Have you ever found yourself looking skyward on a cloudless night while camping, appreciating how many stars you’re able to see when you’re so far from the city? If you love spending time in the outdoors, chances are you’ve noticed that the night sky is more intense when you’re away from home. Maybe this simple moment of observation caused you to think about planning a trip solely devoted to sleeping beneath the cosmos or sparked your interest in outer space. What you might not know is that there is a whole world dedicated to the appreciation and preservation of our night sky and dark sky camping is one of the best ways to participate in it!
Whether you’re planning to sleep beneath an indigo quilt of constellations in the Outer Banks or hoping to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, we’ve got you covered. Here is your ultimate guide to dark skies and astrotourism camping!
What Is Astrotourism?
What exactly is astrotourism? Astrotourism is defined by Utah University, in the densest area of dark sky places in the U.S., as being “nature-based tourism specifically concerned with the viewing of celestial objects, space, and the physical universe.” Essentially, astrotourism is a trip that is centered on viewing the night sky, preferably in an environment with clear, unbridled conditions and what better place to do just that than a designated Dark Sky Park?
Astrotourism is unique and exciting because it often takes intrepid adventurers to remote locations they may not have otherwise sought out. Since the dawn of time, humans have been fascinated with the stars, planets, and the stunning Milky Way, using it to navigate and to predict celestial events. With the turn of the century and industrialization, many lost their connection to dark skies and forgot about their effervescent beauty. Today, there has been a renaissance in the appreciation of dark skies through astrotourism as now more than ever, travelers are looking for ways to see our universe with the naked eye.
Where Can I Camp for Celestial Events?
If you’re looking to camp for celestial events, begin your search by looking for Dark Sky Parks or Communities near you by searching through the International Dark-Sky Associations list of designated Dark Sky Places. Maybe you want to stay close to home or are hoping to go further afield? This list is the perfect place to find inspiration to visit a destination you’ve always wanted to see, like a national park, which often have unprecedented views of the night sky, or to discover somewhere nearby that you hadn’t expected.
Whether you’re more interested in glamping or love roughing it, there are options for all who seek dark skies. For those truly ethereal views, you may want to consider tent camping or even a backpacking trip as you’re almost guaranteed to have incredible visibility, weather permitting. Camping at an RV park might mean you’ll need to walk or drive a ways away for the best conditions but chances are you’ll still be shocked at how well you’re able to see the night sky, even only a few steps away from camp!
Where Can I Camp for the 2024 Total Solar Eclipse?
On April 8, 2024, a vast majority of the United States will experience a partial solar eclipse, while select states will experience a true total solar eclipse. This event is already being referred to as the biggest travel day in U.S. history with thousands expected to travel to the path of totality. Campspot created a page that rounds up campgrounds within the path of totality to help campers experience this once-in-a-lifetime natural phenomenon in nature. Explore the eclipse path campgrounds and book a trip before spots run out!
What Should I Bring With Me?
From amateur telescopes to telephoto lenses, stargazing can be as simple as stepping outside your tent after dark. Here are a few things to bring along if you’re going on a camping trip dedicated to the cosmos!
You’ll be surprised how cold it can get in the middle of the night, when most of us are asleep! Bring along warm layers and gloves to keep warm while heading out to try and catch a glimpse at shooting stars.
Whether you plan to capture the night sky with your iPhone or are a savvy astrophotographer, bring along gear that will help you document the moment.
A telescope might seem like an advanced piece of equipment but they’re much easier to come by than you might think. Bring one along and witness celestial objects you’ve never seen before.
Flashlights or Headlamps
You’ll need to bring flashlights, a headlamp, or some form of light to guide your way. You’re in a Dark Sky Park after all! Many headlamps have a red light feature which is great for uninterrupted constellation views.
Bringing along a special drink for your dark sky camping trip will not only keep you warm but will make your efforts feel well rewarded.
Removable Rain Fly Tent
Fall asleep stargazing!
Unfortunately, being out after dark means you’ll play host to our bloodthirsty friends, the mosquitoes. Come prepared with bug spray to keep the biters at bay.
What Are Some Upcoming Celestial Events That Would Be Cool For Dark Sky Camping?
Mark your calendars for these upcoming celestial events that will ensure a dark sky camping trip that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. These celestial events are a great excuse to grab your gear and head into the wilderness!
Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower: Peak is on May 6th, 2023
The Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower can produce almost 60 meteors an hour and is an annual meteor shower that typically takes place from April 15th to May 27th. If you’re familiar with Halley’s Comet, the Eta Aquarids are dust grains that come from the comet’s entrance into the inner solar system. Pre-dawn is the best time to view this meteor shower.
Perseid Meteor Shower: Peak is on August 13th, 2023
The Perseid Meteor Shower is another annual meteor event that is in early to mid-August. It’s estimated that there are usually up to 60 meteors in an hour during its peak.
Blue Supermoon: August 31st, 2023
On August 31st, 2023 two moon phenomenons will converge to produce a blue supermoon. A supermoon occurs when the moon is a bit closer than normal to the earth due to its orbit. Despite its name, a blue moon does not actually appear to be blue and is simply the fourth moon in a season.
Annular Solar Eclipse: October 14th, 2023
An annular solar eclipse is an astronomical event that occurs when the moon, at its furthest in orbit from the earth, passes between the earth and sun. Because the moon is further away, a full eclipse isn’t possible. This cosmic phenomenon looks like the moon has a halo, as such, it’s sometimes referred to as the “ring of fire” eclipse.
Geminids Meteor Shower: Peak is on December 14th, 2023
The Geminids meteor shower is one of the best meteor showers visible in the United States with up to 120 meteors in an hour! This is a great year to view the Geminids as their peak aligns with a new moon, meaning light pollution will be at an all time low. The Geminids are also in the off season for many Dark Sky Parks and visibility should be at an all time high with clear air.
What Are Dark Skies?
Dark skies are defined by Utah University as being “places where the darkness of the night sky is relatively free of interference from artificial light.” While dark skies are becoming more and more scarce, the United States is a great destination for seeking out designated Dark Sky Places and learning more about what it takes to become a certified Dark Sky Place. The International Dark-Sky Associations rigorous certification process shows that dark skies can be rare and difficult to find. A dark sky is one that is almost completely free of light pollution and a place where you can see the night sky in the traditional sense, a smog-less field of constellations! America’s natural wilderness is fantastic for discovering our deep and spiritual connection to the night.
Why Are Dark Skies Important?
Dark Skies are becoming increasingly rare as civilization encroaches ever more into isolated natural areas. Light pollution, while it might seem harmless, affects the natural circadian rhythm of not only plants and wild animals, but humans as well. Light also contributes to our carbon footprint. The U.S. alone contributes over 15 million tons of CO2 every year, just for outdoor lighting alone. Until very recently in human history, virtually everyone in America could look up and see millions of stars, including the Milky Way! According to a study completed in 2016 by National Geographic, less than 1% of the country can see our galaxy today, making it more important than ever to take protecting our dark skies seriously through limiting light pollution. Our night sky was once a map and resource that we used for thousands of years until the advent of electricity. Dark skies are important for us to connect with and cherish as a resource that we continue to look to for guidance.
How Can I Go Dark Sky Camping?
The best place to start if you’re looking to camp in an area with dark skies is to look for places where the air will be clear from both pollution and weather related variables and a place that is far from major cities as light smog can be seen from as far as 200 miles away. Summer heat can also obscure the dark skies making winter or shoulder months ideal and a sustainable option as these areas often see less crowds.
While a quick look at a light pollution map will reveal that most of the best places to see dark skies are in the west, there are many places east of the Mississippi that are worth seeking out for celestial wonders! One of the best resources for dark sky parks is the official International Dark-Sky Association’s website which lists each and every designated park, community, sanctuary, reserve, and even urban night sky places!
Some of the best campgrounds on Campspot to reserve for a stargazing adventure are the Dark Sky RV Campground in Utah; the state with the most dark-sky parks in the county, Jerniman’s Campground along the Outer Banks remote Ocracoke Island, or Trinity View Resort near Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. These are just a few of the hundreds of campgrounds that are near or within a dark-sky designated area!
How To Stargaze, Sustainably
Because many Dark Sky Parks are located in remote and rural communities and national parks, astrotourism has caused a boom these areas may not have otherwise seen. This is beneficial for local economies but can be harmful to their natural surroundings if we don’t do our part to keep them clean and stargaze in an eco-friendly manner. A few tips to stay sustainable while dark sky camping and stargazing include:
Going in the Off Season
Oftentimes the night sky is best viewed in the shoulder season and winter, when the air is crisp. The off season is a sustainable option because many of the communities that see astrotourism are bombarded in the high season but see only a fraction of visitors in less popular months.
Reducing the Light From Your Campsite
Keep your own light pollution down at camp by turning off all lights before going to sleep and utilizing the red light feature on your headlamp or lantern.
Follow Leave No Trace!
As with any time you’re spending time in the outdoors, following Leave No Trace Principles is essential for keeping the natural environment healthy and happy!
If you’ve been inspired by astrotourism and want to help contribute to dark skies at home, you can also follow these simple tips from the International Dark-Sky Association to do your part.
- Close your blinds or curtains at night to help keep light from escaping
- Use outdoor lighting sparingly
- If you’re concerned about security, use motion detectors or timers instead of flood lights
- Shield outdoor lights that must be kept on
- Get the kids involved by measuring the light pollution in your area
Whether you just want to get the kids out under the stars to introduce them to astrotourism or are looking to experience one of this year’s incredible celestial events, we hope you feel more informed than ever to venture out in nature and see what dark skies have to offer. From taking a road trip somewhere dark for the upcoming Geminids meteor shower to just pitching a tent in your own backyard, astrotourism has never been so easy. Grab your headlamps, telescopes, and star charts and seek out a place to go dark sky camping near you!
Freelance writer and lover of all things travel, Aimee Long has spent the better part of her life chasing her dreams of seeing the world. Whether hiking along a rocky cliff face in coastal California or exploring the beaches of Vietnam, home is wherever her feet are. When she’s not writing her heart out and helping others uncover amazing destinations you’ll find her cuddling her beloved cat, hunting for shells in the Outer Banks, or avidly planning her next trip.
Image credit in order of appearance: Adobe Stock – tolstnev, Adobe Stock – den-belitsky, Adobe Stock – anatoliy_gleb, Adobe Stock – revers_jr, Adobe Stock – Cory, Adobe Stock – Marek, Adobe Stock – adogslifephoto, Adobe Stock – vadimborkin