The Best Lighting Combo for Nighttime Running

When I approached the start of the “Night Sweats Marathon” last Saturday at 8 p.m., my nervousness had less to do with the 26-mile distance and 5000 feet of climbing through the Marin Headlands, and more to do with the darkness. I worried my light wouldn’t be strong or comfortable enough, since in the past my headlamp has bugged my forehead and slipped around.

When I try to run trails at night, the darkness strains my eyes, messes with my depth perception and casts confusing shadows around every bump in the trail, which makes me slow way down and step gingerly through rocky stretches. Worse, if it’s rainy or foggy, then the precipitation creates a swirling pattern in the headlight beam in an almost hallucinatory way that frustrates and fogs my brain.

But after years of trial and error, I found a lighting combination that works well and gave me the confidence to run hard last Saturday night. It has three parts:

1. Fenix PD32 Compact 315 Lumen LED Flashlight

2. Black Diamond Spot Headlamp(or any headlamp that works well for you; this is the one I happen to like)

3. Original Buff Headband(I prefer the half-size rather than full-size buff)

First, the flashlight:

fenix pd32

This Fenix PD32 is awesome. It puts out an intense light at four brightness levels; the third-highest level is plenty bright, and the battery life at that level is 8 hours, 15 minutes. It’s waterproof and easy to turn off and on. It has a strap to wrap around your wrist so if you fall or drop it, you won’t lose it. And it’s very lightweight—2.2 oz. plus battery weight. I don’t know the exact weight with batteries, but it feels about as heavy as a banana and about half the size. It costs about $68 if you buy it with batteries included; it takes two CR123A batteries (you can find these types of batteries online or in a hardware store).

I also like how it fits into the front pocket of my pack:flashlight in front pocket

Secondly, the headlamp/buff combo: Some people like to run with a headlamp over their hat, but this has never worked for me because the brim always seems to interfere with the beam of light. But if I put the headlamp directly on my forehead, then it irritates my skin and leaves a red welt that looks like a third eye. I finally discovered that wearing a buff on my head is an ideal solution because the thin fabric keeps the headlamp from slipping or bouncing around. The buff also provides the right amount of warmth for my head in this climate (windy, with temps in the 40s), since a thicker cap would have felt too heavy and hot.

At the start of the nighttime marathon with friends Eldrith Gosney (L) and Claudia Graetsch-Vasquez (R); this shows the headlamp/buff combo I recommend.

At the start of the nighttime marathon with friends Eldrith Gosney (L) and Claudia Graetsch-Vasquez (R); this shows the headlamp/buff combo I recommend.

So here’s how it worked:

During the race, more than half the course followed relatively smooth fire roads. On this terrain, my headlamp alone provided sufficient light, so I kept the flashlight tucked in the pocket of my hydration pack. That way, I could enjoy running with nothing in my hands and also save the flashlight’s battery life.

But as soon as we were on rocky single-track, the flashlight proved invaluable to illuminate the terrain and prevent me from tripping. I had been so nervous about navigating the Pirates Cove section of the Coastal Trail in the dark—it plunges down toward the ocean, over rocks and slippery wooden steps—but I managed at nearly the same pace I’d run it in the daytime. The handheld flashlight in concert with the headlamp made the shadows of rocks and other tripping hazards much less confusing and less ominous.

Here’s what Pirates Cove looks like, in a photo of me taken during last year’s Marin Ultra Challenge. Imagine running it under the stars, not seeing the surf or cliffs, yet hearing the sound of the waves crashing and the distant honk of a fog horn. The field of vision doesn’t extend beyond the small bubble of illumination created by the headlamp and flashlight. With all senses acutely attuned, the experience is at once dream-like and vividly real, which makes it all the more exhilarating.

Pirates Cove, Marin Ultra Challenge 50M 2013 (photo by Myles Smith, Michigan Bluff Photography)

Pirates Cove, Marin Ultra Challenge 50M 2013 (photo by Myles Smith, Michigan Bluff Photography)

Fog began to blow onshore as I climbed from the sea back up the ridge, and the headlamp’s beam created a cloudy, increasingly confusing blur at eye level as the moisture in the air thickened. Hence, I switched off the headlamp and used the flashlight alone. The effect was like turning off your headlights and using fog lights in a car—instead of seeing a dense cloud at eye level, you see only the ground level. This option is one more reason I like the headlamp-flashlight combo.

Finally, there’s the advantage that if one source of light fails, you have a second one to use. I brought extra batteries but didn’t need them, since they worked fine for the five hours I was on course.

I’m still in comeback-from-injury mode, carrying an extra 4 to 5 pounds of bodyweight that doesn’t seem to want to budge, and being very cautious with weekly mileage. I ran this nighttime marathon instead of the following day’s Oakland Marathon because I’m not at all in road-racing shape, and I didn’t want to risk re-injury by pounding pavement at a hard pace. Yet I felt so good on the trails Saturday night, and unexpectedly confident thanks to this lighting system, that I pushed the pace to try to break 5 hours. I finished 2nd female overall in 4:57, less than two minutes behind winner Carrie Peterson-Kirby, and 18th overall. The male winner, Rickey Russell of Novato, finished in 3:30 (!).finish of Night Sweats Marathon

Sidenote: This is the first Pacific Coast Trail Runs event I’ve done since the ownership changeover a year ago. Kudos to John and Maureen Brooks for directing a well-organized event with stalwart volunteers who braved the nighttime cold and wind. PCTR will hold another “Night Sweats Marathon” on September 13; here’s the link to register.

, , , , , , , , ,

9 Responses to The Best Lighting Combo for Nighttime Running

  1. John Nguyen March 24, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    I was running with the Fenix LD22 and a Fenix Headlamp and agree that a flashlight/headlamp combo works best for night trail runs. Your flashlight looks like a smaller, more powerful model than mine. It was a beautiful night out there! If I was out there to race, I would have been shooting for a sub 5 hour finish too, but I was happy to take my time soak in the experience. And running with a friend helps! Congrats on your 2nd place finish!
    John Nguyen recently posted..2014 Way Too Cool 50KMy Profile

  2. Cathryn March 24, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    This is really useful, thanks so much. I’m running my first relay in Colorado this summer and am already thinking a little about the night-time leg and how I’m going to light it. Have you heard of/tried the knuckle lights? I’ve heard good things about them and how the light they shed is at the correct level for lighting the ground. Otherwise I’ll start investing in some of the things you recommend. Thanks again.
    Cathryn recently posted..Running The WorldMy Profile

  3. David Lavender March 24, 2014 at 4:11 pm #

    What a phenomenal finish, given the persistence of your injury! So glad to read about you back on the trails. Your report reminded me of that time I led a bunch of kids on a midnight climb out of Hermit Creek–down in the Grand Canyon–and crossed the Tonto Plateau under an almost-full moon to Monument Creek. The ethereal quality of that night still lingers. Thanks for triggering the memories!

  4. Allen Lucas March 24, 2014 at 6:49 pm #

    I’ve only done a few night trail things and using only a headlamp has been OK, but I definitely slowed down (and considering how slow I am in daylight, that is saying something). I remember odd shadows out of the corner of my eye kept making me jump a bit once in a while. I suspect the combo of a handheld with the headlamp would have made the shadows less odd and allowed me to go a bit faster.

    Thanks for this – I’m hoping to do their Sept version of the race and this writeup makes me feel a bit better about my chances of surviving!
    Allen Lucas recently posted..31K turns out to be easier than 31MMy Profile

  5. Martin March 25, 2014 at 9:24 am #

    Good report. I’ve always preferred both headlamp and handheld. I like the way the headlamp provides general lighting and the handheld brings out the trail roughness that you have to deal with.

    You mentioned the brim of the hat interfering with the headlamp. If it’s a warm night and I’m still comfortable with the lighter running cap, I’ll turn it around so the brim is back. The headlamp fits over the hat and the brim is not an issue.

    Adding the Buff under the cap makes a warm enough combo. When the sun comes up in the morning the lights and the buff are stowed, the cap is reversed, and it’s back to the normal daytime configuration.

    • Sarah Lavender Smith March 25, 2014 at 10:02 am #

      Thanks, Martin. Someone else suggested the same thing of using the hat backwards at nighttime. I’ve tried that and for whatever reasons, I can’t get the headlamp to fit snuggly over the hat, hence the buff provides a better solution for me. But I know your tip works well for others.


  1. Daily News, Thurs, Mar 27 - March 27, 2014

    […] Headlamp, chest lamp, hand carry? What’s your favorite method of lighting the trail on a light run? Here is Sarah’s. […]

  2. Diablo Trails Challenge 50K Report: An 11-Mile Race with a 20-Mile Warmup | The Runner's Trip: Run Long, Travel Far, Discover More. - April 21, 2014

    […] month: a 34-mile slow group fun run/hike (Eldrith’s wonderful “Uncool 50K”); the Night Sweats nighttime marathon that I ran as hard and fast as I could; another marathon-length training run at a conversational […]

  3. My Gift Guide for Trail and Ultra Runners 2014 | The Runner's Trip: Run Long, Travel Far, Discover More - November 21, 2014

    […] an even better lighting system (as described in this previous post), I like to combine a headlamp with the handheld Fenix PD32 compact flashlight. I love this […]

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes

%d bloggers like this: