A Complete Guide to Safe Stargazing in the Wilderness
Last Updated: January 17, 2023
It comes to a point in every amateur stargazer’s life when we decide it’s time to upgrade our night sky adventures from the comfort of our backyard to the great outdoors. Our constant strive for the darkest possible sky will often lead us to drive many hundred miles away in order to find those sweet, sweet Bortle scale 1 or 2 locations.
Stargazing in the wild is an experience like no other. There’s nothing quite like being out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but nature and the vast, star-filled sky above. But while it can be an incredible experience, it’s important to remember that being in the wilderness also comes with its own set of risks.
In this article, I’m going to share some advices on how to keep yourself safe whilst stargazing in the wild.
Tip #1: How to choose a safe location for stargazing
Light pollution is the bane of every stargazer’s life. Especially if you are an astrophotographer, you are more likely to going to need to speed hours outside gathering enough data to process and produce amazing deep-sky object images. Light pollution is nowadays everywhere to some degree and completely dark skies are becoming as rare as finding a unicorn. So, if you are going after that unicorn, make sure to do your research first.
Here are a few things to consider when selecting your stargazing spot:
- Distance from light pollution: As I mentioned earlier, light pollution can make it nearly impossible to see stars, so it’s important to find a spot that’s as far away from city lights and other sources of light pollution as possible. Try to find a spot that’s at least 30 miles away from any major city.
- Accessibility: Make sure you choose a spot that is easy to get to and has good road access. You don’t want to end up somewhere that’s hard to reach and difficult to navigate in the dark.
- Weather: It’s always a good idea to check the forecast before you head out. Clear skies are a must for stargazing, so if the forecast is calling for clouds or rain, it’s probably best to reschedule your trip.
- Safety: Make sure the spot you choose is safe and free from any potential hazards such as wild animals or steep terrain.
- Personal experience: One of the best ways to find a good stargazing spot is to ask for recommendations from other local stargazers or visit a local astronomy club, they can give you a personal experience and tips on the best spots in your area. Facebook groups have been a god sent for me as many people are quite happy to share information on local parks that are safe to use during the night.
I will never forget the first time I went to a dark sky location. I could see the milky way so clearly with my own eyes, it was surreal. The brightest stars in the sky were stunning and I could observe the planets with such details… as soon as I got home I wanted to plan my next trip. It really is addictive.
Tip #2: Dress appropriately for the weather
Dressing appropriately for the weather is an essential part of stargazing safety. After all, you don’t want to be out in the middle of nowhere, freezing cold or drenched in sweat. Here are a few tips on what to wear for stargazing:
- Layer up: The temperature can drop significantly once the sun goes down, so it’s important to wear layers that you can easily add or remove as needed. A good rule of thumb is to dress as if it’s 10-15 degrees colder than the forecasted temperature.
- Waterproof: If there’s even a chance of rain, make sure you bring a waterproof jacket and pants. Nothing ruins a stargazing trip faster than being drenched in a rainstorm.
- Durable shoes: Stargazing often requires a lot of walking and hiking on uneven terrain, so make sure you wear sturdy, comfortable shoes with good traction.
- Don’t wear white: White clothing can reflect light, making it harder for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Stick with darker colors that will blend in with the night sky.
- Keep it loose and comfortable: You’ll be spending a lot of time standing or sitting on the ground, so it’s important to wear comfortable clothes that won’t restrict your movement.
- Now, if you are going somewhere really remote, make sure you have some Hi-Vis clothing or clothing with reflective elements in the boot of your car. If you get lost and need to be found, this type of clothing will greatly help, especially at night.
- If you are going out during the winter, make sure to wear thermal clothing to keep you warm – I am only based in the UK so, it does not get as cold as Alaska, but those thermals are my best friends nonetheless.
- If you go out in the desert, be sure to wear boots, not flip-flops. You don’t want spiders, scorpions or snakes going near your bare feet!
Back when I first started dating my now wife, I took her for a cute stargazing date during the summer. I wanted her to see some shooting stars from one of the annual meteor showers. Little did I know that her skin was super sensitive to grass so her legs quickly got covered in rashes. So my last point would be: be mindful of any type of allergy you or your companion may have and cover your legs accordingly!
Tip #3: Bring the right equipment
Bringing the right equipment is crucial for staying safe whilst stargazing in the wild.
- Flashlight: A flashlight is an essential piece of gear, especially if you’re going to be out in the wilderness. Make sure to bring a flashlight with a red filter as it will help preserve your night vision and will help you navigate in the dark.
- Navigation Tools: A map, compass and GPS device can be very helpful in case you get lost, it is always a good idea to have a navigation tool with you. I know we all have mobile phones now but hey it’s best to be prepared for any eventualities.
- First Aid Kit: Accidents can happen, so it’s always a good idea to bring a basic first aid kit in case of emergencies. I am prone to allergies so I keep my antihistamine or other medication in there too.
- Whistle: Bring a whistle in case you need to signal for help.
- Personal Locator Beacon: If you’re heading out into a remote area, it’s a good idea to bring a personal locator beacon. These devices can send out a distress signal in case of an emergency, making it easier for rescuers to locate you.
- Extra batteries: It’s always a good idea to bring extra batteries for your flashlight and any other electronic gear you bring. I always charge up my portable power station before any outdoor stargazing session and keep it in the boot of my car.
- Insect Repellent: Bring insect repellent to keep bugs and mosquitoes at bay, especially during the warmer months.
- Water and Snacks: Bring water and snacks to keep yourself hydrated and nourished during your stargazing trip.
- A tent: For the most motivated of us, stargazing can take up most of the night. If you need to take a nap before driving home, you may want to have a tent available. Personally, I’d prefer to nap in the car, I would feel safer in there. But for all the Bear Grylls out there, a tent is a great option for fully immersing yourselves in the outdoor stargazing experience.
Tip #4: Follow the rules and local regulations
The thrill of venturing out into the wilderness to stargaze can be exciting, especially if you’re in an area with little light pollution. However, it’s crucial to remember that rules and regulations exist to protect not only your safety but also the preservation of natural environments such as parks and forests.
It’s essential to research and abides by these regulations to ensure a safe and enjoyable stargazing experience, while also preserving the beauty of the natural world for others and for the animals living there.
- Know where you can and cannot stargaze: Some areas may be restricted or protected, so it’s important to know where you’re allowed to go stargazing. This can be easily found out by checking with your local authorities or ranger station.
- Follow Leave No Trace principles: Make sure to leave the area as you found it, Pack it in, Pack it out, and Leave No Trace. This includes not leaving any trash behind and respecting the natural environment.
- Follow fire regulations: If you plan on having a fire, make sure to check the fire regulations and obtain the necessary permits. Make sure to also follow safety guidelines when building and maintaining a fire.
- Respect the parks opening hours: Many parks have specific hours of operation and it’s important to adhere to them in order to stay safe and avoid any potential legal issues. This means not entering the park after hours or before the park opens, and leaving the park before it closes.
- Respect private properties: it’s important to be mindful of private properties and to respect the rights of the landowner. Many rural areas have private lands and it’s important to be aware of where these boundaries are and to not trespass.
When it comes to stargazing on private property, I always make sure to ask for permission first. I’ve found that many landowners are happy to let me use their space for a few hours, as long as I approach them in a polite and respectful manner. Of course, not everyone says yes, but I’ve had great experiences where landowners have even asked to see the images I’ve captured during my stargazing session. A few were curious enough to stay with me for a little while and asked questions about the different types of constellations. It’s always nice when I can share my passion with others.
Some just straight-up said no, and some even asked for a fee. But I think it’s important to remember that not everyone may be familiar with astronomy or space, and showing genuine interest and enthusiasm, can often spark their own curiosity and lead to a positive experience for all parties involved.
Tip#5: Respect the wilderness
Respecting the wilderness is an essential part of staying safe whilst stargazing in the wild. The wilderness is a fragile ecosystem that requires our protection and care, and it’s important to be mindful of our impact on the environment. Here are a few ways to respect the wilderness when stargazing:
- Stick to designated trails: Stick to designated trails and avoid creating new ones, this will help preserve the natural environment and prevent erosion.
- Be mindful of fire: Use a camping stove instead of building a fire, or if you do build a fire, make sure it’s in a designated fire ring and use only small sticks and twigs as fuel.
- Learn about the local animals: Find out which animals are native to the area, what they look like, and how to identify them. This will help you avoid any dangerous encounters.
- Respect wildlife: Keep a safe distance from any wild animals you might encounter and avoid disturbing their natural habitats.
- Be mindful of your surroundings and where you’re stepping: To avoid damaging rare or fragile flowers and plants, be mindful of where you’re walking and take care not to trample on any vegetation.
- Minimize light pollution: Use a red flashlight, or a flashlight with a red filter, to preserve your night vision and minimize light pollution that can disturb the natural environment and nocturnal wildlife.
- Follow Leave No Trace principles: Make sure to leave the area as you found it. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter, and avoid using soap or other personal care products in natural water sources. Leave the place in a better state than you found it!
Once, whilst stargazing in the lake district (United Kingdom), I stumbled upon a baby red deer grazing in a clearing. The little fawn was so peaceful and curious, it was not scared of me. I remember feeling a sense of awe and wonder as I watched the baby deer. I also immediately remembered that a doe (mother deer) might reject their spawn if they pick up human scent so I decided to quietly leave and find another spot.
It was a magical moment that I will never forget, but it was also a humble one, as wildlife has priorities over me and my hobby. The wilderness is their home and I am but a visitor.
Tip#6: General safety tip when being outside on your own
Being outside, at night time, on your own, is never going to be 100% safe. It’s important to acknowledge this and ensure you take some precautions before venturing into the dark.
Here are a few general safety tips to keep in mind:
- Tell someone where you’re going: Let someone know where you’re going, what time you expect to return, and the route you plan to take. This way, if something happens, someone will know where to look for you.
- Give a closed one your live location: I usually use the location function in the messenger app of Facebook where my wife can see my exact location at all times.
- Avoid risky behavior: Avoid risky behavior such as climbing on unstable rocks or cliffs. The last thing you want is to break your ankle to the point where you can not walk or drive home.
- Be prepared for unexpected weather: Bring appropriate clothing and gear for unexpected weather changes. Even if you check the forecast and it looks good, the weather can change quickly and unexpectedly.
- Stay aware of your surroundings: Always pay attention to your surroundings, and if something feels off or unsafe, trust your instincts and leave the area.
- Stay on marked trails: Stick to marked trails and avoid wandering off into unfamiliar territory. The middle of the night is not the best time to start an adventure into the unknown… keep those for daytime.
In conclusion, stargazing in the wild can be a magical and unforgettable experience, but it’s important to prioritize safety and prepare for any eventualities. Remember to always be aware of your surroundings and to trust your instincts if something feels off.
While the worst-case scenarios are rare, it’s always better to be prepared for anything. So, take the necessary precautions, and enjoy the beauty of the night sky.
I have been an avid stargazer for over 15 years. The night sky is a treasure trove of celestial wonders that I will never stop looking up to. From planets and galaxies to nebulae, I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to observe them with my own eyes, and I hope to help others do the same.
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