Gazing up at a sky full of stars can create memories that stay with us for life. But with most of the world’s population now living under light pollution, truly dark night skies can be difficult to come by unless you know where (and when) to go. In this guide, we’ll cover the essentials you need to know to get the best stargazing experience.
Where to go: Stargazing campsites
The simple answer: The farther away from light pollution you go, the darker the skies will be and the more stars you will see! If you live in a major city or town, you’ll find that even going an hour away from home toward a more rural area will make a dramatic difference in how many star clusters you can see.
Most Hipcamp properties fit this bill and are intrinsically better for stargazing than more populous areas. If you’re looking for dark-sky camping spots great for stargazing, check out our dark sky camping map, where you can find campsites under pristine night skies. Tip: Try to find Hipcamps in black or gray zones, or at least green. Avoid yellow, orange, and red zones, as these have the most light pollution.
We’ve also curated a list of all of our Hipcamps with special stargazing experiences—whether it’s a telescope available for you to use or a guided star walk with your Host.
If you’re looking for the darkest skies on earth, International Dark Sky Parks are areas designated for their pristine night skies and protected for public access. Some of our favorite public parks—like Joshua Tree (CA), Zion (UT), and Cherry Springs (PA)—have earned this special protection.
When to go: Best times to go stargazing
We’ve covered how escaping light pollution is the best way to see the stars, but few beginners realize that when you go also plays a large role. If you want the best chance at seeing thousands of bright stars, plan your trip around the new moon. This is when the moon is not visible in the sky, making it the best time to observe. Believe it or not, our own moon can be a major source of light pollution when it’s a full moon or nearly full. Although a new moon only happens about once a month, the weeks before and after are nearly as good. You can use our 2023 astronomical event calendar to plan your next camping trip around the phases of the moon or even a meteor shower made up of shooting stars.
Weather is another important factor to consider for planning when to go. Cloudy nights can ruin a night of stargazing, so if you can, try to go during clear weather. The more nights your trip has, the better chance you have of landing at least one clear night. You can observe the solar system year-round, but if you’re not used to the cold, try stargazing in the warmer summer months, which also give you the best chance at seeing the Milky Way.
What to bring for stargazing
A telescope or binoculars
One easy way to boost your stargazing experience is to bring a pair of binoculars, or better yet, a telescope. Binoculars are portable, affordable, and are great for viewing objects like craters on the moon. Telescopes are bulkier but provide a more detailed view, which are best for seeing planets like Jupiter and Saturn, and fainter objects like nebulae and even galaxies. Even if you don’t have one of your own, a number of Hipcamps offer telescopes on site!
A star map app
Whether you’re just observing with your naked eye or through a powerful telescope, your smartphone can guide you around the night sky, show you what you’re looking at, and help you find constellations like the Big Dipper and Orion. No need for NASA-level equipment here—just make sure to download one of these stargazing apps in advance in case you don’t have service where you go.
Nighttime is always colder than daytime, and since stargazing usually involves being outside for long periods of time, we strongly recommend you bring extra layers to wear when heading out, no matter the time of year.
Blanket or sleeping pad
If you can, bring a blanket or sleeping pad so you can lay down on the ground and see the entire sky at once. This is specially useful for meteor showers.
Sharing the night sky with friends or family is a guaranteed way to enhance your experience and make it more rewarding.
Viewing tips: How to adjust your eyes
Your eyes need time (often 15 to 30 minutes) to fully adjust to the darkness of the night sky, but your night vision can be ruined by one flash of bright light. Turn your headlights off, put out that campfire, and avoid using any flashlight with white light (including the one on your smartphone). Instead, use a red-filtered headlamp or flashlight (there’s a setting for this on iPhones) to navigate in the dark and save your eyes from frequent adjustments.
Camping under the milky way: How to spot it
Did you know that over 80% of the world’s population lives in a place where the milky way isn’t visible due to light pollution? To see the milky way in all of its dusty glory, you need to go somewhere truly dark—the phenomenon is impossible to see from major cities and even suburban areas. Instead, head to rural regions for true dark skies. Many national parks are great for spotting the milky way, and, as mentioned above, so are International Dark Sky Parks. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll get the best chance by heading out in the summer months around the time of a new moon. Look toward the south for a long, cloudy strip in the sky—that’s our home galaxy, the milky way, as seen from the edge looking toward the center! If you can’t find it easily, a star map smartphone app can help locate it.
Consider joining an astronomy group or event
Astronomy clubs meet up on a regular basis around the globe, and star parties take place annually, bringing together anywhere from dozens to thousands of amateur astronomers to take a look up. From Northern California’s Golden State Star Party to the Queensland Astrofest in Australia, check out this global list of annual events to find one near you.
We know that time under the stars is a great way to spend any night, but it actually has some mental health benefits too. Experiencing awe—often found via stargazing—has been proven to encourage compassion for others, with more selfless behavior, according to a 2015 study (Piff, Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato et al). Looking up at the night sky can shift people’s attention “away from being the center of their own individual worlds, toward a focus on the broader social context and their place within it.” In the simplest terms, it becomes easier to recognize how small we all are in this world and instead think about the bigger picture, resulting in more kindness.