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The Definitive Guide to Dawn Patrol

Proven tips from top athletes on how to nail the perfect morning adventure


There’s never a wrong time to head out the door. But if you’re serious about scoring the best conditions, enjoying a peaceful sunrise, or just fitting more adventure into life’s busy schedule, you’re going to need to master the art of dawn patrol (or at least give it a try). Besides, tackling a trail run or backcountry ski before breakfast sets a great tone for the day. Not a morning person? That’s OK. These top athletes have tricks to get even the sleepiest out of bed for an outing you won’t regret.

Plan Ahead

Nobody gets up at 5 a.m. on a whim. You’ve got to make a plan. Set an alarm, have an idea of where you’re headed, and organize your essentials before bed. “I prepare the night before, setting out my clothes, charging my headlamp, grinding my coffee, so I’m not looking around too much in the morning,” says Joe Grant, an ultrarunner from Durango, Colorado. His most essential item? The Wind Hood GridTech Gloves. “I use them to keep the chill off on early-morning runs, and I can easily stow them in the pockets of my shorts if it gets too warm,” he says. “They’re an ideal dawn-patrol piece.”

Have a Morning Routine

Turn on music, stretch, drink coffee—whatever you need to get going. Give yourself enough time so it doesn’t feel rushed. “I used to give myself 30 minutes to get out the door, but that felt like a whirlwind,” says Mary McIntyre, a ski mountaineer and photographer from Salt Lake City, Utah. “Now I take 45 minutes for coffee and a little breakfast, check the avalanche report, and I’m out the door.”

Know Before You Go

If you’re heading into avalanche territory, triple-check your safety kit before you head out and make sure you’re familiar with all of it. “At the beginning of every season, I’ll do some practice with my avalanche safety gear, with friends or by myself,” says McIntyre. “I’ll practice pulling everything out of my pack and see how quickly I can assemble my shovel and probe.” She uses the Black Diamond Guide BT Avalanche Beacon, which is very user-friendly for how advanced it is, and the Transfer 3 Shovel and Quickdraw Tour Probe 320—“they’re sturdy and strong and can handle a big, deep snowpack.”

Set a Date with a Friend 

If you have an agreement to meet someone early in the morning, you’re likely to stick to it. “Backcountry skiing, you need a partner anyway, but having a friend also helps with accountability,” McIntyre says. “Don’t be late. When I was getting into dawn patrolling, a friend told me, ‘Waiting for a friend for ten minutes at 5 a.m. feels like waiting an hour later in the day.’”

Make It Fun

You want to make the outing feel like an adventure, not an obligation; otherwise you’ll be more tempted to hit snooze. “Make whatever you’re going out to do feel approachable and fun, so it’s compelling enough to get out of bed,” Grant says. “Maybe that means running a new trail or running your favorite loop in reverse.”

Watch Your Step

Grant’s go-to headlamp is the Sprint 225, Black Diamond’s smallest and lightest rechargeable light, which is plenty bright for even the darkest mornings. And to get a grip on slippery trails midwinter, he uses Black Diamond’s Distance Spike Traction Device. “I make sure those things are right next to my shoes, by the door, so I don’t forget them,” he says. 

Keep Your Expectations Light

The predawn hours may not be the time for personal records or uncharted routes. Come up with a mellow plan and be willing to adapt if you’re not feeling it. “The fact that you’re getting up is already a win. Don’t put too many other pressures on it,” Grant says. “If the workout isn’t your best, you still made those steps.” A lightweight ski, like the Helio Carbon 115, makes each step a bit more effortless. “You’re often trying to squeeze in one run before work, so you might be hustling,” says  McIntyre. “When you have less weight on your feet, going uphill faster becomes easier.”

It’s All About the Post-Mission Breakfast

If you need to, eat something small to energize you before you head out—a piece of toast, a banana—or pack a bar for the skin track or trail. But keep it light, because the best part of dawn patrol is treating yourself to a breakfast burrito and coffee on your way in to work afterward. “I love stopping at a good bakery for a pastry when I’m done with dawn patrol,” McIntyre says. 

Black Diamond’s heritage goes back to 1957, when we started selling hand forged climbing gear from the trunk of a car in Yosemite Valley. Six decades later, we are still committed to designing and engineering the most innovative mountain equipment in the world.

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