Regardless of whether you can navigate your way around the night sky or if you can only just about find Orion’s belt, there isn’t a much more spectacular sight than the night sky wall-to-wall with stars and the Milky Way.
Camping is a great way of getting out into rural areas and enjoying the tranquil beauty of the night sky, without all the light pollution of street lights and neon signs. Stargazing is great all year round, but this time of year provides long, still nights to spot constellations, shooting stars, satellites, lunar events and maybe even an International Space Station pass.
Location, Location, Location
Across the UK there are certified dark sky places (known as Dark Sky Reserves and Parks, and Dark Sky Discovery Sites) recognised for the quality of their starry nights, although you don’t need to go to a certified site to get a great view – just head away from populated areas and artificial lighting. A light pollution map or app can help you to locate the darkest skies accessible to you.
Stargazing in Dorset
Dorset is a great place from which you can admire a star-studded sky. There are many dark areas to be found – and the joy of camping in a quiet, remote spot is also that these areas are usually the places with the least light pollution – empty roads and farms and villages rather than suburbs and towns or cities. Your stargazing place of choice could be at a wild camping spot, a well-appointed site with a dark field, a very rural campsite, or you could head to a nearby beach, clifftop, hill top or nature reserve.
Some places noted for their dark skies include Durlston Country Park, Cerne Abbas, Fontmell and Melbury Downs, and several other places around Wimborne such as Badbury Rings, Knowlton, and Cranbourne Chase. Other stellar sites that also provide stunning scenery include Golden Cap, Durdle Door, Hengistbury Head or across the New Forest. You will find places to park up and camp nearby in all these spots.
***Update October 2019: Cranborne Chase AONB is now an International Dark Sky Reserve, designated in October 2019, the 14th reserve in the world. It is recognised for its exceptional quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that also supports dark sky preservation – and on clear nights you can see the Milky Way!***
Do a bit of homework
Find out what’s happening in the night sky when you plan to go stargazing. It’s worth knowing where the moon is (you don’t want your dark sky ruined by a bright full moon), which constellations are up and what time the sun sets. Check an astronomy calendar to learn about upcoming meteor showers, eclipses and other astronomical events.
Take the right gear
On a clear night you can see thousands of stars with the naked eye, so you don’t need much. A blanket or seat (or both), appropriate warm clothing, maybe a picnic, and just your eyes will do to start with! Let your eyes adjust for a good 20 minutes before you intend to start stargazing.
Beyond that, a telescope or binoculars, phone/tablet astronomy apps (though remember a bright screen will stop your eyes fully adjusting to the dark), a planisphere or star, moon and planet charts can aid would-be astronomers. A torch with a red light will keep your eyes in night vision mode whilst enabling you to see around you. If you are by the sea, have a look at tide tables to avoid getting into difficulty. Die-hard astronomers will benefit from using the campervan to transport any hefty astronomy or astrophotography gear around with them!
Stargazing and campervanning go hand in hand, so get outside and lie back in nature’s living room to enjoy the best there is to offer.