Have you ever looked up into the night sky from your campsite and marveled at the stars? That moment is one of my favorite things about camping. Luckily, with the right stargazing tools, stargazing can be an accessible and affordable hobby.
It’s also a great way to introduce your kids to astronomy. Their teacher told them about Jupiter, but the magic happens when you help them find Jupiter. All you need to get started stargazing are your eyes (and maybe some binoculars)!
When you know the best times to see the stars, it can enrich your visual exploration of space immensely. Throw in the right tools and you can see things that are invisible to the naked eye. In this post, I’m sharing tips and stargazing tools for beginners. Let’s get started!
Stargazing Tips for Beginners
Let’s go over some stargazing tips for beginners, so you know what you’re getting into. Proper stargazing takes time, so you’ll want to prepare before you get out there. In the next section I’m going to help you answer—
- How should I plan ahead of time?
- What should I bring?
- How long should I expect to stay?
Before You Break Out the Binoculars….
For a full stargazing experience, you should plan on staying for at least an hour. That way you’ll be able to see how the stars have shifted.
Check the Weather
You want a clear night sky.
There’s nothing worse than getting the kids all excited only to have your night under the stars get rained out. If it’s cold, dress appropriately and bring an extra blanket.
Check the Skies
Look up a star chart that reflects your hemisphere and the time of year.
Star charts allow you to see where some of the constellations will appear. That way you’ll know where to look when night falls. You’ll also know what to expect as the stars rotate across the sky.
If you’re the high tech type, there are several stargazing apps to choose like Sky Guide and Night Sky. All you have to do is bring up the app on your phone, and then point your camera at the sky. Your phone’s screen will populate with the constellations that are currently in the sky.
Stargazing involves a lot of looking up. Find seating that allows you to layback without craning your neck.
My favorite stargazing spot is the beach. The sand is soft and often the beach is at that slight angle where you can view the horizon and look up without much effort.
With a clear viewing horizon, it’s easy to see how the constellations rotate across the sky.
Bring Snacks and Drinks
Like I said, proper stargazing takes time. Get comfortable with a thermos of coffee and some cocoa for the kids. It’ll keep you alert while you’re watching and warm up your insides.
Don’t Forget Your Stargazing Tools
Whether it’s a stargazing book and a flashlight, the app on your phone, stargazing binoculars or even a telescope, make sure you pack your tools.
Another accessory that is great, but not necessary is a long-range laser pointer. These are helpful for when pointing out specific constellations for your kids.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Stargaze?
The best time of year for the casual stargazer is anytime you’re far enough away from city lights to see them. You may not be able to view star clusters or planets very well in the summer of the shorter nights and humid air. But you can still familiarize yourself with the North Star, the Dippers and other constellations.
For the best stargazing experience, the best time of year for stargazing is winter or late autumn. In winter, the air conditions tend to be dry. Less moisture in the air allows you to see clearer and farther than on humid nights.
What’s the Best Time of Month (and Night) for Stargazing?
Exploring the surface of the moon through your stargazing binoculars can be entertaining. But if you want to see deeper into space, then you need a night sky with less light pollution.
Light pollution is what happens when light from a brighter object blocks the light from a dimmer object. Just as the sun blocks the stars during the day, the moon—to a lesser degree—blocks out smaller stars at night.
That’s why the nights when the moon rises later or the mornings after the moon sets are the best times to stargaze. These nights happen before and after the new moon.
The Stargazing Tools that Brighten Up Your Night Life
Alright, I need to take a minute to explain what stargazing used to look like back in the day.
My dad had this book of star charts that we’d take when we went camping. It was a great book. It had all the different star charts for the different seasons according to what hemisphere you’re in. The pages of this book folded out into the different star charts. The intention was for you to use them for stargazing then fold them up neatly back into the book. Handy, right?
NO! It was not handy.
The problem was that folding and unfolding these charts is like folding and unfolding a map. You can never get it to fold back together just right. My Dad would get so frustrated with it. Honestly, it took all the fun out of stargazing.
But now we have these wonderful resources called smart phones!—which leads us to the first stargazing tool you should get. And it’s totally free!
These apps are great for beginners or kids who are learning their way around the night sky. Sky Guide and Night Sky are two versions that are completely free.
Sky Guide shows you the most common constellations and their names as you point your camera at the sky. Kids will love the artistic renderings of the animals and people that Night Sky uses. There’s also a zoom feature that lets you peer “deeper” into space. When you zoom in, your phone shows you pictures of the star clusters and nebulae without the use of binoculars or a telescope. But while it’s easier to use the app, there’s something special about actually finding these celestial bodies yourself.
These apps are great for getting started, but I’d encourage you to try other tools as well as it can be very exciting to find something on your own. I recommend using the apps to learn the sky, and then moving on to stargazing binoculars.
When you’ve learned how to navigate the basic constellations, you’re ready to discover something more.
With stargazing binoculars, you can…
- Examine our moon’s landscape up close,
- Observe Jupiter’s moons in orbit,
- See the intense red of Mars,
- Even glimpse galaxies far far away like Andromeda and Ursa Major
Now, there’s actually nothing particularly special about stargazing binoculars. They’re just binoculars with high magnification.
Pro Tip: The most effective magnification for stargazing is the 7×50. This means that you can see 7x farther with the binoculars.
How to Use Stargazing Binoculars
Using binoculars for stargazing takes some getting used to. Here are some pointers to help it go smoothly.
1. Get in a Stable, Comfortable Position
Any movement at 7x magnification makes a big difference in the viewing area. If you can, mount your binoculars to a tripod.
2. Learn to Use the Constellations as Your Landmarks
You know how you tell people to turn north when you reach the Starbucks when giving directions? Well, you need to do the same while navigating through the skies.
You need to be able to navigate north, south, east, and west of constellations to find other stellar phenomena.
Take the Pleiades, for example. It’s a visible star cluster, but through binoculars, you can see even more stars that are a part of the cluster. But you first have to know that the Pleiades is north-west of the constellation Taurus.
3. Know the Planets’ Orbits
Not all planets remain visible because—just like Earth—they move around a lot. So consult your star charts to see which planets are visible, and where to look for them.
4. If You’re With Your Kids, Start by Looking at the Moon
It’s big. It’s bright. You can’t miss it. The best time to view the moon is at twilight. That means the kids won’t be up too late.
Your kid’s face will light up when they see that the moon is more than another bright light in the sky. It has its own canyons and ridges, peaks and plains—even its own icecaps. A successful viewing of the moon should get your kids excited to view more. And that’s awesome. Excited, curious kids learn more information faster.
Once you’ve become a pro at navigating the constellations through your binoculars, you’re ready to take the plunge into deep space.
Why Should You Use a Stargazing Telescope
Telescopes are technical stargazing tools that require a lot of setup and patience. They are not for beginners because it’s so easy to lose yourself in the stars if you’re not familiar with them.
But once you’ve mastered the basics, telescopes are a great way to catch all the little details of our galaxy and beyond.
With a proper knowledge base and a stargazing telescope, you can…
- View Saturn’s Rings in detail
- See the oblong shape of Venus
- Catch the colorful spectrum of nebulae
- Try to count how many galaxies you can see beyond our own Milky Way
Just remember, learning how to navigate the sky through a telescope is not for the faint of heart. It requires time and patience.
Find Your Galaxy Far Far Away….
Stargazing is a great way to spend your nights while camping. You can teach your kids and learn a lot yourself. It’s incredibly rewarding to see how much we’ve learned about our own Earth just by looking out at the stars. And, it’s humbling to see how much we still don’t know about our own galaxy.
Go ahead. Book that next camping vacation with your loved ones, grab your stargazing tools of choice, and share in the glory of the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond.
Elon Jones believes the world would be a better place if we all got outside more. Native to Tampa, FL, she enjoys sailing—preferably to Cayo Costa—and exploring new trails with her three daughters.
Photo credit: Tyler Way