I dreaded it on my mountaineering trips: the rustling sounds, the tent zippers coming open, people stomping around, usually at midnight or 1 a.m. It was usually bitterly cold, and nobody felt like eating, but we had to. If you hadn't had the foresight to put anything that might freeze overnight into your sleeping bag, you'd be sorry, even if it meant being crowded in with boot liners, water bottles, batteries, headlamps and cameras.
The alpine start is necessary if you have a long way to go and if you want to be headed down before snow conditions change, falling rock and ice danger mounts because of warming temperatures, or darkness falls. I never liked it though. At 19,000 feet on a Himalayan peak, I tossed and turned, checking the time compulsively, while my tentmate Lesley snored away contentedly. I knew we would have to get up soon and this made sleep impossible.
In the summer, starting out early to hike is easy. It's warm and the sun is up. You want to avoid any tourist hordes. Winter is harder. Lately the temperatures have been below zero for the highs. The roads are icy. Luckily, I have some hiking buddies who like to adjust start times in the winter. Maybe they went out the night before and need a more relaxing morning, or they walk their dogs or shovel their driveways. We often meet at 10 or later, if the trailhead is close.
In past years I might have called myself lazy to get going that late. I've discovered though that there are some benefits to it. Obviously, it's warmer. Around here in the winter, the sun sometimes hides in the clouds and there is an inversion until later in the day. Many times I've arrived back at the trailhead to see the sun just breaking out, probably brilliantly illuminating the frigid peak or lake I tagged and raced away from to avoid hypothermia. Also, delaying the start time sometimes means a group of snowshoers has packed down the trail; thanks guys! Too, I have some hiking friends who just can't get going earlier. I wouldn't want to miss out on being with them.
The non-alpine start is especially possible this time of year as the days get longer. Starting at noon, we can still cover 10 miles and be at the car by dusk. And we can see the sunset!
Don't get me wrong, sunrises are great and it's nice to be out on the trail early, especially in the summer. But if my friends want to meet at 10 I'll be there for it. And if I see you out there at the trailhead at noon I won't be like the acquaintance I ran into while snowshoeing in the park. "You're just heading out now?" she asked judgmentally. "The snow's going to be really soft!" Instead, I'll say hi and probably feel envious that you're going to be hiking in the sunshine the whole way.