Easy ways to get comfortable going outside at night
If you feel anxious while camping, you’re not alone! More often than not that anxiety is exasperated by the vast dark that many people aren’t used to if they live near lots of lights.
It’s too dark. What if an animal tries to eat me? How are we going to find the bathroom? What was that sound? What if I forget something? Families who join us for their first time camping often ask my husband and I these questions. We run a nature community in an urban area and the majority of the families in our group are not always excited to spend time away from city lights.
If you are hesitant to go outside in the dark, here are a few things you can do to get comfortable going outside at night while camping.
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Why is being outside at night uncomfortable?
First, we encourage you to seek the underlying reasons your kids, friends, or community members may not be comfortable at night.
Are they scared? Maybe they are worried about sleeping or using the bathroom. Do the sounds at night make them nervous? Do they worry about being far away from a store? When you know why they feel uncomfortable, you can use strategies to encourage them to participate.
Here are some reasons people may be afraid of the dark while camping. Then we’ll finish with suggestions.
Stories We’ve Been Told
When I started taking people camping, I realized some of the stories from my childhood were meant to intentionally keep us inside at night. La Llorona, or the Weeping Woman, is a legend with many variations that is told throughout the American Southwest and Mexico. Think of her like the boogeyman, or what we call el cucuy.
The version my friends and I still shiver thinking about says she was a young woman from Ciudad Juárez. She wears white and can be found searching for her children by the river bank wailing ,“Ay, mis hijos!” (“Oh, my kids!”). I’ll spare the details and instead encourage you to go learn about her, if you dare!
Why was the story so real to us? Well, every well-meaning adult we knew reminded us about La Llorona anytime we stayed out past sunset. Not to mention we lived in El Paso, about a rock’s throw away from Ciudad Juárez and the Rio Grande River. Finally, we lived right next to a canal. All it took was for one person to jokingly wail “Ay, mis hijos!” and we ran home.
Many cultures have different stories about day and night and animals at night and it’s helpful to talk about and compare the story to the reality of what the person may experience during an activity or trip.
When we asked what stops families from getting outside at night, our community members shared a variety of experiences such as, getting lost at night, not knowing how to cook outside, being far from a store, having a car break down in an unfamiliar area, and worrying about how adults and kids will sleep at night.
Fear of the Unknown
Generally speaking, there’s nothing as uncomfortable as knowing you don’t know what may happen. We are getting better at addressing this each time we go outside. Usually, because we experienced some mishaps or have forgotten something on each trip and lived to tell the tale.
Being unsure of the types of animals you may encounter, how you will use the bathroom outside, and worrying about not packing the right stuff can prevent you from even trying to spend a night in the dark.
There are many reasons that can keep you inside at night, but we’ve had success with these next few suggestions and hope they will help your family and friends enjoy some fun in the dark.
Ways to get comfortable being in the dark before you leave home
1. Find Out What Sounds You’ll Hear at Night
As a volunteer with the Texas Outdoor Family program, I learned how to make animal sounds at night feel less scary with the use of a fun guessing game. You can try this at home using the Macaulay Library from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a list of common animals you may hear or see at night. Find a sound and have your kids or friends guess which one it is!
Our list below comes from our experience in North Texas, but you can add your own animals and search for them using the library’s filter to find audio, photos, and videos. You can also search by location, such as county, state, province, country, or National Wildlife Refuge.
Try searching for these critters:
- Great Blue Heron
- Striped Skunk
- Screech Owl
- Barred Owl
- Great Horned Owl
- Cricket Frog (my personal favorite)
- Leopard Frog
- American Bullfrog
2. Choose a Familiar Location Close to Home
Now that you know what you might hear, choose a location close to home where you are comfortable being outside at night. We like to host night events with first-time families at a local park they have visited in the day time. An easy go-to activity for us is a picnic dinner. Being in a familiar setting can help encourage exploration and calm nerves since you are close to home and can leave quickly if things don’t go as planned.
For example, we go on night walks in our neighborhood a few days before a trip when my kids get worried about being outside at night in a new place. I grab our headlamps or glow sticks and we pretend we’re on a hike. Sometimes we like to make the animal sounds we think we’ll hear on our trip. Our neighbors hear us long before they can see us!
3. Gather Supplies to Have Fun in the Dark
I have a box in our shed devoted to glow sticks and buy as many as I can during the sales after Halloween. The glow sticks serve two purposes. They are fun, because they only work well after it gets dark, and they help the adults keep track of and count the kids quickly. We have also used these color-changing crystals to add a little flair to our campfires.
We’ve had this solar, inflatable, and color changing Luci light for about 7 years. It has made it through countless walks while being handled roughly and chewed on by 2 babies. These days it’s their favorite night light and just needs a few hours in the sun to charge it up!
In addition, we invested in durable headlamps for kids and adults. The headlamps are more fun and less easily dropped by little kid hands than a flashlight. Our preschoolers feel more in charge on a hike, which boosts their confidence while walking at night.
Ways to Get Comfortable Being in the Dark at Your Destination
1. Visit a location during daylight hours and then go back at night
Each time we visit a new place we want to see at night, we make sure to drive around and scout the area during daylight hours.
We’ll go on a shorter hike, eat lunch, play a game of hide and seek, or look for interesting features. Then, we return at night and look for some of the same features we saw during the day to make comparisons. This helps everyone feel less hesitant and a bit more excited to explore.
2. Play games or try new activities
There are many activities you can do outside to keep kids, and adults, motivated and engaged. Here are some ideas to try at night. Go on a scavenger hunt or play nature bingo.
For those who are still hesitant about being out at night:
Try a fun pirate story to help their eyes adjust to the dark. While covering one eye like an eye patch, shine a flashlight on the ground about 5 feet in front of you. Have each person keep their one eye covered and use the other eye to stare at the light on the ground, or objects within the beam of light for the next 5 minutes. To keep them engaged, tell this story about a pirate who wore an eye patch.
When the story is finished, everyone will be amazed how much better the covered eye can see in the dark! Follow that with some stargazing. I love to use this stargaxers book and the included star wheel. We also love to read about the constellations.
For a creepy crawly adventure:
Use your flashlights or headlamps to go on a spider hunt. Spider eyes will reflect and shine back at you. They are easiest to see when you hold your light on your temples, at the level of your eyes. Grab a black light and search for scorpions, because they will glow in the dark.
3. Go With a Buddy
Being with others can make nature at night less scary and more fun. Our kids love to lead their friends on a night adventure and I love seeing their confidence shine through when they are coaching and encouraging each other. Having multiple adults also allows you to have an extra pair of eyes for the kids and hands for cooking! It truly does take a village.
Additionally, many campsites located in national parks and state parks have programs hosted by rangers on a variety of topics. Be sure to check their websites and calendars for dates and times. We’ve learned how to cook in a dutch oven, how to geocache, interesting facts about wildlife, how to kayak and mountain bike, and how to identify edible plants from our local rangers.
Overall, the goal of any adventure is to have fun with your loved ones, no matter the place, season, or time of day or night! However, if being outside at night makes you uncomfortable, I hope some of these tips encourage you to spend some time exploring in the dark.
What other suggestions do you have for getting outside at night? Please share them in the comments!
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