Camping Astronomy – Unleashing the Cosmos from your Campervan

I would hazard a guess that the majority of UK folk who enjoy camping live in a town or city. This stands to reason, because so many more people live in towns and cities compared with the countryside. In fact, after looking it up it appears that currently 83.5% of the UK population live in urban areas, and this is expected to rise to 92% by 2030. Not just a majority, but a huge majority. The reason this is important is because the towns and cities of the UK are blighted by light pollution

Light pollution is the presence of light where it is not needed or expected, and can come from many different sources and be a major waste of energy. For town-dwellers who would like to ogle the stars and planets from their garden, it is unfortunately difficult to see much in the night sky due to sky-glow – this is where light from the earth travels up towards space, but then gets scattered back by the atmosphere, causing a glow which drowns out the light from the stars.

Camping Astronomy - The Perfect Observation Deck!

One of the major reasons for this blog post is to simply try and convey the beauty of the night sky and to encourage you to make every effort to create time when you’re away to drink it all in.

If you take a few steps out of any campsite, away from the all-seeing glare of the electric lights, then you will be transported into another world – one far-removed from the typical cityscape of illuminated smog which you may be used to. One where the wonders of the cosmos are opened up to your eyes for a jaw-dropping experience of the universe and our place within it. OK, perhaps that was a touch over dramatic, but you get my gist.

Of course, you don’t need a campsite per se to enjoy ‘stargazing in the sticks’ – in fact, you can get an even more immersive experience by pitching a tent on a mountain top, isolated from the distractions of humanity. Or driving your campervan into a quiet spot in one of the National Parks. Sounds quite appealing doesn’t it….?

Campsite Stargazing - Comfort is Essential!

sportneer folding chairThe UK countryside can get pretty dark and cold at the best of times. You really don’t want to be put off from your new camping astronomy hobby before you’ve even started! It’s therefore worth investing in a few items of gear to help keep you toasty as the new Captain Kirk of Camping.

I would recommend first investing in a comfortable folding chair for your campsite stargazing journey. It’s not much fun to stand still for a long period of time, and camping chairs are perfect as portable support. Some fold up insanely small and are no trouble at all to stick in your rucksack.

Anker LC90 torch

I would secondly advise buying a decent torch to get you to your observation post without hurting yourself. We’ve commented many times in previous articles about the Anker LC90 USB rechargeable torch, and for £25 it really cannot be beaten. Waterproof, compact, bright enough for every conceivable situation and most importantly – rechargeable using a simple USB phone charger. 

Marmot down jacket

Some of my favourite constellations (such as Orion) are only really observable in Winter, and so it pays to be prepared with a decent coat. A well-insulated men’s microfibre jacket such as the Mountain Warehouse down jacket can be bought for around £40 and will quickly pay for itself by helping you avoid hypothermia!

The Marmot hype down jacket and the Rab Prosar are pricier options, but definitely more stylish. They pack down smaller and are much warmer due to the goose down inside. We like both alot for camping astronomy trips.

Anqier Winter gloves

As you’ll read about in the next section, campsite astronomy in the modern world involves considerable use of a smartphone in order to help identify the various planets, stars and constellations.

You need to keep your hands warm, but also be able to use intricate gear and still operate a touchscreen. Enter the Anqier touchscreen thermal gloves which are available for both men and women at only £10.99. They do just what the doctor ordered – warm yet thin enough to operate your gear as well as swipe your screen. Clever!

Thermos Stainless King flask

Finally – you’ve got to treat yourself a little bit. This fabulous Thermos Stainless King Flask is on offer at the moment (in Midnight blue), and will help you keep your beverage of choice piping hot while you look at those heavenly bodies with your binoculars…..ooh err missus! Nothing beats a brew when a chill is in the air. Check out our in-depth roundup of the best vacuum flasks on the market at the moment too,

Campsite Astronomy - Bring Your Smartphone

When I were a lad, the only way to learn about the stars and planets was to watch The Sky At Night once a month or to pore over a dusty encyclopedia in the school library. Things have thankfully changed now, and in my view there has never been a better time to learn about both the science and the spectacle of space.

best-stargazing-app-sky-map-1548890886

best-stargazing-app-skysafari-1548889232The first thing I’d urge you to do is to download an app for your smartphone – my favourite is SkyMap for Android phones which is free and shows all the stars, planets, nebulae and constellations. If you’re an iPhone user I haven’t yet found a decent free app – my favourite is SkySafari which costs £2.99. 

Using SkyMap

What makes these apps so incredible is that they utilize the gyroscope and compass found inside most modern phones to understand which direction and angle you’re pointing the phone. You literally direct your phone at a celestial body and the screen of your phone will indicate what you are looking at in real time – whether it be planet, comet, star or constellation – simply incredible!

If you’d prefer to stick to the old techniques, there are still plenty of books to get you started. StarFinder for Beginners is a great beginner’s guide, but requires a compass (preferably luminous) to orientate yourself correctly with respect to the stars. 

You should also still check out some of the great TV programmes such as The Sky At Night and anything by Brian Cox such as The Planets and Succession (whaddya mean that’s the wrong Brian Cox?).

Binoculars - A Great Value Entry Into Camping Astronomy

I would imagine there is an old adage that goes something like ‘what use be a hobby to ye if there be no gadgets to buy for it?’. If there isn’t then it probably needs to be written. Astronomy is a fantastic hobby and so much can be learnt, seen and experienced without spending a penny. However, if you’re itching to see the planets and stars up closer or get a photograph of Saturn’s rings then you need to magnify the image beyond what your eye lens can manage.

Olympus 10 x 50 binocularsThe first stop is a piece of gear that most households have tucked away, but rarely use. Binoculars. I have a big pair handed down from my Grandfather which are a little too unwieldy to use when out observing the cosmos.

For a budget offering from a decent brand, the Olympus 10 x 50 binoculars are difficult to beat. The ’10’ indicates 10x magnification – how much bigger the planets will look to you. The second number is the size of the large objective lenses at the front of the binoculars in mm. Note that the Olympus pair are not waterproof, but the image quality is pristine for the price.

Celestron 8 x 42 binocularsBig isn’t necessarily always better – if you’re going to be holding the binoculars by hand (rather than using a tripod) then 50mm lenses is about the maximum you’d want to hold for any length of time. In fact a smaller pair can prove more satisfying to use as the magnification is generally less and you can see more of the sky at the same time with less camera shake.

Another great pair which are waterproof are the Celestron 8 x 42 binoculars which my father recently bought and is very pleased with. More nimble to hold and focus than the Olympus, with almost the same magnification. 

Everybody typically associates telescopes with astronomy, but for a campsite visit I don’t think it’s a practical suggestion. Binoculars are much more flexible, can offer superb image quality and can also be used for bird and wildlife viewing in the daytime. Definitely worth keeping a pair in your camping gear.

Capturing the moment - photographing the stars and planets

Observing the planets and constellations through your binoculars can be a very enjoyable and educational experience. I truly believe that it should therefore be considered as an end to itself and appreciated for what it is. By this I mean that if you plan on moving on to taking photographs of the night sky, the hobby instantly becomes completely different – much more frustrating, much more time consuming, much more expensive (potentially) and much more difficult to master.

You will find countless photographs on the internet taken by professionals and even wonderful amateurs which are mind-blowingly good. They make you question why you ever thought that sitting a few yards off a cold campsite was ever worth it. That being said, if you’re interested in trying to record a few snaps yourself (like I was knowing all the above) then read on.

Camping Astronomy Photography - Steady As She Goes!

It’s night time, and there’s not much light around. Well duh! Did I really just spend ten minutes reading this rubbish? The thing is, this fact is important. A photograph is nothing if not an impression formed by the amount of light captured on film or on the CCD of a digital camera. You therefore need stability to capture enough light and enough time to capture the light – otherwise you get blurring.

One way to try and achieve this is activate night mode on your camera phone and then use your elbows to form a stable base to avoid movement. The problem is that the lens on the phone is so small that it’s very difficult to capture enough light and to magnify what are essentially nothing more than dots in the sky. You basically need a combination of phone camera, telescope and tripod to achieve a decent picture.

Apexel 20-40x zoom lens with tripod

Well all is not lost. The Apexel 40x zoom and tripod for phone is a great kit costing about £60 and allows for reasonable photographs to be taken using your phone. I’m not going to lie and say that you’ll get award-winning shots taken with it (have a look at my best moonshot below), but it gets you started and allows you to at least record something reasonable.

Moon shot Apexel

The kit consists of a mount which clamps on to your phone close to the lens. This then allows the phone to be attached to the telescopic lens and tripod. The telescopic lens is great for the money and allows 20-40x magnification.

There is a separate focus ring on the telescope which helps with getting a sharper photograph – it is still an ‘acquired art’ though and you will have plenty of time to hone your technique!

 

Camping Astronomy - Gadgets Galore!

Beginners telescope
Beginner's telescope for children or adults. Perfect if you really HAVE to scratch that Patrick Moore telescope itch. We recommend you stick with the binoculars though...
PROSmart USB heated vest
Heated bodywarmer using USB connection and standard battery pack (not supplied). Keep ultra-warm on your stargazing adventures.
Procase Tactical Backpack
Super cool tactical rucksack for carrying your gear to the observation post - you'll look like an SAS operative while you're doing it too....
anker battery pack

Anker make some of the best electrical gear around – we’re firm fans. This power bank will keep your phone going through the night while you’re checking out the constellations. If you buy the heated vest as well, it’ll even power that!

 

That concludes our beginner’s guide to camping astronomy – we hope it gave you some inspiration for using your camping trips to learn more about the amazing Universe we’re all part of. The night sky is there every day and yet we often take it for granted. We urge you to get out there and be part of it. For more campervan inspiration, check out our article on exactly that – keeping it real on long trips away.

Happy Stargazing and happy camping!

Ps Thanks to Greg Duprat and Will Africano from Unsplash for the cool photos!

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