Walking at night with no hand-held light: some observations

I have just been reading an interesting book by Mike Brown called, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. At one point Brown writes a little about walking at night with no hand-held artificial light and his observations about light from the Moon or sky-glow from nearby Los Angeles. Brown's observations got me going on this page.

Written 2014/02/15, last edited 2023/10/20
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

Most of my life over the last twenty or thirty years has been divided between a small country town, with street lights, and a bit of land right out in a rural area, away from street lights; both in what is called the Mid North of South Australia.

Approximate light levels from
some sources; with no clouds
Light sourceLux
Full Moon0.1
Sunlight60 000
From Wikipedia and elsewhere
When I wrote this I was 68 years old and semi-retired. I do quite a bit of walking in order to keep some level of fitness and because I enjoy it.

From the table at the right we can see that full sunlight is about 600 million times as bright as starlight. Yet it is quite possible to see sufficiently well to walk along a road or path by starlight. The human eye is remarkably efficient in a huge range of light levels.

One of my neighbours (I have spoken to him several times but don't know the bloke's name) walks in the early morning carrying a torch (= USA flashlight). For many years I have believed that one sees less at night while using a torch than one does without. Of course, if you need to see some particular object, it is handy to be able to play some light on it, but if you keep a torch on all the time you see that small part of your surroundings that your light is playing on, and you miss the rest; especially everything beyond the range of your light – including the night sky.

One of the roads I sometimes walk at night
Clare morning
Photo 2007/07/18

Natural sources of light at night

I will list these roughly in order of importance...

The Moon

Full Moon


'Full', first and last 'quarter'

These are rather inconsistent terms. When the Moon is at first- or last-quarter one can see a quarter of the surface; perfectly reasonable. When it is 'Full' one can see half of its surface; wouldn't it be more consistent to call it 'half Moon'?
The light of the full Moon is about 500,000 to a million times dimmer than the Sun, but is quite sufficiently bright for a human to be able to see where he is walking easily, and even see some colour. It is so bright that one can see little of the night sky; all but the brighter stars and planets are drowned by scattered Moonlight.

Astronomers don't like moonlight, it makes it very hard to see the dimmer objects in the night sky. If the moon is full most astronomers wouldn't bother looking through their telescopes any more than they would in daylight. Any more than a small crescent moon in the sky makes viewing difficult.

The full Moon rises at or about sunset and sets at or about sunrise.

Roughly speaking, the full Moon is in the part of the zodiac where the Sun is six months later; that is, in the summer the Moon follows the same path through the sky as does the winter Sun; in the winter it follows roughly the path of the summer Sun.

Gibbous Moon

This is the Moon at a phase between full and quarter; it is so named because it has the shape of a rounded stone, a gibber. Obviously the amount of light from a gibbous Moon will be between that of a full and quarter Moon, and the times of rising and setting will also fit in between those.

Quarter Moon


Preferential backscatter reflection

Surprisingly I could not find any matches for 'preferential backscatter reflection' on the internet. It is most familiar and obvious from reflective roadside signs; which 'bounce the light back' in whatever direction it came from. The surface of the Moon has similar, but not so pronounced, optical properties.
Moonlight is not as simple as you might think. A 'quarter' Moon covers half the angular area that the 'full' Moon covers, yet casts far less than half the light.

This effect has been attributed to the very powdery surface of the Moon, and the reason for the difference in apparent surface brightness is due to the Moon showing 'preferential backscatter reflection' and connected to the anti-solar point where there are no shadows. (You might have observed the bright spot surrounding the shadow of the aeroplane that you have flown in; this is the anti-solar point for you at the time.)

Enough of that. The important point is that the a quarter Moon is considerably less than half as bright as a full Moon, but it is still quite bright enough to walk by, so long as it is reasonably high in the sky and you are not among trees, especially if they have a dense canopy.

The first quarter Moon rises about mid-day and sets about mid-night. The last quarter Moon rises about mid-night and sets about mid-day.

Crescent Moon

The crescent Moon casts little light, and since it is never in the sky for long after sunset or long before sunrise, and never high above the horizon at night, the light it gives is not very useful for walking.

The waxing (growing larger) crescent Moon always sets within a few hours of sunset, the smaller the crescent the earlier it sets. Similarly the waning (growing smaller) crescent Moon always rises within a few hours of sunrise, the smaller the crescent the closer to sunrise it sets.

Natural sky-glow

For an hour or so after the Sun sets light is still scattered and refracted through the atmosphere; this, of course, is the twilight.

You may notice a glow in the sky, near where the Sun set, more confined and longer lasting than the twilight glow; this is the zodiacal light and is sunlight that is being scattered by dust in space. Of course both light scattered by the Earth's atmosphere and space dust can also be seen before sunrise.

Even when there is no Moon in the sky, the Sun is well below the horizon, and you are a long way from a city, there is some general glow from the sky. The night sky is not black, it is grey.


Venus is the only planet that is likely to be bright enough to provide useful light for walking at night. If you look carefully on an otherwise dark night you can see your shadow cast by Venus.

Venus is sometimes called the morning star or the evening star. It is always within 47° of the Sun and usually closer than that.


If you give your eyes time to adapt to the relative darkness (the level of light in a starlit night is something like a six-hundred-millionth that of a sunlit day) it is quite possible, and enjoyable, to walk along a road or a smooth path without obstacles.

Man-made sources of light

Obviously, in a town or city there is a lot of light, both direct and scattered, from street lights, flood lights on sports grounds, etc. Walking in towns and cities is not what this page is about.

Man-made sky-glow

Most of the people who will be reading this (that is, the people who have the wealth required to have access to the Internet and the leisure time to read stuff like this), will very likely be in, or close to, a city, and there will be considerable sky-glow from that city.


Astronomers and sky glow

Man-made sky glow is a huge problem for astronomers, who need the darkest possible sky. Many astronomical observatories have been moved away from cities due to increasing anthropogenic sky-glow.
The amount of artificial sky-glow will obviously depend on how far you are from the nearest city or town and less obviously on the cloud conditions. Fog between you and a town may scatter the light away before it gets to you, but cloud will reflect back some of the light that would otherwise go out into space.

Sky-glow from a large city can often be seen from at least as far as one hundred kilometres.

Of course sky-glow from a city, while it makes it easier to see where you are going, obscures the less bright of the stars.

Safety on the road

The safety advice in walking on the roadside in the dark is much the same as walking in the daylight, but it will help you to be visible if you wear something white, light coloured or reflective. Most of the time you should walk on the side of the road on which you are facing the oncoming traffic (different sides depending on whether the traffic is on the left or right side in the particular country).

You could carry a torch and switch it on whenever a vehicle is approaching. I don't usually. In the dark it is obviously easy to see if a car approaching from in front has any chance of hitting you. Less obviously it is even easier to see if a car approaching from behind has any chance of hitting you; watch how your shadow moves as the car approaches; if your shadow moves off to the side the car is not going to hit you. If your shadow stays steady, right in front of you, the car is coming right at you!

Walking on the roadside in the daylight is probably less safe than at night, without actually turning around you have to rely on your hearing to tell whether a vehicle coming from behind is heading toward you.


Try walking at night with minimal use of a light. Give your eyes time to adapt to the darkness. It is one more way of getting 'closer to nature'. If you haven't done it, or haven't done it recently, you will find it an interesting and enlightening experience.

When you walk at night, without using an artificial light, you will find that you use your ears more than usual.