Seeing Stars: A Guide to Incorporating Stargazing Into Your Camping
Look to the Skies
Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
Wish I may, wish I might,
Have this wish I wish tonight.
From bedtime prayers to lullabies to Dr. Seuss books, childhood is filled with poetry. It’s through the enchantment of rhyme that we first learn about our world and communicate with those in it. The little ditty above is likely the first poem I recited by heart without prodding or assistance. And I learned it from my parents while camping.
I remember my mom, dad, sister, and I enjoying the traditional Saturday night bonfire at our seasonal campsite in Sauble Beach, Ontario, Canada, on beautiful Lake Huron. It was the late 1970s, back when a twenty-three-foot travel trailer was considered reasonable accommodations for a family of four. Our oversized lot facing the main playground, perhaps the biggest in the entire campground, dwarfed our beloved Jayco.
On the manicured lawn my father fussed over after a round of golf was a rectangular, concrete patio framed with decorative, dusty-rose bricks. Centered on one side, protected by additional bricks, was a salvaged semi-truck tire rim that was our fire pit. Here we would sit in our fraying, webbed lawn chairs watching flames flicker from the burning maple, roasting marshmallows, and savoring our once-a-week treat of pop from The Pop Shoppe while dad tended the fire with a headless golf club that he “found” at the course.
As the sky cycled to ever darker shades of blue, we would scan overhead for the twinkling dots of white foretelling the light show soon to grace us. The moment one of us saw that first star, we’d blurt out our discovery and recite that poem.
I’ve tried to continue this tradition with my own kids. Having moved to Alberta, Canada, summer days are longer and keeping young ones up for first starlight isn’t practical when the sun sets at ten o’clock. With both my children now double digits in age, stargazing is once again becoming a treasured part of camping life.
Bedtime hasn’t been the only hindrance. There’s also light pollution, a more persistent and universal foe caused by artificial light. Ever since Edison patented his incandescent lightbulb, we’ve been busy chasing away the darkness.
In 2016, Science Advances published “The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness,” stating 99 percent of North Americans experience light pollution and 80 percent no longer see the Milky Way galaxy. A brief peek out a window is evidence enough. Porch lights, streetlights, and office towers all lit up conspire to hide the stars from us. Those once-ubiquitous orange glows are slowly turning white as we transition to LED, but the light pollution continues.
Yes, the moon is sometimes visible during the day and a handful of stars appear before sundown, but all this artificial light significantly limits our ability to experience a truly dark sky, like the one our ancestors saw. To see that night sky, we need to escape the urban centers many of us call home. For my family, there’s no better way to do that than going camping.
As our interest in stargazing has grown, so, too, have my efforts to target ideal stargazing destinations. Almost anywhere away from cities will improve the night sky. Even just a few extra stars and a little less sky glow is rewarding. It’s one of the true joys of camping; the perfect complement to a full day of fun in the sun. But more intentional stargazing requires additional effort.
I began by focusing on provincial/ state and national parks. Already boasting less light pollution and with plentiful campgrounds, public parks are a match made in heaven. Some even cater to stargazers, with educational programming and special dark-sky certification from groups such as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).
In Canada, the Dark Sky Preserve designation developed by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has become the gold standard. Famed national parks, like Jasper and Fundy, are among the 22 locales to have this designation. It was at Fundy National Park that we participated in a free stargazers’ interpretive program. After an informative slide presentation, our group ventured outside to take turns peering through telescopes at Jupiter and the like.
It was to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, though, that we first brought our own telescope on a camping trip. Bordering Montana, grasslands is the darkest Dark Sky Preserve in Canada, Level One on the Bortle scale (more on that in a bit). My kids were far too young to stay up late, but the opportunity to use my telescope in such darkness was irresistible.
I set an alarm for the middle of the night knowing full well the next day would test my patience. It was there, under a pitch-black sky, that my children first viewed Saturn’s rings. The image was small and white, not nearly as mind-blowing as those from Nasa, but through the eyepiece of our own telescope, every bit as soul-stirring.
That Bortle scale has become a valued guide when researching campgrounds. Developed by amateur astronomer John Bortle as a means of classifying the darkness of night skies, the nine-level Bortle scale ranges from “excellent, dark sky” through “inner-city sky.” Its use isn’t ubiquitous, but some parks and websites catering to astronomy share Bortle rankings for destinations. An avid camping blogger in my province posts short reviews for most provincial and national park campgrounds within the province and includes a Bortle’s level.
Of course, we don’t all live near Dark Sky Parks. There’s a conspicuous discrepancy in parks and people between east and west. Sometimes I’m just looking for a nearby escape. You might reside on the Eastern Seaboard and want something, anything, relatively dark. Websites like darksitefinder.com and lightpollutionmap.info use satellite data to create interactive maps of light pollution. Other useful tools include maps.darksky.net and local weather forecast. Cloud cover is even more effective than light pollution at ruining stargazing.
I also consult a lunar calendar to know which moon phase we can expect. This might sound peculiar, but even a half-moon can wash out fainter objects otherwise, visible to the naked eye.
That said, viewing the moon is as much a part of stargazing as the stars. The full moon, in a night sky unhindered by ambient light, is a revelation. The dark, lunar maria, large expanses of basalt formed by bygone volcanic activity, sharply contrast the lighter craters.
This is what makes stargazing so great. Put in the effort to find the best campsite and once there, all we need are our eyes. We look up and see thousands of stars joining familiar constellations like Cassiopeia and the Dippers.
It was only natural that my kids began asking about the stars’ names. Starting with Polaris, the famed North Star, some of the brightest in the northern sky, like Sirius, Rigel, Vega, and Betelgeuse, are easy to spot and remember.
My kids were amazed that sometimes the first star they see is actually a planet. Pointing to a bright “star” and telling them it’s Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, or Mercury will surely impress.
Other “stars” are visible, too. Shooting stars offer more wishes to lucky observers and satellites race across the sky.
Recognizing more constellations, like those of the zodiac, is the next step in our celestial education. The mythos associated with many of these sky images will intrigue kids enamored with Greek mythology or Percy Jackson books.
This all assumes I know this stuff, to begin with. I don’t. Thankfully, star mapping apps turn any smartphone into a personal planetarium. I use Sky Map and find that it works well. If our destination is too remote for cell service, I print a monthly sky calendar at skymaps.com. These are invaluable to novice stargazers and include maps of the night sky to assist with the identification of stars, constellations, and other celestial objects along with notable sights listed by date.
Reading such information is tricky, as normal flashlights mess with night vision. A better option is a multifunction flashlight with red among its offerings, which now comes with us on all camping trips along with our binoculars and telescope.
The summer of 2020 marked the first camping season we hauled stargazing gear along on every outing. Portable and relatively inexpensive, binoculars were an obvious next step since we already owned a pair. They reveal a remarkable number of stars, quickly taking the experience from wow to WOW!
A decent pair of binoculars also permits greater exploration of individual objects like the moon’s surface. Nebulae and galaxies, otherwise invisible, start to appear. Double stars like Mizar and Alcor are clearly differentiated. And Jupiter gives us a tantalizing gift as the four Galilean moons— Ganymede, Europa, Io, and Callisto—can be seen.
It is the telescope, though, that takes stargazing from pastime to hobby. We are always a delight and sometimes we’ll also see its largest moon, Titan. Jupiter’s four large moons are readily visible, and I’ve seen cloud bands on the planet’s surface. I cannot articulate how cool that was the first time I saw it. My kids still laugh at the squeals I made.
As my family explores the world with our trailer and SUV, we continue to look up in wonder through our telescope, binoculars, and curious eyes. The stars inspire and enthrall, bonding families and friends in awe of this magical universe in which we all live. I am finally realizing those wishes I wished so long ago.
For more information, the Night Sky Network is an ideal platform for amateur astronomers to share their knowledge and answer questions.