Just over 80% of the world’s population is affected by light pollution. In some places, the artificial glow is so bright that people aren’t using their nighttime vision at all. That doesn’t mean, though, that stargazing is out of the question. It just means you might have to work a little bit harder to find a good place for it. There are good stargazing locations hidden all over the place.
They’ll be easier to find once you know what to look for. Read our list of tips to help you a stargazing location that will offer you the best views of the night sky.
Once you find them, keep them in your back pocket. You never know, they might be the perfect place for a date!
The Gold Standard of Stargazing Locations: Low Light
In order to see as many stars as possible, you want the night sky to be as dark as possible. That means getting as far away from the city lights as you can.
A good rule of thumb is to try and get twenty to thirty miles beyond the city limits. Of course, the more rural the area, the better chance of seeing more stars and planets. If you make it way out into the countryside, you might even be able to pick up on the different colors of stars.
We tend to think of light pollution solely as the artificial lights that come from streetlamps and electricity. But moonlight, too, can make the night sky too bright to see many stars.
It’s best to try and go stargazing around the time of the new moon, when the night sky is at its darkest.
There are some other ways you can avoid light pollution and find a stargazing location with lower light. If you can put a mountain range between you and the city, that will help block any residual light. Getting to the other side of a wilderness area of a body of water will also have a similar effect.
The Bortle scale is a method by which you can classify how dark the night sky is. It has nine classes. A class 1 sky is the darkest, meaning the most stars and planets are visible. A class 9 sky has the most light pollution, and it’s the sort of sky you would find in the inner city.
Great stargazing locations don’t necessarily have to be class 1 skies. Usually, skies classified as threes or fours suffice for good stargazing. These are the sorts of night skies found in rural locations and places that are right on the edge of suburbia.
Reach for the Stars: Elevation
Getting a little bit higher off the ground can also help you find a good stargazing location.
At lower altitudes, there are more substances in the air that can make it denser. They can also make the air harder to see through and obscure your view of the night sky. These are things like haze, fog, and smoke.
Turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere can also interfere with how well your telescope captures images of the stars. If you can get up above any amount of the atmosphere, you might have better luck. In fact, the Hubble telescope works so well because it’s completely above Earth’s atmosphere.
Consider the Surrounding Landscape
Clear views don’t just depend on whether or not there’s any light pollution from a nearby city. You have to make sure you can actually see the night sky as well, without anything else in your line of sight.
You want to try and find a place where you have open views all around. Or, at least, it’s important that you have clear views in the direction of whatever you’d like to see. If you want to observe one of the northern constellations, for example, such as Ursa Major, you’d want to make sure you have an open view to the north.
Elevation would help with this, too, especially if you live in an area where you might have a lot around you. Avoid trees and buildings if you can. It might even be helpful to go up to a roof or to the top of a hill.
If your only option for a stargazing location is in a forested area, try to pick a spot near the edge of a body of water or a meadow. If you can find any sort of clearing, you’ll have a better view of the night sky without the trees overhead.
Check the Weather for Your Stargazing Location
No matter how well you plan or scout your location, the weather might just not want to cooperate. It’s important to keep an eye on weather patterns before you set out.
Obviously, if the night is cloudy, it’s going to be a lot harder to see any stars or planets. Even if it’s the perfect time of year. But winds and changes in temperatures can also affect the visibility of the night sky.
Wildfire smoke can have a big impact, too. Even if the fires weren’t in your area, smoke can travel for miles. You might find yourself looking up at a hazy night sky because of wildfires several states away.
Make Sure You Can See the North Star
You know you’ve found a good stargazing location when Polaris, or the North Star, is clearly visible. Not only have navigators depended on the North Star for generations, but those who are just picking up astronomy can rely on it, too.
When you can see the North Star, it’s a lot easier to find other constellations.
To find the North Star, you first want to locate the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper is an asterism that makes up part of the constellation Ursa Major.
Once you’ve located the Big Dipper, you can draw a line from the star at the corner of the “bowl.” You’ll soon intersect with the star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This is the North Star.
Other constellations that can be helpful for orienting yourself against the night sky are called circumpolar constellations. These are constellations that stay pretty fixed in the night sky throughout the year. Instead of dipping below the horizon, they appear to circle the north and south poles.
Having Trouble Finding the Perfect Stargazing Location?
Sometimes, finding a great stargazing location that’s dark enough to really show off the stars just isn’t in the cards. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing to look at in the night sky.
Light from the moon can impact our ability to see planets, constellations, and shooting stars, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. If the places you’re going are still not dark enough because of light pollution, turn your attention to the moon itself.
It can be a great astronomy target on its own. If you want to get the best look at the moon’s surface, catch it during one of the middle phases. When the moon is waxing and waning, the shadows can help reveal the textured surface and the moon’s craters.
The moon might not seem as interesting as the Pegasus constellation or the Orion constellation, but it can be a good alternative to observe when you’re having trouble finding a stargazing location.
No matter where you choose to have your stargazing adventure, it’s important that you come prepared.
Depending on the time of year, outdoor conditions might not be the most pleasant. This is especially true during the winter months, which are often considered the best for stargazing. When it’s chillier, there’s less humidity in the air. That means it’s even easier to see the stars.
On colder nights, make sure to wear warmer clothing. You’ll probably be standing around and waiting for the stars to come out. You might as well be warm while you do so!
Dew can be an issue with outdoor stargazing, too, especially if you’re using binoculars or a telescope. Any moisture on the lens will obstruct your view. Sudden temperature changes will increase the risk of dew on your lenses. If necessary, you can invest in special lens caps.
You don’t necessarily need a bunch of fancy gear to have a successful stargazing evening, but a couple of things can be helpful. A star chart can help you understand the layout of the sky, and a compass can help you find the constellation, star, or other objects you’re looking for.
Step Up Your Stargazing
You have all the tips and tricks you need to find the best stargazing locations to begin watching the night sky. This is a great place to start and a great way to learn the layout of the constellations and the planets.
Once you’ve gotten to know the night sky (you might even want to pick up a handy star chart or map), and you’ve identified anchor objects, you might feel like you want to see more. Check out our guide on telescopes for beginners to figure out which models and features might be right for you to dive even deeper into astronomy.