Sleeping Under Starry Skies - Stargazing Tips from Huw James
As a mountaineer and an astronomer, I get asked a lot of space questions when out on the hill. When people find out I’m a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, their first question is usually about their star sign!
In the UK, most people tend to have a fairly good grasp of how the solar system works and know a few constellations up there in the night sky. In the British Isles, we’re lucky that (at the time of writing), we have 5 International Dark Sky Reserves (protected areas where the natural darkness gives you a great view of the sky), and a number of other Dark Sky Sites that give spectacular views of the stars.
Stargazing and camping are the perfect partners. It doesn’t get much better than lying back and relaxing outdoors in the ultimate living room, spotting shooting stars, constellations and distant planets. Read on for my top stargazing for beginners tips for how to spot more than the plough the next time you go camping…
Before You Leave: Do Your Homework!
To get the best views of the night sky, you’ll have to know a little about light pollution. In populated areas, any light that isn’t directed down towards the floor or is too bright can spill up into the sky. Unfortunately, just being far away from light polluted areas isn’t enough. Clouds and particles in the atmosphere can all redirect that light towards you, even if you’re far away from the original source.
To get the best starry skies, you need dark areas that are surrounded by areas that are almost as dark, with light-polluted cities and towns as far away as possible. As the British Isles are fairly small, these can be tough to find. But the Dark Sky areas we have are more than just places that are dark. They’re more like national parks in the sky. The organisations who run the area have made a commitment to reducing the light pollution and preserving the quality of the night sky.
Where to Go for the Best Stargazing...
There’s lots you can do to find good stargazing spots in the UK like heading away from populated areas and staying away from artificial lighting. There are also lots of ways to do a bit of research before you to go find the best places.
A good place to start is by taking a look at the Dark Skies Finder Map, or the Dark Sky Finder App if you’re on the go. As well as giving a good indication of the darkest skies on the planet, it can also be used closer to home. Obviously the best places to see the stars are the most remote locations, so a compromise has to be made between accessibility and the dark skies themselves.
You’ll also want to do a bit of homework to find out what’s happening in the night sky around the time you’re going. The Sky Calendar is a great place to find information day-by-day. Dark skies can easily be ruined by a full moon, so knowing where the moon is, which constellations are up and what time the sun sets are all good things to know before you go. To get a feel for stargazing, download the simple, free planetarium software Stellarium, which allows you to see exactly what the night sky will look like anywhere in the world.
Lots of places in the British Isles now offer Stargazing Holidays. From staying in remote locations to offering binoculars and telescopes as part of the stay, it’s worth seeing if there are any close to where you’d like to stay.
What to Take With You
Stargazing is one of those activities that can be done with no equipment at all, or all the equipment in the world. I’ve wild camped in the middle of nowhere and just stared at the stars, and I’ve been to some of the largest observatories in the world. Just like buying outdoors kit, it comes down to what you want as an end result.
Kit for Simple Stargazing
If you’re out wild camping or anywhere that requires a walk, it’s tough to carry lots of kit with you. Luckily, simple stargazing doesn’t require lots of kit! If all you want to do is observe the sky, I’d recommend taking a good roll mat, ground sheet and sleeping bag. All you do then is lie down and watch!
It will take around 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adapt to the darkness so you’ll see more and more as time goes on. Try to avoid getting your phone out too often as this will ruin your night vision, putting you right back to square one. As you lie there you’ll see a plethora of satellites fly overhead, shooting stars, constellations, and deep sky objects. You can find out when there’s likely to be lots of shooting stars using the Meteor Shower Guide App.
Night Sky Photography
To get the perfect image of the night sky, you’ll need to think about two key things: stability and exposure. For any night time shot, you’ll need to reduce the movement of your camera to absolute zero. So whether you’re using a DLSR, a mobile phone or a compact camera, it’s a good idea to use a tripod. To improve the stability even more, use the timer option so you’re not touching the camera while it’s taking the shot.
To get the length of exposure right, you’ll have to be able to manipulate the camera settings. A lot of cameras will have a ‘manual mode’ which will allow you to change the settings, and for mobile phones you can get great photography apps like ProCam that let you take more control. You’ll want to push the length of exposure up to a few seconds. This may be 1, 3, 10 or more.
If you’re a fan of #vanlife, then you may have the space (pun intended!) to take a telescope on your trip. The good news is your telescope doesn’t need to be too big, or too expensive, to work well.
The best way to learn to use a telescope is to find your local astronomical society and head along to one of their events with your ‘scope. Astronomical societies all around the UK run star parties and events where professionals, amateurs and beginners hang out together. They love the night sky, and most will jump at the chance to help you out and show you how to use it. Have a look for your local astronomical society here. There are also weekend and evening courses you can take in astronomy and photography to get more familiar.
Using telescopes, just like photography, requires patience. Make sure you take blankets, a hat, a jacket, waterproof shoes with thick socks, gloves, a red LED head torch, a flask and snacks. You’ll be stood still for extended periods of time, it’s not like going hiking where you’ll stay warm through the production of lots of body heat. I use the Rab Microlight Alpine and Rab Positron Jacket doubled up in winter months and then de-layer as the year goes on.
As for the telescope itself, if you don’t already have one lurking around in the attic, a small and inexpensive option is the Sky Watcher Telescope. It’s small enough to use on a table or on the floor, and gives good views of planets, the moon and some star clusters. To find the best objects to look at, and the constellations you’ll find them in, mobile apps are amazing. The best (in my opinion) is StarWalk, but there are loads of free options out there like Star Chart and Google Sky. Have a look to see when planets like Saturn and Jupiter are up, and star clusters like the Pleiades (M45), the Orion Nebula (M42) and the Hercules Cluster (M13).
What Time of Year is Best for Stargazing?
There’s no ‘best time’ to get out stargazing. The winter months have brilliantly still, long nights with great constellations and beautiful deep sky objects. However, camping out in winter takes a lot of tenacity and there’s more likely to be clouds about. On the other hand, the summer nights are shorter and skies are lighter, but it’s much more fun to be out under the stars and cloud-free nights are much more likely.
You can make the experience as enjoyable as possible by getting the right gear, and knowing a little bit before you go. Find out what planets are out, if there’s an International Space Station Pass to look forward to, or arranging your trip around a meteor shower. Just like with all things mountaineering, preparation is key!
Huw is an astronomer, adventurer, photographer, film maker, and Dark Sky Ambassador for the Brecon Beacons National Park. He spends most of his life in the outdoors or trying to get into the outdoors. He’s a climber, mountaineer, runner and everything in between. He spends a lot of time travelling around the world to new and sometimes very old places. Find out more at www.huwjames.com.