More times than not, people tell me to let them know when I’m going out stargazing, only for me to hear back they can’t go. Still, a lot of people, family and friends included, think I’m crazy for regularly going alone, but because I’ve done it so many times, it’s “normal” to me.
Serious stargazing requires effort and adventure, and an overall need to be away from civilization. While it’s always recommended that you go with at least one other person with you out to these dark locations. it’s understandable that one may want to, or have no choice but to go alone. From a seasoned stargazer who regularly travels alone, here are the things you need to do and have with you!
Is Your Vehicle Reliable?
Whether it’s a simple sedan, or an SUV, the most important thing is always going to be whether or not it’s in good shape. As these locations are remote and are a ways away from civilization, no matter how good your vehicle is, you are still risking being stranded in the middle of nowhere if something bad happens.
One time, with all my telescope gear loaded in an old car I had, the brake pad broke off just as I was exiting my driveway. Imagine if that happened out in the desert!
Be Prepared For the Weather
Out in the mountains and deserts, the temperature differences are much more extreme. Of course you want to make sure that there are no clouds, and need to account for any levels of humidity. They can still ruin your night even if forecasts say it’s supposed to be clear!
As you are going to be outside for a long time, always be ready and have the needed layers of clothing for the temperature, which can change by as much as 40 degrees as the night progresses. The wind is always a factor as well – first because wind affects your ability to image through telescopes, and second because it determines how comfortable you are outside.
Be Aware Of Your Surroundings!
Which way are your cardinal directions? Where are the nearest roads and services? What plant and wildlife is out there? What are the conditions of the ground? What times are certain dangerous animals most active and when are they sleeping?
More than likely you won’t encounter any wildlife, but they are out there. When you observe regularly out in their natural habitat, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when! Even at populated campsites, I’ve encountered harvester ants, scorpions, tarantulas, rodents, and coyotes.
It’s not just wildlife: certain plants can ruin your night if you’re not careful, such as the cholla (choy-ah) – the jumping cactus, which their hooked spines break off on contact and can even pierce through your shoes! They’re actually more dangerous while they’re still “stubs” coming out of the ground because you’re less likely to spot them in the dark!
Have Supplies For Just In Case…
Always have water with you, even if it’s going to be cold! As I’m usually awake and observing through most of the night before I drive back home, having some snacks and drinks is always a necessity, especially caffeinated beverages to keep you awake for the trip back. Having a First Aid kit, and anything you need to protect yourself is also recommended. But in the event something happens, seek medical help as quickly as you can!
Don’t forget the spare tire either!
Most Importantly, Know Where You’re Going (Or Where You Are)!
It’s easy to look up dark sky locations that are suitable for serious stargazing. You can figure out if there are paved roads or any other comfortable amenities. You don’t need to travel blindly anymore! Whether you’re in a national or state park, and/or if you’re at a well known campsite, you can get a sense of where the closest service is just in case you need to.
While many smartphones and GPS devices will include your coordinates, it helps to have them saved up just in case you’re in a location with no service. Telescopes that rely on exact coordinates depend on you knowing them, otherwise their alignments won’t work!
Make Sure Every Piece of Equipment is Packed
Not only have I forgotten important layers of clothing for meteor showers in 30° F temperatures with wind chills, but I have brought people with the intent to look through my telescope only for me to forget the eyepieces! Whoops! Plus, I’ve had those moments where the gears aren’t working properly and needed to do quick repairs – good thing I brought the wrenches and screwdrivers!
When I go, I practically bring an “office” with me!
When transporting telescope gear, having the components in cases is not just recommended, it’s a necessity in my opinion. All of my eyepieces and Barlows are in their own case. All of my counterweights and components for the respective mount are in another. I also bring battery packs, lasers, flashlights, cables, stepladders, tables, chairs, plus all the camera accessories! Having them go to certain cases or bags makes it super easy to set up, put away, and store.
Arrive and Set Up With Plenty of Sunlight Left
While any seasoned telescope user should have no problem setting up their equipment under total darkness, It’s just that much easier to find and set up your spot when you can see everything around you. It’s a good time to check for any nearby animal dwellings and plants that can harm you.
It’s also a road safety thing too, especially if you need to turn off on a dirt road to get away from passing cars on crowded highways. The last thing you want is to have your vehicle stuck in sand or mud in the middle of the night!
Make Sure You Can See Your Equipment!
This is especially true when requiring precise alignment for astrophotography and pointing accuracy! It’s frustrating when you accidentally kick the tripod because you didn’t see it! Red lights help but when they need to be off during exposures, I have another solution!
I use glow in the dark tape, and periodically shine my UV lights on them so I can see my scope at night.
On the scope, it’s strategically placed at the ends, and around the eyepiece port. I also have the tape on certain spots on the mount so that I know the default positions before I perform alignment procedures, and on the clamps in case I need to loosen or tighten the telescope. Plus when the lights are off, it looks cool!
Be Comfortable Enough Putting Everything Away In the Dark
Remember how I said to keep everything in cases? Now you know where to put things when you’re not using them! So when the time comes, putting things away won’t take too long, and you’ll be hitting the road in no time!
No matter what you bring, you leave the site in the same shape it was before you got there – don’t be a litterer!
TL;DR – USE COMMON SENSE!!!!
Check out the following articles, which are there to help guide you in the right direction towards being a serious stargazer, especially if you’re a fellow Southern California resident.
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