Stargazing is one of the best perks of a great camping trip. A clear, quiet night away from the city and light pollution is both peaceful and awe-inspiring every time, no matter how many milky skies or meteor showers you’ve seen in your lifetime.
During our campout series last summer, we were lucky enough to be able to spend some time under the stars with an astronomer, Justin. He brought a telescope (Saturn’s rings look exactlyhow you think they would) and an abundance of mind-blowing knowledge to the campout at Jug Handle Creek Farm.
With Justin in mind, we’ve created a basic Stargazing 101 that any amateur astronomer can pull out to elevate any camping trip, no fancy equipment needed.
Where to go
You’re going to want to get as far away from light pollution as possible. A little known fact is that the US is home to 36 International Dark Sky Parks. These are “lands possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”
Some of your favorite national parks and national monuments—like the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, and Craters of the Moon to name a few—have earned this special protection. See the full list here.
Great stargazing can still be found outside of these parks. Use this dark sky map to find places near you.
When to go
The best time for stargazing is on clear, moonless (or close to it) nights. Wait until there’s a clear forecast and there is either a New Moon or the moon is in crescent or gibbous phase.
Tips for viewing
Forget the campfire. Let your eyes adjust to the complete darkness.
Bring a Star Chart so you can easily identify constellations and begin to differentiate between planets and stars. It’s fun!
Download an app. StarWalk is our favorite free mobile star chart, but there are tons. Make sure you turn your brightness down on your phone if you’re going a mobile route.
Bring binoculars. These are a good cheaper and more portable alternative to telescopes.
Prepare for your mind to be blown. When you’re looking up at the night sky, you’re looking at stars, other galaxies, planets, satellites and space debris that can be tens of trillions miles away from Earth. Talk about feeling small!
A good place to start any stargazing sesh is by locating everyone’s favorite constellation, the Big Dipper. If you live north of Little Rock, Arkansas, you should be able to find this constellation any day of the year. If you’re in New York or further north, the Big Dipper should never fall below the horizon line, so you should see it all night, weather permitting.
Orient yourself towards the northern horizon, and look for a big bowl-and-handle or kite-shaped constellation. The handle is formed out of three stars organized in a line and 4 stars make up the bowl.
From here, you can find the North Star (Polaris). The North Star, which is not the brightest star in the sky despite popular belief, lies right above the Earth’s north pole, so it appears to stay nearly fixed in the sky all night and all year round, while the rest of the stars appear to circle around it due to the Earth’s rotation. As you may have guessed, the North Star is located due northerly direction. If you were at the North Pole, it would be directly above you.
If you draw a line from the far side of the ‘bowl’ part of the Big Dipper across the sky, you’ll run into the North Star, which is the last star on the handle of the Little Dipper.
Once you’ve located the North Star, it is a lot easier to acquaint yourself with the rest of the constellations. This is when you should pull out that star map!
Stars vs. Planets
If it sparkles, it’s a star. If it’s stationary and brighter than most of the objects around it, it’s most likely a planet.
What about the Milky Way?
Ever been lucky enough to see the band of ‘milky’ light across the sky? That’s the Milky Way, the center of the galaxy that contains our solar system. Our solar system lies about halfway out of the center of this large spiral galaxy, which it is made up of at least 100 billion stars, as well as dust and gas, which only account for 90% off the stuff in there. What else is out there? Mysterious dark matter that scientists have yet to understand…
(Psst…If you want to learn how to take stunning photos of the Milky Way, check out Hipcamp’s 5 Tips for Long Exposure Night Photography)