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Trailhack#109: Hiking during the Golden Hour and the Blue Hour, Not Just for Photographers

If you’re a professional photographer, you live and die by lighting. Whether it’s sunlight, daylight, mood lighting, or anything in between, the world of lighting drives photographers to run around the world and wake up at egregious times to make sunrises, time the day for sunsets, and position themselves at venues to capture subjects just right.

But we all know that lighting can play an important role in outdoor adventures.

  • Setting up campsites in time so that you’re not relying on your headlights to pitch a tent

  • Making it back from that favorite summit hike before nightfall

  • Or perhaps that perfect Instagram moment with the backdrop of a sunset

Managing the sun is easy. No longer are you tied to the Farmer's Almanac or Captain Ahab’s understanding of nautical knowledge. I am pretty sure that both of those examples have nothing to do with forecasting or predicting sunrise and sunset times.

Today, we live in a world with technological advancements and phones that have more processing power than the Apollo 11 Lunar Module.

Importance of Knowing Sunrise and Sunsets

It’s not too uncommon that I’ll stumble across someone on Facebook or a Reddit chat group asking what time they need to leave to make a specific hike for the sunrise or sunset. And while the factor of ‘how fast do you walk’ plays the primary role in that question, they do in fact need to know the time that they are shooting for to get that first light.

Whether you’re:

  • Targeting the right time to see the sun peeks its head over the horizon

  • Being there for the rich blues or oranges for a sunset

  • Or generally wanting to be safe with exiting the trail before last light

Knowing the times at which the lighting changes form is important. Especially when safety is a concern. If you are not comfortable hiking in the dark or are ill-prepared, the last thing you want is to find yourself in the dark on a trek down a mountain. Ruling out all the weird noises that emerge at this time, it’s sometimes dangerous to hike in the dark without a flashlight or even with one.

Using Your Phone and the Relevant App for Sunrise and Sunsets

So, grab your phone and fire open that app store. That’s right, it’s relatively simple to grab a few apps to determine the sunrise and sunset. There are a number of apps that do the trick, but I have found that I typically gravitate to two specific apps.

There are many apps that are listed in the app store and this is certainly something that you need to get a preference around, but these are the two that can be found on my phone. Mainly because they are easy to work with and both have some form of Widget for the iOS home page. I have a call-out to the widget in one of my other Blog posts on the Apple iWatch — Using the Apple iWatch for Hiking and Outdoor Adventures.

The PhotoPills app is spectacular for Photography. This app is much more than just sunrise and sunset, but for purposes of talking about these factors, we’ll limit it to that. Within the app, you’ll see a host of options - but specifically, when you look at the “Sun” option … you set to see a wealth of information.

Once you click into the “Sun,” you will be able to click on “Settings” in the top right corner and set your location. If you’re traveling somewhere, you’ll be able to determine the most accurate sunrise and sunset.

Sun & Moon - Sunrise Sunset

Similar to the PhotoPills app, the Sun & Moon app will allow you to see very similar views of the sunrise and sunset. The Sun & Moon app, it’s displayed horizontally and has the detail more condensed. Again, this is your preference and your choice for how you want to consume this information.

When looking at sunrise and sunset, it’s important to set the location. On Moon & Sun, you can change this setting from the Location Pin in the top left.

NOTE: As you travel closer and further away from the equator, the time changes for sunrise and sunset.

What’s This Golden Hour and Blue Hour (and Why Is It Important to Me?)

So once you have an app downloaded and you’re ready to start looking at the Golden Hour or Blue Hour, you probably want to know what they are. After all, that’s what I am supposed to be writing about. Yes. Thank you for the reminder.

Let’s start from the top. First, you have to throw out that they are actually full hours since they are rarely an hour long. Sometimes they are significantly shorter and sometimes they are significantly longer. This of it this way, wherever you are, these hours are based on where the sun is blazing across the sky.

  • Summer … the path of the sun is overhead, and this means less time at the beginning and end of the days because it dips below the horizon quickly

  • Winter … the path of the sun is not directly overhead, so it leaves more time for the light to stay lower than the horizon

For photography, this means that the ideal light for taking pictures lasts longer in the wintertime and is shorter in the summertime. This also has implications for your hiking during these times of the year. Not only are the days shorter in the wintertime, but the beginning and ends of the days get darker and a little slower.

Golden Hour

The Golden Hour is the time that the sun is lowest to the horizon at sunrise and just before sunset. This creates the warm orange, pink, and purples in the sky that you see when the sun is still visible.

  • Not really an early warning system because that time is usually less than an hour, but a signal if you're out that it’s time to pick up the pace if you are far away from your destination.

  • If you are starting to see that the sky is starting to change colors, it’s a good indication that you are less than 1 hour from the sun disappearing — and if it’s in the summer, it could be 15 minutes

  • NOTE: This does not apply for the extreme poles where some days it’s daylight all day and night all day, etc.

Blue Hour

The Blue Hour is the phase that happens right before and after sunrise and sunset. This period is when the sun has not emerged from the horizon, but the light is starting to emerge into the sky.

  • If you are out on a hike and the sun has set, but there is still light, you are in the blue hour. If you don’t have a flashlight and don’t like the sounds of the forest — you need to move quickly to your destination

The sunset will typically happen between the Golden Hour and Blue Hour on each of these apps and should give you a good indicator of timing for your hiking and outdoor photography.

Planning Your Trip Around Golden & Blue Hours

When you’re planning a trip, whether it’s that perfect sunrise at Old Rag in Northern Virginia or a section hike on the Appalachian Trail through the Blue Ridge Mountains, keeping tabs on the sunrise and sunset can help in a number of ways.

  • Temperatures change during these periods and perhaps you might want to get mileage in during the hours but want to be wary of camp setup and tear down

  • Perhaps you are in fact chasing that sunrise at Old Rag and need to calculate backward the time it takes to get up the summit (for all intents and purposes, Old Rag is a 10-mile loop with a rock scramble. You might be able to hike a 25 to 30-minute mile, but it’s uphill and there is climbing. It’s probably a good 2.5 to 3 hours to the summit being conservative. That’s my best guess).

  • Maybe you have to work in the morning but want to take your dog on a hike after you get off and need to know the length of your hike that you can do before dark

There are so many reasons that you’d want to know the time of the sun and where it is respective to your start and end time for your hiking adventures. Mainly, know that there are tools available, and they are a great resource to start planning your trips.

We encourage you to get outside and enjoy those golden and blue hours, they are simply magical. Happy hiking and enjoy!


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