
Give each hiker a small piece of colored paper. Ask them to guess what color they think it is, and then put it in a pocket or safe place so that they don’t litter on the trail. When they return to camp, they can take their paper out in the light and see if they guessed the color correctly.
Materials: lighter, optional candle
Another experiment to show how night vision can be affected starts off with acting like pirates—no “aargs” or “ahoys” necessary! Have every hiker make an “eyepatch” with one of their hands covering the eye of their choice. With their uncovered eye, they will look at the small flame while you tell a story like this:
“Long ago, when pirates ruled the seven seas, there was one pirate captain who liked to pillage and loot just as much as the rest of them. But he noticed a problem. The crew on his ship liked to do their raids at night, because the townsfolk were often asleep and it was easier to get away. Even when they fought enemy pirates, they preferred nighttime because they had developed a strong sense of night vision … at least until the cannons went off. Whenever a cannonball was launched, a bright light from the cannon flashed and temporarily blinded every pirate who saw the light. While they waited for their eyes to readjust to the darkness, they were susceptible to enemy takeover. But this was a smart pirate captain; he probably went to (insert your camp/outdoor education program name here) when he was a kid, where he learned a few things about night vision. So even though he had two perfectly-working eyes, he decided to wear an eyepatch over one of his eyes, night and day. That eye under the eyepatch became well-adjusted to the darkness. Whenever he saw a cannon flash during a night raid, instead of being blinded, he simply switched his eyepatch over to his other eye. Then the eye that was still adjusted to the darkness could still see well, and he could overtake his enemies. Now, wait until I extinguish this flame, but when I do, you’re going to move your eyepatch to your other eye and look around. You can keep switching from eye to eye to see what a difference this small flame made on your night vision.”
Materials: Wintergreen Lifesavers
If you’re in a location and season where you can observe fireflies or glow worms, enjoy this bioluminescent part of a night hike. Even if you can’t experience naturally occurring bioluminescence, you can always have fun with triboluminescence!
Using Wintergreen Lifesavers, instruct hikers to get in groups of two or three and have everyone take turns crunching one of the mints with their mouth open. (If anyone has braces or other concerns about their teeth, they can get in a larger group of people and still suck on the mint if appropriate.) Hikers should see sparks coming from their partners’ mouths. While not fully understood by scientists, this triboluminescence experiment will nevertheless be the highlight of the hikers’ night!
If you are blessed with a clear night sky, it’s nice to take a moment to look at the stars. Ideally, instructors should be able to point out one or two constellations, or at least explain what phase the moon is in. Yet nothing beats enjoying this special moment, even if it involves looking at a cloudy sky or off into the distant city lights.
Find a hill or clearing where hikers can spread out. Ask them to not talk to anyone else for at least two minutes, so that they can listen to and absorb the nature around them and reflect on their time at camp. For Christian camps, this can be a sacred time of prayer.
Jessica Lippe is the program manager at Pine Valley Bible Camp and the author of The Ultimate Survival Guide to Working at Camp. Visit her website at JessicaLippe.com.