Sleeping under the stars is a classic camping experience that every camper should try at least once. If you’re used to a comfortable RV or the security of a tent, sleeping out in the open might sound a little intimidating at first. But there’s more than one way to plan a stargazing camping trip. (And there are even a couple options that don’t involve sleeping in the elements all night.) No matter which option you choose, it can be fun to learn basic astronomy and it’s something the whole family can do.
Here are 5 tips for camping under the stars:
1. Choose a location based on visibility and comfort.
The ideal stargazing campsite is relatively flat, high, and away from city lights. (Light pollution—the milky haze that artificial lights create in the sky—is one of the most common barriers to seeing the stars.) For the widest possible view, choose a spot (or site) in a clearing or away from trees.
2. Pick a time of year when skies will be clear.
Summer is a popular stargazing time because of the warm weather (and the annual Perseids meteor shower), but summer skies can be hazy. (Not to mention, stormy.) The moisture in the air from summer’s humidity can make stars and planets appear more dim. For the clearest skies, plan to camp during the fall. (Our complete guide to fall camping can show you how to plan the perfect trip!) If you don’t mind cooler temps (and possible snow), winter skies are also clear. Keep in mind that different constellations are visible in different seasons so no matter when you go, there’s always something new to see.
One last thing to consider is the moon. It’s easiest to see stars during a new moon or when the moon is a crescent. When planning a stargazing camping trip, check out the moon’s phase before you go.
3. Plan your set-up.
There are a few ways to camp under the stars. Pick the option that works best for you:
Also known as “cowboy camping,” sleeping on the ground without a tent is often what comes to mind when people think about camping under the stars. If you’ve never done it, it’s a camping experience worth having—even if you only do it once. (And despite what many people think, wildlife will likely leave you alone. Just make sure you don’t have any food in your sleeping bag!) Make sure you set yourself up for success by choosing a flat, level, and dry location. Then be sure your set-up includes the following items:
- Sleeping pad: Even if you’ve chosen a grassy area, the ground can still be hard and bumpy. Choose a sleeping pad that’s at least a couple inches thick like this sleeping pad from Invoker with a built-in foot pump. If overnight temps will be cool and you’re using an inflatable sleeping pad, make sure you put a foam pad (or another type of insulation) between your sleeping pad and the ground.
- Sleeping bag: Bring a sleeping that is appropriate for the season. If you’re camping during the summer, a 3-season sleeping bag should be sufficient. (For some more options, see our sleeping bag recommendations.)
- Pillow: You’ll never regret bringing a pillow on a camping trip. If you have the space, simply bring your regular pillow from home. Or, try this camping pillow from Therm-a-Rest.
- Tarp or groundcloth: This last item is optional but sometimes you need an extra barrier for damp ground or crawling insects. A standard tarp will do the trick.
Of course, tent-free isn’t the only way to go. If you’d prefer to sleep within some walls and roof, there are plenty of tents that offer a view of the sky. Three-season tents with all mesh sides are great for this. (Just be sure to remove the rain fly so you can see.) One of the advantages of using a tent is that you won’t have to scramble for shelter if rain or storms roll in. With these tents, you’ll simply have to cover them with the rain fly.
- Hyke & Byke Zion Backpacking Tent: This all-mesh tent is available in one- and two-person sizes and comes with a removable rain fly.
- Teton Sports Mountain Ultra Tent: This tent has an all-mesh dome, waterproof (removable) rain fly, and is available in four sizes—from 1 person to 4 people.
- Teton Sports Quick Tent: Teton Sports also has a pop-up tent that can be set up in less than one minute and has a mesh roof for skywatching. It’s available in two sizes.
If you’re not ready to give up the comfy bed in your RV or buy a new tent, watch the stars before you go to bed instead. But to make your first camping under the stars trip a more comfortable experience, try one of the following:
- Reclining Camp Chair: This lightweight camp chair reclines up to 130° and comes with a detachable footrest for extra comfort. It’ll hold up to 300 pounds and is available in three colors.
- Air Mattress: This basic air mattress from Coleman can be used indoors or out. Pull outside when you want to watch the stars, then pull it back in the tent when it’s time for bed.
- Waterproof Picnic Blanket: A picnic blanket is the most portable option for making the ground just a bit more comfortable. This extra-large waterproof version will also help you stay dry.
4. Add to the fun with some sky-watching gear.
- An astronomy app. We recommend NASA’s app or SkySafari.
- A telescope. This travel telescope from Gskyer comes with a smartphone adapter so you can take photos of what you see in the sky. It’s an ideal telescope for beginner astronomers or kids.
- A night-vision flashlight. After it gets dark, it can take up to 30 minutes to develop your night vision. If you turn on a traditional flashlight or headlamp, your eyes will have to readjust afterward. To protect your ability to see the sky, use a headlamp that has a red light setting or use a night-vision flashlight. The red light will enable you to see where you’re going while not disrupting your night vision.
5. Learn a little basic astronomy.
It can be helpful to learn some basic astronomy or a few constellations before you go. Use one of the apps we recommend above or go the retro route with an easy-to-use paper star map.