Summer is an excellent time to go stargazing. Yes, the nights are particularly short at this time of year, so you do have to stay up very late, but there are unique awards at this time of year. Of course, I’m talking about the Milky Way. If you can get to dark skies at the right time of the month then you will see the billions of stars in our galaxy arch across the night sky.
Now a new “dark skies” camping map is making that easier.
Hipcamp’s new ‘dark skies map’
Look at Hipcamp’s Dark Skies Map and you’ll find camping, RV parks, caravan parks, cabins, treehouses and glamping sites across the U.S. that are under skies ideal for stargazing.
The map overlays light pollution data from the International Dark-Sky Association onto more than 340,000 campsites to reveal the places that offer the darkest skies.
Other ways to find dark skies for stargazing
If you don’t want to book a campsite—or you’re outside of the U.S.—you can still make use of the same data about light pollution by checking the Light pollution map or by looking on Dark Site Finder. Another great way of guaranteeing a dark sky is to head for an International Dark Sky Place, a Dark Sky Preserve or an UNESCO Starlight Reserve.
As a rule of thumb you have to travel at least 40 miles from an urban area to get a sky-full of stars and a glimpse of the Milky Way.
However, before you check out your intended location it’s important to think about timing. If you don’t then all of your planning will come to nothing. Why? The Moon.
When (and when not) to go stargazing
It’s really important to think about the phase of the moon when planning any kind of stargazing trip, including camping. If you go camping in stargazing during a full Moon and you will see no more stars and if you were in the middle of a big city. The Moon is the biggest light polluter of all, and you need to avoid its peak phases to have any chance of seeing the Milky Way.
Cue the “stargazing window,” which opens at Last Quarter Moon, when our satellite rises after midnight, and closes around about the time of a 10% illuminated crescent Moon a few days after the New Moon. That creates a “stargazing window” of about 10 nights during each orbit of the Moon.
Here are 2022’s remaining “stargazing windows,” including the one we’re in right now:
- July 20-31
- August 19-30
- September 17-28
- October 17-28
- November 16-26
- December 16-26
What about the Perseids meteor shower?
The most popular meteor shower of the year is the Perseids, which peaks on August 11/12, 2022. Sadly, this coincides with the rising of August full Moon, the “Sturgeon Moon.” So unfortunately this year’s major meteor shower will be blotted out. In fact, the night sky will be so light polluted by the Moon that I would advise that you don’t bother going camping for this yet proceed meteor shower. It’s far better idea is to go looking for shooting stars on the nights at the end of July.
July 29, 30, 31 sees the peak of the Delta Aquarids meteor shower just as the Perseid meteor shower is waxing towards its peak on August 11. Go outside after midnight, perhaps while camping, and you will probably see a few shooting stars.
Why dark skies are so important for humans
“Just two out of 10 people can see the Milky Way from their home,” said Charles Post, Hipcamp’s consulting ecologist. “In modern times 80% of the planet has been disconnected from the stars.”
According to Italy’s Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute (ISTIL), about two-thirds of all humans and 99% of the population in the U.S. (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) and the E.U. live in areas where the night sky is above the threshold set for polluted status.
What does this mean for a society and civilization with such deep roots to the cosmos and starry sky? “The balance between dark and night has a tremendous and significant role in the physiologies and life histories of all living things,” said Post. “We humans evolved around the night, our eyesight is best during the day and as visual animals we are best suited to be active during daylight hours.”
When it gets dark, we sleep. If artificial light fills the night sky, we don’t sleep as well. “Our sleep patterns are affected, so too are our immune and endocrine systems, which can have cascading effects on our overall health,” said Post.
Why dark skies are so important for birds and insects
Plants that rely on the amount of light in a 24-hour cycle, to bloom. Pollinators—such as bees and moths—rely on plants for nourishment. A dark sky is essential for nocturnal animals who evolved to be active during the night.
“Migrating birds can be thrown off course ending up in cities where building strikes kill hundreds of millions of birds annually,” said Post. “If these long-distance migrants survive the confusion they at the very least are wasting precious energy reserves, lowering their fitness and increasing risk of death from predators, starvation or disease.”
Artificial light can also have a drastic effect on insects. “We have all seen plumes of insects swirling around a porch light. It causes exhaustion, dehydration and often death for those insects who mistake artificial light sources for star or moonlight,” said Post. “Declines in local insect communities can have consequences that trickle across the food web affecting many species from birds and amphibians who eat them to the plants that require their pollination for reproduction.”
“Light pollution is a crisis of our modern day, and dark skies, like the wilderness areas, must be protected and expanded so that more people and nature may thrive.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.