On a clear night, you can see 2.5 million light-years away with just your eyes—no binoculars or telescopes, according to Sky and Telescope's Guide to Exploring the Universe. That's far enough to see the Andromeda Galaxy, The Milky Way, and much more.
"With the naked eye you can see bright stars, constellations, and you can identify planets," says Kin Searcy, the outreach coordinator for San Diego Astronomy Association.
When camping, stargazing is a great family activity. And, because most campgrounds are found far outside of the city, you almost always have a dark sky to look at. If you don't know what to look for, however, you aren't making the most of the majestic night skies. Here's a quick astronomy lesson to help make your next night under the stars a little more interesting.
Determine Your Hemisphere
The United States is entirely in the Northern Hemisphere, and as such, only certain constellations can be seen from season to season. Some constellations can be seen year-round; these are called circumpolar.
In general, there are 88 constellations in the Northern and Southern hemispheres collectively. When stargazing, consider your hemisphere and then look for some of the larger, more popular constellations below.
In the U.S., you can see The North Star, or Polaris, which lies in almost the exact location of the north celestial pole. There's no southern counterpart to this star, making it unique to the north.
Some of the most popular northern constellations include:
- Ursa Major, Circumpolar
- Cepheus, Circumpolar
- Leo, Spring
- Lyra, Summer
- Orion, Winter
- Cassiopeia, Circumpolar
Southern skies are more popular for their stargazing opportunities because the South Pole faces the center of the Milky Way. The brightest of these constellations is the Southern Cross, which can be seen year round. Some other popular constellations are:
- Centaurus, Circumpolar
- Scorpius, Winter
- Leo, Summer
- Pegasus, Spring
- Canis Major, Summer
- Hydra, Autumn
Get Your Equipment
Don't worry; you don't need to add anything else to your camping checklist. In fact, you don't need any equipment to enjoy stargazing.
If you do have extra room in the camping box, however, there are a few things you could use that will help you see and identify more stars, constellations, planets and clusters. Some of the most basic items are:
Star chart: Old school star charts, physical charts you hold up to the sky, are nearly outdated. Download a sky chart mobile app, instead. With this you can specify location, time of year and time of day to get an accurate chart. Try SkyWeek's new interactive app for iOS or Star Chart on Android.
Amateur telescope: Don't buy a telescope—unless you're willing to pay for an expensive model. "Relatively inexpensive telescopes aren't terribly good quality," says Searcy. If you want a telescope he suggests purchasing a Dobsonian Telescope, which he believes is a "great deal for the money."
For a little less money you can purchase the Orion StarBlast, which uses a parabolic mirror, as opposed to the spherical mirror that most inexpensive telescopes use.
Binoculars: A pair of 10 x 50 binoculars is really all you need to see deep into the night sky, says Searcy: "You can see the four large moons around Jupiter," as well as star clusters.
Find a Local Star Club
The best way to get started in stargazing is to find your local astronomy club. These groups often host star parties, and bring a large telescope. Events like these help you learn more about the skies in your local area, and provide you with an opportunity to use equipment you may not want to purchase.
Top Places for Stargazing
While you can enjoy stargazing just about anywhere, especially when camping, these five places have unmatched night skies that will keep you looking up all night long.
- Anza-Borrego: Camp here
- Natural Bridges National Monument—The first place to be named an International Dark Sky Park
- Joshua Tree: Camp here
- Sunset Campground, Utah—Ask about their astronomy program: Camp here
- Chaco Culture
- Twin Lakes State Park, Virginia: Camp here
No matter where you go stargazing, Searcy suggests driving 45 minutes away from the city or urban area, which will take you "outside of the light dome, where you can see the sky better."
Reserve a campsite.
Jessica Sanders is the Associate Online Editor for ReserveAmerica.com. After many years of camping and hiking in the Northeast, she's exploring what the West has to offer and sharing all of her knowledge with you. She's a s'mores master, campsite connoisseur, writer, runner and lover of all things outdoors. Follow her on Google+.