Essential Steps to Experiencing your First Sunrise Hike
- Choose your Hike
- Pick your Day
- Prep your Gear
- Get Some Rest and Get on the Trail
- Shooting Sunrise
- Heading Home
Spring is essentially here in Alberta, and summer is just around the corner. This is the perfect time to start talking about one of my favourite warm-weather activities, sunrise hiking. Getting up early in the morning, heading out on the road with only two or three other cars and hitting a trailhead with no one else around. It's a magical feeling. The best part about them? Watching the sun crest over the horizon and fill The Valley below you. The spectacular photos certainly help as well.
But sunrise hikes aren't the easiest thing to pull off. Especially if you've never done one. They take a little bit of planning and patience and a lot of mental fortitude.
So today, I'm going to go over how you can make your first sunrise hike happen. And make sure you get all the incredible images to prove it.
Before you start heading out the door or looking at hikes, there are a few things to think about.
Some things to think about
- You will be hiking in the dark to the top. To be there for sunrise, it's inevitable. Hiking in the dark is a much different experience than going at it in the middle of the day. You can't see as far, normal noises can seem strange and distorted, and it's much easier to lose the trail. All this can be unnerving. If you've never hiked in the dark, consider that. I'd suggest finding someone else to go with you, as travelling in groups can feel more comforting.
- Some animals are more active at night hunting. You will want to make sure you keep making noise and letting them know you are there. This can help prevent a sudden encounter. I've found, however, remembering to break the silence of the night can be a difficult thing to do, so keep this top of mind.
- Leave a plan with family and/or friends. Let two or three people know where you will be, what trail you're on, and when you expect to be done. This is good practice anytime you are hiking. Make sure to check in with these folks when you get off the trail.
Alright, let's get on to the steps towards a successful sunrise hike.
Step 1: Choose your Hike
Choosing the right trail can make a huge difference in your sunrise hike. If you are inexperienced with night hiking, I have two options for you. The first option, choose a trail you have done before, so you know where the route goes and the dangers on it so you won't be caught by surprise. The second option, choose a hike you haven't done but do it during the day first and scout for potential dangers at night. Get to know the trail.
Now, outside of previous experience on a trail, something else to think about is the direction you will be facing at the top. Choosing a hike that doesn't have great views towards the sunrise will be a disappointment. Let's take Kings Creek Ridge in Alberta's Kananaskis Country for an example. This is a lovely viewpoint, but most of the gorgeous views look towards the North, West, and South. To the East, you are in the shadow of Mt. Hood and Mt. Brock. The sun won't be touching the top of Kings Creek Ridge until well after it has risen. This could make for pretty poor sunrise views. Do some research beforehand on the hike you would like to do on where the sun will rise from and any larger objects nearby that may block the sunrise. Do this by Google searching for images of the view from the top of your hike and by using topographical maps to understand the elevation of nearby mountains. Now, just because there is something bigger nearby doesn't necessarily mean it will block your view. Mt. Hood and Mt. Brock become a problem on Kings Creek Ridge because there are only a few kilometres (and a giant, deep valley) between the Ridge and the mountains. This means the peaks dominate the area around them. But, the further away you are from a large object, the less it will obstruct your view. This is why using topographic maps mixed with summit pictures will give you the best understanding of if you will have blocked views.
To take this up a notch, you can also use these maps and pictures to plan your compositions in advance. Some peaks give you unique leading lines and features that you can use to enhance your sunrise shot and help elevate it to awe-inspiring art.
Step 2: Pick your Day
So, now you know what hike you want to do. But when should you do it? Start by picking what day of the week will work best for your schedule. I'd suggest choosing a day where you won't be working super late the night before and where you will have a chance to recharge when you get back down the mountain. This will mean a Saturday or Sunday may be best but look at your own schedule to decide.
One factor to take into consideration is timing. For people living at the base of a mountain, a sunrise hike is a lot easier than folks who have to drive in from elsewhere. Take the lovely people living in Canmore, Alberta. A sunrise hike up Ha Ling mountain (which is right in Canmore) could mean leaving the house just an hour and a half to two hours before sunrise. Whereas doing the same hike from Calgary will leave you with an extra 75-minutes of driving to do both ways. This can be the difference between being able to do a sunrise hike before work and needing a day off to do it.
To understand your timing, you will need to know when sunrise is, the length of the hike and how long you think it'll take you to get to the top. Now add 30 minutes to your ascent time for a safety buffer. I'd hate to go through all the work to see a mountain top sunrise and then miss the sunrise because I undercalculated my ascent time. So, if a hike will take me two hours to complete, I'd give myself two and a half hours to make sure I can get to the top on time. Next, you need to know how long it will take to get to the start of the hike. Add time to park, get your gear on and get on the trail. For me, I usually take about 10 to 20 minutes at a trailhead, depending on what I need to get on. This normally means putting on hiking boots, a knee brace, ensuring all my gear is in my bag and a quick pit stop in the washroom. Think about this for you, and build this into your timing. All this will tell you when you need to leave home. If you are trying to squish it into a day, don't forget to add time on the peak (at least an hour to shoot the sunrise and appreciate it), your decent time, and then driving back again. Let's take Ha Ling again as an example.
From Calgary, the parking lot is about a 75-minute drive. I need 15 minutes on average in the parking lot, and it will take about an hour and a half to get to the top. Add a 30-minute buffer for the hike, an hour on the peak for sunrise, an hour to get back down, and 75-minutes to drive back to Calgary. That's a total of 2 and a half hours of driving, 3 hours hiking, and an extra 75 minutes of other things for a total of six hours and 45 minutes. It adds up quickly when you need to drive somewhere. Do your math accordingly. If you have the whole day off, this gets far easier. So, look at your schedule and pick the right day.
Something to note as you look at your timing. At sunrise, the best colours may actually happen 45-minutes to an hour before the actual sunrise. So, if you want to get the best colours, you may have to get there even earlier. If you're really just looking for that sun peeking over the horizon shot, though, you don't need to worry about this.
Finally, check out the weather for the day you've picked. Use Mountain-Forecast.com to find out what the weather is like on the peak you've chosen. This will let you know what gear to bring and if it will be worth being up before sunrise.
Step 3: Prep your Gear
This is critically important. You will be hiking at night and in the early morning, so various layers will be necessary. And your gear will be slightly different than if you were just hiking during the middle of the day. For a sunrise hike, I'd suggest the following items as must-haves:
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- A warm drink and a snack (breakfast on a mountain top is so much better than breakfast in bed)
- A Map
- Safety gear and medkit
- Packable, warm coat for the peak. It will be cold when you get to the top.
- Gloves (both for the hike and for the top)
- Touque (and an extra one in case it gets wet on the hike up)
- A change of shirt (it's much nicer and warmer to sit around a peak wearing a dry shirt than a sweat-soaked one)
- A change of socks (this is a must-have for me always, wet feet suck)
- Your camera equipment
- Wide Angle Lens
- Telephoto Lens
- Extra batteries and memory cards
- Ultra Lightweight Tripod
I'd suggest a tripod as well, but that will depend on your shooting style and what you are hoping to capture. But, if you've got a lightweight tripod that will fit in your bag, I would bring it.
Dress appropriately for the weather when you head out of the car. I find most of the time I just need a light sweater for the actual hiking portion but be prepared for it to be cooler than a day-hike. I always tend to bring more warm stuff than I need, but I'd much rather be comfortable and able to stay on the top for the whole sunrise than needing to bail because I started to freeze.
I always prepare my gear the night before I head out. This way, I can sleep until the last possible second, get out of bed and go. I don't need that extra time to find things and pack a bag. So, layout the clothing you're going to wear the night before, pack your bag and have everything ready at the front door. I make sure to leave a note on my car keys reminding me to grab anything out of the fridge as well.
Alright, you've got your bag ready to go.
Step 4: Get some Rest and Get on the Trail
From here, it's up to you. Make sure you get a good night's rest and know where you are going when you head out the door. Do a double check you have everything you need as you pack the car and then head out.
Be safe out there as you make your way to the mountain top.
Step 5: Shooting Sunrise
So you've gotten to the top. And hopefully, with some time before the sun starts poking its head up over the horizon. What do you do?
I'd first check where the sun is going to come up. Use an app like SunSurveyor or PhotoPills to get a good approximation of where on the horizon it should appear. Then, I'd quickly scout the area, looking for any compositional elements that I want to include. Look for leading lines, rock formations, framing opportunities, maybe there is a great spot to place a person in your shot, anything that will add exciting elements to your image. Next, I'd pop off some blue hour shots of those compositions and see if I actually like them in image-form. Once I know what I want to include in my sunrise shot, I'd spend some time taking blue hour photos of the area. These can be gorgeous shots of the surrounding peaks, your companions with their headlamps on, anything that interests you. Once sunrise starts getting close, set up your composition and get ready. The sun comes over that horizon fast, and you will only get a couple of minutes to get your shots.
Use all the principles of landscape photography that we have talked about before on here and enjoy the experience. It is a glorious moment when those sun rays hit you, and the warmth fills your body. Once you've got your primary shot, work on creating secondary compositions. Once you've got your pictures, enjoy a quick snack and soak up the experience. Take some time to revel in the sun coming up on the horizon.
Step 6: Heading Home
This may actually be the most challenging part. Once you are happy, head on back down the trail. But be careful. Most hiking accidents don't happen on the ascent but happen on the descent because you are tired, you've achieved your objective, and you're heading for home, and you aren't paying as much attention. So stay on your toes, watch where you step, and keep your awareness high until you get to the parking lot.
I always take a few minutes to sit in the parking lot and think about what I just experienced before heading out on the road. I reflect on what I saw, how it felt, and take some time to express gratitude to my body for getting me up there and to nature for its beauty. Gratitude is a massive part of my day-to-day life, and I find it very important to remember to say thank you whenever I get to experience something unique. So, take a moment in the parking lot to say thank you and don't just hop in your car and head out.
And that's it! Hopefully, this little guide helps you experience your first mountain top sunrise and gets you there safely and back down again. I do need to say to hike within your limits and that nothing in this podcast is meant to be construed as safety guidelines or anything like that. It is advice from my experience to help get you out and experiencing something spectacular, but it is up to you to know your route, know what safety precautions you need, and be informed of any risks in the area. Hiking can be dangerous, the mountains can be hazardous. Be prepared and understand the risks.
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram @RobertMasseyPhotography.