Hiking up Smutwood Peak for sunrise: A guide to hiking at night

Ask me for a list of my most memorable hiking experiences, and there’s a strong chance that I’ll mention a few sunrise hikes. I don’t do them too often, because quite frankly, they’re exhausting, but there’s something about them that really sticks with you.

Maybe it’s because you’re walking with adrenaline pumping through your veins, not knowing what might be staring back at you through the darkness. Maybe it’s just the anticipation of an incredible sunrise. Or maybe it’s because you’ve had 2 hours of sleep and you’re a bit giddy with exhaustion.

Whatever the reasons may be, there’s something else about night hikes.

Smutwood Peak in Kananaskis

Smutwood Peak Quick Stats:

  • Distance: 17.9km
  • Elevation Gain – 961m
  • Type – out and back, some scrambling and scree at the very end
  • Best time to hike – late summer (August). There’s thick snow earlier in the season
  • Time to complete: 8-10 hours

Arguably my favourite sunrise hike ever was our hike to Smutwood Peak in Kananaskis last year. Smutwood Peak is a gruelling hike through Kananaskis that ends with an iconic view of Mt. Birdwood. Here’s how our hike last August went.

Smutwood Peak – An unforgettable night hike

We set our alarms for midnight, and aimed for a 2am start at the trailhead. On the way, the rain started to pour, and we realised we might be in for a long, wet 20km hike with absolutely no views at the end of it.

I’d also forgotten my rain coat, and was rather optimistically wearing shorts to boot. To my eternal shame, I resorted to hiking with an umbrella. Hopefully for the first and last time ever, but better an umbrella than being cold and wet for the next 10 hours.

We hit the trail, splashing through puddles in the dark, listening to the light drizzle and deafening silence that only falls in the mountains at night. And silence was good, because our ears were on red alert.

Kananaskis is grizzly country, and there were plenty of places along the trail that could hide a bear. Cries of “hey bear” pierced the night as we climbed higher and higher. Each of us was grateful to have the group as company.

Bear spray in hand, we gradually climbed above the treeline until we reached a rocky plateau. Finally the clouds cleared, and above, the moonlight finally illuminated the peaks surrounding us on all sides. An hour until sunrise, and we could now see the end ahead of us.

The last part of the trail was a slippery scramble, but now the light was starting to flood into the valley and we could see the views starting to emerge below us. An unbelievable landscape with endless miles of jagged peaks in every direction.

Finally, we reached our viewpoint and slumped down on the rocks, exhausted, just in time for the most breathtaking sunrise to unfold in front of us. Mount Birdwood, the striking peak in the distance, dominated the skyline with an absolutely unforgettable view.

Time to crack out the jetboil and warm up with the first coffee of the day! Together with the warm rays of morning sunshine, we warmed up fast and ran around like kids on Christmas morning, trying to take as many photos as we possibly could in the golden light.

Those memories from that morning are etched into my mind, and I’m almost certain it wouldn’t have been as memorable if we’d begun at a reasonable hour.

From that day onward, I’ve been convinced that sunrise hikes, and hiking through the night, are the way to experience hiking. We don’t get to do it as often as I’d like, because I’m lazy, but if I could drag myself out of bed every time, I certainly would

How to get to the Smutwood Peak Trailhead:

Head into Kananaskis and Mount Engadine Lodge. The trailhead is just around the corner.

Is the Mount Smutwood hike easy?

Yes and no. The hike itself isn’t very challenging and you’ll find it to be a very gradual gradient until the last bit of scrambling. It is, however, quite a long hike, so expect a long day of walking.

The scrambling at the end is a little hairy, but you don’t have to hike all the way to the end to achieve those stunning views of Mt. Birdwood!

A guide to night hiking!

Hiking at night is electrifying, but to make sure you enjoy your experience it’s important to prepare properly. Here’s everything you need to know about hiking at night!

Sunrise hike packing checklist:

Hiking poles

There are plenty of things that can trip you up at night like roots and rocks, so having a bit of extra stability is crucial.

Boots with good ankle support

same goes for the boots. A rolled ankle is a nightmare on a hike, so having a bit of extra support is crucial, especially if you can’t really see where you’re walking.

A GPS tracker/GPS app

This is an absolute life saver on a night hike. Sometimes trails aren’t as obvious in the dark, and being able to find your way back onto the trail in the dark is critical. The last thing you want is to get cliffed out because you were too stubborn to use a GPS!

I recommend either using a GPS app on your phone, like Topo Canada or All Trails, or to use an actual GPS device like a Garmin InReach Mini ( I absolutely love mine and swear by it, click the link for our product review)

Raincoat

A raincoat is obviously a good idea for any hike, but especially in the dark as you really can’t see the bad weather creeping up on you. Pack something portable and lightweight just in case!

Hat and gloves

The temperature drops fast at night in the mountains, and when you stop up on that windy summit, the cold comes rushing back in. The worst thing in the world is having cold hands and feet. Pack decent gloves and a hat and you’ll be good to go!

Hand warmers

More often than not, I forget to pack thick gloves. It’s not uncommon for my fingers, therefore, to still get cold. Chemical hand warmers are an absolute godsend. You can buy them in bulk from Costco or buy individual packets from virtually any decent outdoor store.

Puff Jacket/jacket

I absolutely love puff jackets, but they really come into their own during sunrise hikes. They’re super lightweight and packable, and there’s always one buried in my bag, just in case. I have puff layers from Canada Goose, North Face and Patagonia and all of them work equally well. I’d say the major difference between brands is the shape.

For example, North Face tends to be boxier than Patagonia, so doesn’t fit my body shape as well.

Breakfast snacks

It’s a fact that when you’re sleep deprived, your body gets hungry. Hiking through the night is hungry business too, so you ‘re going to need to bring some decent snacks. Usually I prefer to have a big meal after a hike and snack on granola bars at the summit.

Whatever you like to eat in the morning, make sure you pack a decent amount!

Water

Water is important for any hike. Make sure you bring plenty and even more if you plan to make coffee.

Jetboil

Nothing beats a hot drink while you’re sitting in the cold and waiting for the sun to come up. With a jetboil, or some sort of cheap camp stove, you can quickly boil a fresh brew and keep your hands warm at the same time!

Alternatively, pack a thermos full of hot chocolate or coffee etc. For our last hike up Mt. Baldy for sunrise, I actually brewed a hot chocolate the night before and it was still hot once we got up there!

Instant coffee/hot chocolate in a thermos

Some of our friends pack aeropresses and coffee grounds up the mountain, but that all seems like a lot of hard work and extra weight to me. For me, a packet of instant coffee is perfect.

Headlamp

I might stagger through a sunrise hike without food or water, but there’s no way I’m getting to the summit without a headlamp. Make sure you have one per person!

Bear spray

As I mentioned earlier, there are certain areas that are known for bear activity (or cougar for that matter). Having bear spray is a great way to prepare yourself for an encounter.

Funnily enough, on our hike up Smutwood Peak we actually met two grizzlies. I’ve never been more thankful to have bear spray in my hand.

Friends

Friends are optional, of course, but I promise you you’ll be safer and happier with company. The forest can be pretty creepy in the dark and it’s nice to have someone along to watch your back. Statistically, you’re far, far less likely to be attacked by a bear if you have a group of 4 or more.

Tips for hiking at night

Plan to summit early

If you’re trying to get to your destination for sunrise, my advice is generally to start at the time you want to arrive and work backwards. If you’re trying to catch the first morning light and glows, I’d recommend arriving at least 30 minutes before sunrise. I’d also factor in plenty of time in case you get lost in the dark and need to backtrack.

Ideally pick a hike you’ve done before

Route finding is a lot easier when you’ve got a general sense of where you’re going. You’ll also know roughly how long things should be taking. I’ve generally found that hiking new routes in the dark can take a lot longer.

Pack extra batteries for your headlamp

It’s a good idea to pack a couple of spare batteries for your headlamp in case yours decides to die on you

Be animal aware

The chances of you bumping into an animal are low but not non existent. Be loud and carry protection in the form of bear spray or bear bangers. Animals tend to do their best to avoid humans if possible, so making them aware of your presence, travelling in groups and not walking in silence is the best way to avoid any nasty surprises.

Using your headlamp properly

Try not to shine your headlamp in anyone’s eyes while you’re hiking. It takes roughly 45 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, so even shining your light into someones eyes for a few seconds can ruin someone’s night vision for almost an hour. In particular, if someone is night hiking towards you, either turn off your light for a few seconds as they pass, or point it away.

Similarly, I’ve found that as things start to light up either in the morning or at sunset, a headlamp can actually be a hinderance. If it’s bright enough to go without a headlamp, I’d suggest switching it off, saving the battery and letting your eyes adapt to the surroundings.

Choose a night with moonlight

It may come as a surprise, but there is a huge difference between hiking under a full moon and hiking under a new moon. Having a little bit of ambient light streaming down from the moon on a clear night can actually illuminate a trail so much that you almost don’t need a headlamp.

Coinciding your hike with a moonlit sky may make your hike significantly less creepy and more enjoyable!

Final thoughts

If you’re looking for an adventure, a night hike is a great way to make some memories, and if you’re a photographer there’s no better way to get some amazing photos. There’s something so special about sunrise photos that you just can’t recreate any other way.

Having said that, be prepared to feel a little out of your comfort zone in the dark! It’s a strange feeling!

Have fun out there and stay safe.

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