Exploring Ireland’s mountains by the light of the moon
Night hikes offer something for everyone, from ultra-runners to stargazers
Hiking under the light of the moon has increased in popularity in Ireland, attracting everyone from ultra-runners to hill-walkers. Photograph: Getty Images
I’m standing in the majestic courtyard of Dublin Castle, shivering as I take in the organised chaos around me. It’s almost midnight on the first Friday of January and a frisson of excitement soars through my veins. I am about to embark on a 53km hike to the Glenmalure Valley, following in the historic footsteps of Art O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell as they attempted to escape captivity in Dublin Castle back in 1592.
The first 30km of the route passed without note. It was along road, under bright city lights. However, everything changed once we hit the darkness of the mountains. Quiet trails stretched before us as the light dusting of snow that had fallen that year glistened under the bright yellow moon.
Everything looked and felt so different in the darkness. In the distance we could see the orange hue of the city which we had recently left behind while directly above us lay a thick blanket of stars. At times the light of the moon alone was enough to guide us, our headtorches temporarily superfluous.
And then came the sunrise, some eight hours into our hike, as we approached the summit of Black Hill. As if by magic the clouds parted, the sun just peeking out, slowly lighting up the glorious landscape around us. It was magical and I knew it was the start of a lifelong love affair with night hikes.
The Art O’Neill Challenge, which is limited to 200 entries, has now become one of the hottest tickets on the events calendar. The organisers, the Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team, received more than 900 entries for the 2018 event. “People are attracted to the challenge,” says the team’s John Kavanagh.
“The 53km hike would be tough at the best of times, but add in the darkness and cold January weather – it really adds to the difficulty.
“It is a supported event. We have hot food at checkpoints and the Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team providing safety cover, so it really hits the spot between a challenge and acceptable risk. If something does go wrong, it won’t go very wrong.”
The challenge attracts both the country’s fastest ultra-runners and keen hill-walkers. The difference between the first and last across the line is usually about 12 hours.
“It’s great to watch the fast guys cross the finish line but it’s even better to watch the back of the pack reach the end,” Kavanagh says. “They are the people who have put everything they’ve got into the challenge. The joy on their faces is just incredible.”
While the Art O ’Neill Challenge is at the extreme end of the scale, we have seen a huge increase in appetite for night hikes, albeit slightly more relaxed ones. Walking guides all over the country have added night or full moon hikes to their offerings and they are proving popular. “There is definitely an attraction to hiking under the light of the full moon,” says Terry Lambert of Hilltop Treks in Co Wicklow. “The landscape looks totally different to what we are used to seeing during the day. It’s beautiful.”
“Everything changes at night,” agrees Keith McDonnell of Extreme Ireland.. “It is so peaceful. There is also nobody else out there. You might go hiking during the day for the exercise, but at night you go for the experience.
“We started offering night hikes about four years ago,” he adds. “They used to be relatively long and quite tough. However, we realised that the night hikes actually attract people who don’t have a lot of experience in the hills. They want shorter walks of about three hours.
“We go at a very relaxed pace and often theme our hikes. One month we might concentrate on fauna and the next we might focus our chat on the stars. We urge people to bring a flask so we can stop for tea.”
Providers such a Hilltop Treks and Extreme Ireland tend to stick to the trail on their night-time expeditions, making them suitable for any level of fitness and experience. And as for kit, you need pretty much the same as you do during the day with a couple of extra layers in the backpack just in case.
“We would advise that people dress a little warmer for a night hike and make sure that they have a hat, gloves and a few extra layers in their backpack,” Lambert says. “We also advise that people wear hiking boots although they are not essential on the type of terrain that we are on, so a good pair of runners will do the job. A headtorch is definitely the easiest option on a night hike but any handheld torch, or even the torch on your phone, is fine,” says Lambert.
Heather Snelgar edits outsider.ie, Ireland’s outdoor and adventure website.
Night hiking: how to get started
The Art O’Neill Challenge will take place on January 12th, 2018, but entries are sold out. Tickets for the 2019 event will go on sale in October 2018 and are allocated on a lottery basis.
In addition to the Art O’Neill, the Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team also runs Walk the Line. Offering two route options – a 22km loop or the shorter 11km which can be self-guided or guided – it starts mid-afternoon and runs into the night. The event is aimed at both experienced hillwalkers and those walkers who are eager to explore the Dublin Mountains. Walk the Line will take place on March 24th, 2018.
Hilltop Treks offers a monthly full moon hike from Enniskerry. It costs €25 per person.
Extreme Ireland offers a monthly full moon hike. The exact location is decided a couple of days prior to the hike but it is usually held either in the Dublin Mountains or out towards Glendalough.
Terra Firma in Co Mayo offers a range of night hikes in the Nephin Beg mountain range, Ireland’s only gold tier international Dark Sky Park. If you enjoy stargazing, this is the place to do it. Evening stargazing tours and full moon hikes last 2-3 hours and start at €25 per person.
Unique Ascent in Donegal offers full moon walks, aurora hunting, sunset and sunrise hikes. Each tour is customised according to the group and current weather conditions. Prices start at €25 per person.