What are the top stargazing tips for boondockers? Boondocking means different things to different campers but essentially boils down to camping in a manner that is not connected to power or water grids. For stargazing, boondocking is often the best way to go, because it takes you away from congested municipalities so you can enjoy the night sky. To help you get the best view possible, these tips will take stargazing boondockers to the next level without breaking the bank.
Higher is Better
Most astronomers agree that high elevations are the best places for stargazing. The higher your elevation, the more of the overhead sky is visible, just as you can see for miles across the treetops when crossing high hills. There is a caveat to this, however. If you are not able to get at least 20 miles away from major metropolitan areas, your view of the stars can actually be enhanced by remaining below the ridgeline because those hills around you actually provide a shield to block the city lights on the other side.
Head for the Boondocks
Twenty miles is the suggested distance you should be from major population centers. You can boondock in the Walmart parking lot, but you will not get much of a view of the stars because the lighting will make it almost impossible for all but the brightest of stars to shine through. For the best views, you want to get as far away from the city as you can. For example, North Carolina’s Outer Banks are considered one of the darkest and best places for stargazing along the east coast of the United States. Excellent stargazing is also available in many state parks and the open expanses of remote national parks.
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
It helps to know what you are looking at when you look up. The light from planets is always stable, but the light from distant stars seems to twinkle when viewed from the ground. While some planets are much brighter than stars, including the “evening star” of Venus, the most definitive way to tell the difference between stars and planets is whether the light you see seems to be twinkling.
Another way to narrow down the decision between viewing a star or a planet is the location of the light, but we will come to that shortly. For exact locations of stars and constellations, consider picking up a star map or joining a group such as the International Dark-Sky Association. We even wrote a great post about all the Dark Sky locations!
Up Close and Personal
Hold off on purchasing that big new telescope until you are sure that stargazing is for you. Astronomers suggest that there is plenty to observe with the naked eye, and caution against investing in equipment you may use a few times and then become bored. Telescopes take a lot of practice to use them effectively, they say. Instead, pick up a decent pair of binoculars to magnify what you are looking at until you are certain that you want to take the experience to another level. Binoculars are excellent for viewing the craters of the moon and require very little practice to focus and become proficient.
The Right Time of the Year
During the Summer months, the atmosphere contains more moisture due to evaporation. Winter months are ideal for stargazing because the crisp, cool air contains less moisture, resulting in a clearer view of the stars without the light being diffused by the atmosphere as it reaches the earth. This is not to say that you are unable to get a good view of the stars in July, it simply means that the most awesome views of the sky will come during the cooler months. Even the best places are better at the right time of year.
Use Filtered Lights
The experts caution against using the standard white or blue lights available on most flashlights, and tell us that LED lights are the worst of all, regardless of the color. This is because light waves of certain colors affect our eyes and brains differently, and make it difficult for our eyes to adjust to the darkness after using them. For the best stargazing results, use a red light, lens cover, or even a piece of red cellophane over a conventional flashlight. You will be able to avoid loose stones or sudden dips, but your eyes will quickly adjust after the light is extinguished.
When and Where To Look
If you want a good look at the planets, you need to look along an invisible line known as the ecliptic. This is roughly the same line followed by the sun and moon, so if you know where the sun sets on the horizon, simply follow that line backward, looking for the unblinking light of planets.
The moon can inhibit good views of the night sky, too. For the best viewing, a new moon is ideal, but even crescent moons are acceptable. The rule of thumb is that the bigger the moon, the more its own reflected light will block out the distant sparkle of the stars.
At more than 17,000 miles per hour, the international space station is constantly circling the earth. It helps to use an app to find out when the space station will be crossing over your area because it circles the earth approximately every 90 minutes. Like the moon, a good pair of binoculars will provide you with an excellent view of the space station, and as the only “star” moving across the sky in a matter of minutes it is easy to identify among the seemingly stationary lights of stars and planets.
The Starlink project by SpaceX is another opportunity for stargazers. Slated to eventually include 42 thousand satellites, these lights in the sky are visible to the naked eye as a string of lights moving in a straight line across the sky. There are already several hundred in place, and new launches increase the number on a fairly regular basis. You may need an app such as Starwalk 2 in order to know where and when to look in your geographic area. We also wrote a whole post on Starlink for RVers.
Stargazing for Boondockers
For boondockers, stargazing is a way to enjoy the open spaces during your travels. It doesn’t require any expensive gear, and as long as you have an unobstructed view of the overhead sky you will be able to look far out into space, and across millions of years in time. The best places can be found all over the country, and boondockers are well-equipped for stargazing in remote locations.
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