Lights Out: Tips for Finding the Best Night Sky Views
That first time you unzip your tent for a middle-of-the-night bathroom break, it takes your breath away. So many stars. Maybe even the Milky Way. Whoa.
But you don’t need to be a backpacker to discover darker skies — a weekend cabin tucked away in the woods or in a small mountain town can be far enough from the city to see the spectacular show in the sky that happens every night.
It turns out that getting away to reconnect with nature includes the galaxy. But, in addition to taking a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, you’ll need to get far away from something else: light pollution.
Light pollution is (almost) everywhere
Yes, light pollution. Defined as “excessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial light,” it doesn’t just make seeing the night sky more difficult, it also disrupts ecosystems and can affect our health by disrupting sleep patterns. Plus it wastes energy, increasing our carbon footprint. Unfortunately, light pollution has been increasing by about 2 percent a year, according to a 2017 study, and scientists estimate that 99 percent of the continental U.S. and Europe experience some form of light pollution.
Where to find dark skies
Here in Oregon, the Alvord Desert in the southeast corner of the state, regularly makes the list of the best places to find dark skies. Not surprisingly, America’s National Parks and national forests are good bets, too, especially Yellowstone, Big Bend, and Great Basin. Obviously, the further you can get from populated urban areas, the better. But there’s no one-distance-fits-all rule of thumb. Check out the Dark Sky Finder to map out your next overnight stargazing adventure.
What to bring
The beauty of nature is that you only need to bring your senses to take in its wonder. However, there are a few gadgets that can be handy if you tend to geek out when stargazing, like us. With so many stars visible, it can be harder to make out constellations. A stargazing app like SkyView Lite is a great tool to have in your pocket. But, remember, your phone creates light so turn your display brightness all the way down and use it sparingly.
For getting a closer look at planets and nebulas, a compact telescope or monocular can make a night of stargazing even more awe-inspiring. A great idea for creating your very own observatory experience with the youngest stargazers in your life.
How’s the weather?
Unlike terrestrial nature that can be enjoyed in any weather with the right gear, stargazing requires clear skies. You’ll want to check moon phases, too, and when the moon will rise and set. Even in the darkest spots of the world, a little moonlight can be enough to make it impossible to see the Milky Way.
Help keep it dark
Leave No Trace principles apply here, too, and there are a few ways you can minimize light pollution when camping or cabin-ing. First, only use lights when you need them. And when you do need them, try to use downward-facing, warm lighting so it will have less impact on wildlife.
Join the Dark Sky Movement
We can all help reduce light pollution, even at home. The International Dark Sky Association offers tips for how to assess your impact and make changes. You and your family can even sign up to be citizen scientists and make night sky brightness measurements on your street to help researchers collect data. Get involved here.