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Night Nav at Dark Skies Festival

Gareth Williams By Gareth Williams

Walking through the countryside after-dark might lack the sweeping panoramic views of daytime walks but the experience can be just as special. Guided walking specialist Gareth Williams from Large Outdoors explains why and gives some tips on striding out at night.

It could be picking up the noise of a tawny owl hooting or a dog fox barking; admiring a river glinting in the moonlight; or simply taking a moment to look in awe at the canopy of stars overhead, a night-time foray into the countryside can be incredibly rewarding.

Each February we organise night navigation and walking sessions as part of the Dark Skies Festival organised by the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales National Park. During each session we find people are amazed by just how much they can get out of a couple of hours walking under a pristine night sky. They find their senses become much more acute, registering sounds they wouldn’t normally notice in daylight; finding their curiosity is piqued as they wonder what made the rustle in the undergrowth; or delighting in the surreal, other-worldly atmosphere as the moon or stars pick out details of the landscape.

Book your space here

During the festival we make the most of the dark skies above the North York Moors National Park where, on a clear night in spots unsullied by light pollution, it’s possible to spy more than 2,000 stars. As well as imparting navigation skills our guides are also pretty adept at sharing some astronomy knowledge pointing out constellations such as Orion and the Milky Way which can both be seen with the naked eye as we stride along.

Reading map during night navigation workshop

There’s a certainly an extra layer of exhilaration when we’re venturing out on a moorland track after dark, perhaps because it’s so different from the ingrained actions in all of us when daytime begins to fade, namely to head indoors, switch on a light and hunker down. By the end of an evening’s navigation session when we’re back in a cosy pub, people are invariably buzzing from the experience, not just because they’ve learnt new skills but also because it’s opened their eyes to the wonders of the dark side!

Of course, more care and planning needs to be done before gleefully roaming deep into the countryside after-dark, particularly as minds can play funny tricks with people’s ability to judge distance which can lead to less-than-perfect endings. So, with that in mind here are some of our navigational hints and tips.

Sky full of stars across North York Moors
Sky full of stars

Night nav hints and tips

  • Hone those map reading skills and plan your route beforehand. Make sure you understand the topographical features of your chosen route and know, for instance, where it gets steeper or what the trail will be like underfoot.
  • Breakdown the route into manageable chunks and landmarks that you can mentally tick off when you’re out – for instance, 50 metres to a lake; 1km to grouse butts. Not only is it reassuring but it will stop you straying far off the route if you fail to pass one of the key points.
  • Practice the art of pacing and know how many paces you take to cover 100 metres across different terrain. It’s a key technique when you’re walking in low visibility to find out how far you’ve walked and you’ll be surprised how different your pace is when going uphill compared with a level surface, or across boggy ground compared with a gravel track.
  • The compass is your friend. Practise taking compass bearings to ensure you’re walking in the right direction and use them in conjunction with pacing particularly if you’re walking along a less obvious trail.
  • Start off with night walks along routes that have easily discernible features to make navigation easier and/or practise a few hours before sunrise so that if you do go wrong, you know daylight is just around the corner.
  • As well as a compass, map and head torch, it’s also an idea to invest in an altimeter on a piece of kit such as a GPS watch. Knowing your height and looking at where this reading tallies on the map is a great way of pinning down where you are on a slope when you can’t see further than the end of your nose, and invaluable when there are few other landmarks to pick out. One thing to remember though is that altimeters need re-calibrating regularly to provide an accurate reading.
  • Safety is paramount so remember to tell somebody your plans before you head outside and take a first aid kit, survival shelter and food if you’re planning a more challenging adventure.

Book your space here

Check out details for Dark Skies festivals near you.

To help you out with night navigation, find all the printed maps you need, plus check out OS Maps for access to over half-a-million routes across Great Britain.

Top 5 dark sky locations Plan your night walk with Os Maps Try night orienteering

Published 23/01/2020. Edited 28.05.2021.

Gareth Williams By Gareth Williams


Gareth Williams is a guided walking specialist from Large Outdoors who offer guided walking weekends and holidays acros the UK.