When it comes to RVing, most people focus on all the exciting adventures the daytime holds. However, when the sun sinks below the horizon, the biggest adventure of all is waiting in the darkness. Stargazing is becoming increasingly popular, especially among the RV community, because of the breathtaking views that only appear between sunset and sunrise in locations without light pollution.
Why is Stargazing Great for RVers?
With stargazing comes astrophotography, which focuses on photographing celestial events, astronomical objects, and certain parts of the night sky. It’s only natural to want to capture what you’re seeing with the naked eye in an image to look back on later. As stargazing becomes more mainstream, the best places to see the stars without light pollution are ideal destinations for RVers due to their remote nature.
If you’ve ever wanted to see a shooting star or point out the little dipper, then consider this a wish granted. The RVer’s guide to stargazing and astrophotography highlights destinations, necessary equipment, and other must-haves perfect for seeing the stars at night from your remote RV campsite.
Must-Have Equipment for Star Viewing
Finding the ultimate viewing spot, parking your RV, and looking up at the night sky sounds easy enough, but having a few items on hand can take the experience from good to great.
For an up-close and personal viewing, plan to have a quality set of binoculars. While you will undoubtedly be able to bask in the subtle glow of the stars above, binoculars can give you a magnified perspective. Many models offer sharp, crisp images through lenses that allow increased light transmission for perfect viewing even in the darkest conditions. If there’s one must-have item to reach for, it’s this.
While you want as little light pollution as possible when it comes to getting the most out of gazing at the stars, sometimes you need some light to navigate your surroundings. Having a flashlight is the perfect solution since it provides just enough light for you personally without interrupting the experience for those around you. Find your way back to the RV, investigate what rustled the leaves, or adjust the blanket you’re sitting on with a small beam of light. Being considerate of others will make you the real star.
Sand-Free Patio Mats
Sand-free patio mats are a must-have for anyone venturing out of the RV to gaze up at the stars. Provide a comfortable surface to sit or lay on while soaking in all the celestial glory the night sky offers. Many mats are made of weather-resistant polypropylene UV-stabilized to prevent fading and resist mold. Plus, they’re breathable, which means they won’t harm the grass underneath.
Nothing ruins a good time outdoors like bugs. The uninvited guests can crash a party and have everyone running towards the RV. Avoid the nightmare by having a bug-repellent plan in place to stop them in their tracks. From bug-repellent fans to salt guns to bug spray, planning can be the difference between taking a bite of the sky or having something take a bite of you.
The Best Destinations for Stargazing
Once you have stocked up on the necessities, it’s time to narrow down the perfect location for viewing the night sky, some you may be aware of and some you may discover for the first time. The goal is to get away from city lights and as far away from any potential light pollution. Clear nights with little to no clouds make for the best viewing conditions.
Grand Canyon National Park – Arizona
Two birds, one stone, or two events, one destination. Take in all the Grand Canyon offers during the day, then settle down to soak in the nighttime views. As one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World, it should come as no surprise that this location offers plenty of eye candy both day and night.
Borrego Springs, California
With plenty of wide-open spaces available to boondock, Borrego Springs in California offers plenty of fun daytime activities but also has superb viewing locations at night. Visit or stay at The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and take advantage of their star parties and observatory for RV power hookups.
Big Bend National Park – Texas
As the national park with the least amount of light pollution, Big Bend National Park is perfect for picking out constellations and exploring all the night sky has to offer. An RV stargazer’s dream location, you’ll want to plan a visit as soon as possible.
Cherry Springs State Park – Pennsylvania
As for the East coast, Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania is one of the International Dark-Sky Parks offering incredibly dark skies. As a result, viewing the stars at this location is an experience unlike any other.
A Few Tips to Master Astrophotography
Capturing the stars with your camera can be more difficult than it initially sounds. Here are a few pointers to help you produce an image that matches or surpasses what you see with your eyes.
- Invest in a good tripod. Securing your camera to a tripod ensures it’s sturdy. Any slight movement when taking a picture at night could result in a blurry image.
- Use a timer. Another way to prevent unnecessary movement is by using the timer feature on your camera. Sometimes pressing the shutter button can cause the body of your camera to shake ever so slightly.
- Focus manually. Low light conditions are often tricky when it comes to autofocus. Try manually focusing on a star or area you want to capture for a better result.
- Find the perfect balance. Play with the f-stop by widening it for maximum light absorption. Adjust the shutter speed by slowing it down as much as possible for a clearer image. Finding the perfect balance can make all the difference in a quality picture. Take a few test shots until you find the combination that works best in your current conditions.
Stargazing is quickly becoming one of the most enjoyable nighttime activities for those on the road. Tell us about your favorite locations for starry-eyed enthusiasts in the comments below.
Likely place golf & rv resort in Modoc County California has great star gazing, even has free telescope pads with 110 volt hookups. VERY dark skies.
I’ve always wanted to install an atrium-type dome where my A/C is located for 360 viewing from INSIDE the luxury of the camper, defeating the distractions of insects and weather.
As a lifelong amateur astronomer, and one who is traveling the country full time with my telescopes in my RV, I want to strongly suggest that the flashlight that you use when stargazing emits red light, not white. It can take 20 minutes for your eyes to become dark adapted. You want your eyes to have maximum sensitivity to starlight, and switching on a white light flashlight even for a second can ruin your dark adaption, effectively re-setting the 20 minute dark adaptation clock. Also be sure to turn off all outside lights on your RV and draw the curtains inside to block light. For the best views you don’t want ANY distracting white light. Or go hardcore like I have and modify your RV’s interior lights so they can all be switched to red! Many of the visitor’s centers at dark sky parks sell red flashlights and star guides. I even have a tiny red light I picked up at a visitor’s center clipped to my camera’s neck strap for changing settings while doing astrophotography. In a pinch you can use a layer or two of paper cut from a brown paper bag taped over the front of your white light. While it isn’t red, it will dim the light and the brown color will be close enough. You’ll be surprised how little light it takes to navigate once you are dark adapted. If it’s very dark out, and you are fully dark adapted, you’ll even be able to see the ground using only starlight!
As for capturing an image of the night sky, use a wide angle lens, set you camera’s iso to a higher number – but not the highest as this will introduce too much noise – and set your exposure length using the 500 rule to keep stars from trailing, unless that’s what you want. The 500 rule is you divide 500 by the focal length of your lens to get the maximum exposure in seconds. With a 50mm lens, you’d get 500/50=10 seconds. Make sure your flash is off and use the camera’s self timer for triggering the shutter. Don’t know your lens’ focal length? Take a series of exposures, and see what happens. Don’t be surprised if you see random streaks in your photos. These are frequently caused by planes or satellites passing overhead.
What are you looking at up there? Get an app for your phone that can be your guide to help identify what you are seeing. Even Google’s free Sky Map will work. A more advanced app for both android and iPhones is Sky Safari, and there are others.
Oh, and don’t let camping in the trees stop you. Find a clearing, even if it’s small. Some of the darkest skies I’ve experienced in over 50 years in the hobby was from a small clearing in the pine trees in a campground not far from Crater Lake Oregon.
Too many lights in your campground? Be creative! During the day I’ll scout an area for viewing away from campground lights. Often it’s an unlit parking lot near a daytime viewpoint, or the viewpoint itself. Even though the Grand Canyon National Park is a dark sky park, the RV section we camped in was full of campers leaving their bright outside lights on all night. I’ve had a few similar experiences at other dark sky parks. To be able to stargaze, I packed up my scope in the car and headed to an unlit parking lot, that while full of cars during the day, was empty at night. The added benefit of the parking lot was it also provided great horizons turning the night sky into a huge star filled dome. Visit one of the Canyon’s viewpoints at night for a surreal view of the star filled sky. I also did some astrophotography from the viewpoints in Bryce Canyon National park. These too were away from campground lights. If another visitor shows up with a bright light, I look away until the leave.
Sometimes its just a short drive to an open area away from other campers. I took pictures of Comet Leonard from a grass field a three minute drive from the camping area. Another great place for some night sky fun is Goblin Valley National Park. I have some amazing long exposure photos taken amongst the hoodoos. I’ve even experienced walking amongst the hoodoos navigating only by moonlight!
Enjoy the star filled night sky!