Every night, the stars put on a light show, slowly spinning overhead. Stargazing is one of the great joys of camping, in part because stars are easier to see in the woods or countryside, where the competing city light is far away. People also have more time to relax when they’re camping—time to contemplate the stars overhead and wonder about the constellations. Stargazing appeals to everyone. It’s a great family activity, it’s romantic for couples, and it’s fun for solo stargazers. So the next time you’re away from it all, take a look at what’s overhead and take in the stars’ magnificent show.
Before you go, arm yourself with some good stargazing information. Grab a book from the library, get a star chart, or plan to camp with a friend who knows how to find a few constellations. If you know different ones, you can point them out to each other, lying on your backs under the starry sky. Also, be sure to consult the weather, picking out a clear night for your stargazing expedition.
Online, you’ll find great information at sites like StarDate and Weather Underground that give information based on the date and month, so you can know what’ll be overhead during your camping trip. Will there be a lunar eclipse that you can watch with your binoculars? Any comets or meteor showers? Will Mars be in view, or will Venus be transiting in front of the moon? Check it all out before you go.
Once you reach your destination, wait until dark and set up a comfortable viewing place. You’ll want to lie on your back, out of the wind. It’s important that you stay warm during a long period of star gazing. Thermal and insulating foam pads will keep the moisture of the ground from cooling you down, and a sleeping bag on top will keep you toasty. Wear a warm hat and keep your star chart, binoculars, and a dim flashlight nearby.
Consult your star chart, setting it up so that the directions on the chart match north, east, south, and west when you hold it over your head. The larger dots on the chart represent brighter stars; the smaller dots are dimmer stars. If you’re near a city, just concentrate on the brighter stars, since the light of the town will make it hard to see dimmer stars. Save those for your next trip to the mountains or the desert.
Watching For Wildlife
Begin by finding Ursa Major, the big dipper, and its companion, Ursa Minor, the little dipper. It’s handy to think of the little dipper as pouring into the big dipper—that can make it easier to find one after you’ve found the other. In the northern hemisphere, these two constellations are always “up”, so you can find them during any season. The star at the tail end of the little dipper is Polaris, the North Star. Polaris never changes position. From our perspective, the rest of the sky rotates around it, so it’s always a great place to start your observations.The Ancient Greeks looked into the night sky and saw pictures there, pictures of heroes and creatures from their myths. These are the constellations as we know them today, and part of the fun of stargazing is learning about these heroes and their stories. In April in the Northern Hemisphere, you can see Orion, the hunter (look for three bright stars in a line, low in the southwestern sky—these are Orion’s belt). You can see Leo the Lion, the warrior Hercules, and Draco, the dragon. Gemini has the twin stars Castor and Pollux. Look for Sirius, the dog star, a part of Canis Major, and Hydra the serpent. In the northwestern sky you’ll find Perseus and the queen Cassiopeia. Perseus was the hero who flew on Pegasus (the winged horse) and killed Medusa in order to rescue his love, Andromeda, Cassiopeia’s daughter. As the seasons spin on into summer, these other constellations—Pegasus and Andromeda—will become visible.
The human eye can see galaxies that are 2.5 million light years away. With just a pair of binoculars, you can see the craters of the moon. All of these wonders are waiting to be seen, right overhead—all you have to do is look!