Stargazing Kit for Camping and RVing

One of the best things about camping is getting away from city lights and gazing into the night sky. I’ve made a list of things that’ll make it even more enjoyable in this stargazing kit for campers.

With more than 200 Dark Sky Places there are plenty of places to catch a glimpse of the majesty and wonder of the stars. Astrological adventures and stargazing trips are a great way to explore natural phenomena in the night sky whether you’re planning around a supermoon or a meteor shower. 

For millennia, humanity has gazed upon the heavens searching for the answer to the universe. Although the constant movement of stars was the easiest to record, other events like the movements of neighboring planets and eclipses were also predicted and charted. Astronomy has always focused on the observations of its heavenly bodies.

Astronomy is the study of the planets, moon, stars, sun, galaxies, gas, dust, comets, and any other non-Earthly phenomena and bodies. NASA defines it simply as “the study of the planets, stars and space.”

With so many stars in the sky and a universe so vast, stargazing helps put life (and all of our problems) into perspective! It’s one of the biggest perks of camping when you have an open sky filled with stars above you.

Of course, all you need to stargaze is a clear sky and a craned neck. But to really soak in the heavens and enjoy your time outside at night, it helps to be comfortable. It’s also nice to know what you’re looking at and to see things even better.

Along the Bush Highway, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the way, I have written:

You should check those out, too.

Alrighty, let’s just jump right into this. The sooner we get through the items, the sooner you can plan your stargazing adventure.

1. Yoga mat

Um, I want to look at stars, not do yoga. I hear ya! But a quality yoga mat is better than any picnic blanket you’ll find. With their thick padding, you can lay down anywhere and comfortably gaze up at the stars.

It’s light and easy to carry with its strap. And it’s not a problem if it gets wet. Just be sure to let it air dry before you store it. 

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Travel blanket and pillow

Look for a soft blanket made of microfiber fleece with waterproof backing. Some even come with a small inflatable pillow which means you can use the pillow and blanket at the same time.

Both the blanket and pillow zip up into a little bag. It’s lightweight, easy to carry, and, most importantly, very cozy!

Instead of sitting in a folding chair or camp chair where you have to crane your neck upward for hours to watch the stars, a more comfortable option is to spread out a warm, soft blanket. A good choice, the Lumberlander Camp Blanket from Duluth Trading Company will help you get comfortable on the ground. For a water-resistant option to keep the dampness of the ground from seeping in as the night goes on, REI’s Camp Blanket works perfectly.

3. Comfy, warm clothes

The travel blanket is really nice but you’ll also want to wear some warm, comfy clothes. There are obviously so many different options to choose from. But, obviously, any comfy, warm clothes will do.

I recommend a long-sleeve shirt or sweatshirt to keep the bugs off your arms. A hoodie is great too.

Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bug spray

Some of the best stargazing spots are the ones that offer unobstructed views of the night sky with little to no light pollution like Big Bend National Park in Texas, Cosmic Campground in New Mexico, and Death Valley National Park in California. This means going away from the city into wide open spaces that are the perfect hangout spot for bugs—and nothing ruins the idyllic outdoor experience quite like being plagued and bitten by bugs or mosquitoes.

So, before you head out, make sure to use a long-lasting bug repellent that is effective and safe to use. Coleman SkinSmart DEET-free insect repellent spray is non-greasy, works on bugs like mosquitoes and ticks, and lasts for up to eight hours.

Stinkin’ mosquitos can ruin stargazing faster than a shooting star. I have two recommendations for bug spray. The first is a DEET-free botanical formula called Buzz Away Extreme. It’s perfect for those who want to use a natural repellent against mosquitos and ticks.

For those who are more concerned about ultimate protection and less about chemicals, there is Off! Deep Woods Bug Spray. It has 25 percent DEET and repels mosquitos, ticks, biting flies, gnats, and chiggers.

5. Backyard guide to the night sky

Good ol’ National Geographic created this excellent guide that lives up to its name. It provides essential information that’s easily understood and organized logically. 

It starts with the easiest constellations and then explains how to star-hop across the night sky to find others nearby. You’ll learn about black holes, solar flares, supernovas, and more.

It’s really a great guide for the whole family. A must-have in your stargazing for campers kit!

Casa Grande, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Guide to the stars map

Purchasing a star map can be extremely helpful; you see what exactly it is you are looking at in the sky. 

This is a neat little gadget to play with. This map helps you find constellations visible to you based on the time and date and where you are.

It’s designed for beginners, so don’t worry if it sounds difficult to use. It’s not!

7. Using Star Charts and Wheels

Star wheels, also called planispheres, are circular maps of the stars designed to show what stars are viewable in the sky on any date and time. Ideal for people who are just starting out, planispheres use a star chart in the shape of a circle to provide a clear and easily maneuvered view of the brightest constellations, stars, and deep sky objects visible from a specific latitude.

Crystal River, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Red flashlight

In order to read your stars map, you’re going to need a flashlight. But you don’t want to use a standard bright flashlight. Your eyes will have to keep adjusting to the darkness if you do.

Instead, you want to use a red flashlight. You’ll be able to see what you need to see without affecting your night vision. The added perk is red lights don’t disturb animals so you may spot some nocturnal wildlife while stargazing. 

9. SkyView Lite App

For those of you who don’t want to mess with a stars map (even though it’s fun), there’s a great modern option. SkyView Lite is a cool augmented reality app that outlines the constellations and names the planets on your iPhone.

You simply point your device’s camera at the sky and it’ll tell you what you’re looking at. It’s really neat, and one of the few times you’ll ever hear me encouraging people to use their phones while camping.

If you have an Android, look into using Star Walk2. And if you REALLY want to explore all the available apps, Space.com has a full review post for you to explore.

10. Beginner astronomy binoculars

Telescopes are bulky and hard to use. So, they’re not ideal for camping unless you’re an avid astronomy hobbyist. Celestron 7X50 beginning astronomy binoculars are a much more practical option for most people.

While the magnification won’t really compare to a telescope, they do give you a closer look with nice details and a sharp image. They come at a great price (under $50) especially relative to their highly-rated value.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Fuel and hydration

Those of us who have pulled an all-nighter know the importance of caffeine and hydration for staying awake. This is even more important if you are spending a night outside stargazing. In fact, the Milky Way is most visible from 3 a.m. to sunrise in the summer months and from late evening to overnight hours during the fall. InstaFuel chai, coffee latte, and matcha powders from Laird Superfood—sipped from a travel coffee mug or insulated bottle like Yeti’s 46-ounce Rambler—are easy on-the-go options for a late night caffeine fix.

12. Backpack with cooler compartment

Now that you have everything your need for stargazing, you need something to keep it all in. Plus, some snacks, of course!

A large Matein backpack has plenty of room for your guidebook, binoculars, flashlight, map, bug spray, and possibly you can even fit your pillow and blanket pouch or at least clip it onto it. 

Best of all, it has an insulated compartment for a few snacks and drinks. Now you’ll have everything you need for stargazing while camping. It comes in a few different patterns, too.

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

Stargazing in Arizona’s Dark Skies: Best Night Sky Places

Why is Arizona such a wonderful place for stargazing? Clear skies and diverse geography set the stage and many communities provide sound stewardship for Dark Skies.

Why is Arizona such a wonderful place for stargazing? The simple answer: is good weather, mountainous geography, and sound stewardship. You can see Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and the Andromeda galaxy on a clear night. The sky is awash in stars, double stars, and star clusters.

Mountains also shield dark-sky oases from urban skyglow. In the case of Oracle State Park which is only 20 miles from Tucson, the Santa Catalina Mountains block out the city lights. Likewise, Fountain Hills, an exurb on the northern flank of metro Phoenix enjoys surprising nights thanks to the rocky veil provided by McDowell Mountains.

The International Dark Sky Places program was created in 2001 by DarkSky International to encourage the preservation of the nighttime environment, educate the public, and reduce light pollution.

Since Flagstaff was named the first International Dark Sky City in 2001, over 200 Dark Sky Places have been certified in 22 countries on six continents. These places including dark sky parks, sanctuaries, reserves, and urban night sky places aim to connect people with the importance of darkness and the conservation of ecologically sensitive areas.

Arizona has over 20 dark sky locations encompassing cities, communities, national parks, and urban night skies.

Here is everything you need to know about the Dark Sky Places and where you can find them in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park, a Dark Sky Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the International Dark Sky Program?

Receiving dark-sky certification involves a variety of measures that may include using outdoor lighting that minimizes light pollution, community outreach and education, and working to affect public policy. It demonstrates the location’s commitment to preserving the nocturnal environment.

International Dark Sky Places in Arizona

An International Dark Sky Place is a publicly or privately owned conservation area that protects its night skies through responsible lighting policies and public education.

Petrified Forest National Park, a Dark Sky Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These are Arizona’s Dark Sky Places:

International Dark Sky Sanctuaries

International Dark Sky Sanctuaries are the most remote and often darkest places. The designation underscores the significance of safeguarding nocturnal environments and protecting them from artificial light.

There are no International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in Arizona. New Mexico has the Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary, a 3.5-acre site in the Gila National Forest in western New Mexico.

The Campground is located in an exceptionally dark part of the Southwest with the nearest significant source of artificial light more than 40 miles away across the state line in Arizona. The Campground features a very basic infrastructure to support campers and offers a 360-degree, unobstructed, view of the night sky.

Chiricahua National Monument, a Dark Sky Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

International Dark Sky Reserves

International Dark Sky Reserves are dark zones surrounded by a populated periphery where strict policy controls safeguard the darkness of the core. These reserves conserve natural nightscapes and promote responsible outdoor lighting practices for the well-being of the ecosystem.

There are no International Dark Sky Reserves in Arizona. The Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve encompasses west Texas and northern Mexico.

Urban Night Sky Places in Arizona

An Urban Night Sky Place is one that fosters an authentic nighttime experience despite being in an area with significant artificial light.

Arizona has one Urban Night Sky Place and its Saguaro National Park in Tucson which received the designation in November 2023.

Check this out to learn more: Saguaro National Park is Arizona’s First Urban Night Sky Place and Why It Is a Big Deal

International Dark Sky Communities in Arizona

An International Dark Sky Community is a city or town recognized for its commitment to outdoor lighting ordinances and educating residents on the significance of dark skies. These communities implement measures to reduce light pollution and promote responsible outdoor lighting practices. This designation aims to balance the needs of urban life with the protection of the night sky.

Fountain Hills, a Dark Sky Community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are Arizona’s International Dark Sky Communities:

Thunder Mountain Pootsee Nightsky on the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation on the Arizona-Utah state line

Across Arizona, on rugged public lands and inside scenic city limits, the visitor experience doesn’t end at sunset. Because this state so synonymous with sunshine and blue sky is equally spectacular when the stars come out.

Sedona, a Dark Sky Community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

DIG DEEPER: Best things to see and do

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

Where to Stargaze

Planning a camping trip? Consider these starlit gems.

Imagine being able to see billions of stars in the Milky Way just with your naked eye from your backyard. It was once a common reality until artificial lights from our growing cities started encroaching upon the night sky. Today, to see the Milky Way—and most constellations other than, say, the Big Dipper—you have to trek far, far away from humanity. The darker the sky, the better the view!

The ultimate stargazing spots are fittingly called Dark Sky Places, designated pockets where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars can shine in all their glory. And the keeper of those Dark Sky Places is the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). 

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What began in 1988 as a grassroots movement among astronomers in Tucson is now international with 196 certified Dark Sky Places spanning 21 countries. Its mission is to protect natural landscapes, educate the public, and counteract the harmful effects of excessive light pollution linked to everything from insomnia to obesity to cancer.

“It messes with our circadian rhythms,” says Ryan Parker, secretary of the IDA’s Colorado chapter. “Our body naturally needs to sleep and rest and rebuild. And, when we don’t allow that to happen it interferes with our natural homeostasis.”

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the 24-hour cycle of light and dark is interrupted for wildlife the consequences can be dire. Nocturnal animals confuse night and day and become easy prey. Birds that migrate or hunt by moonlight get thrown off course by artificial light migrating too early or colliding into buildings. Baby sea turtles that hatch on the beach and find their way to the ocean by the light of the moon can be lured in the opposite direction by urban glow.

Related: Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

Beyond that, the impetus to preserve our dark skies should be pretty obvious: Just look up. An unpolluted sky is glorious, awe-inspiring even. And more and more communities are working to get officially certified by the IDA’s standards—a process that can take up to three years. 

Borrego Springs, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dark Sky Places fall under five designations: 

  • International Dark Sky Communities: Communities are legally organized cities and towns that adopt quality outdoor lighting ordinances and undertake efforts to educate residents about the importance of dark skies. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Communities include Borrego Springs (California), Sedona (Arizona), and Fredericksburg (Texas).
  • International Dark Sky Parks: Parks are public- or privately-owned spaces protected for natural conservation that implement good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Parks include Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (California), Arches National Park (Utah), Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park (Texas), El Moro National Monument (New Mexico), Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado), and Stephen C. Foster State Park (Georgia).
  • International Dark Sky Reserves: Reserves consist of a dark “core” zone surrounded by a populated periphery where policy controls are enacted to protect the darkness of the core. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Reserves include Central Idaho and Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve (Texas and Mexico).
  • International Dark Sky Sanctuaries: Sanctuaries are the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world whose conservation state is most fragile. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Sanctuaries include Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (Texas), Cosmic Campground (New Mexico), and Medicine Rocks State Park (Montana).
  • Urban Night Sky Places: Urban Night Sky Places are sites near or surrounded by large urban environs whose planning and design actively promote an authentic nighttime experience amid significant artificial light night and that otherwise do not qualify for designation within any other International Dark Sky Places category. Certified IDA Urban Night Sky Places include Fry Family Park (Ohio), Stacy Park (Missouri), and Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico).
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to certifying Dark Sky Places, the 50 IDA chapters also run star parties like June’s Rocky Mountain Star Share, an annual extravaganza in Colorado on 35 acres of land with speakers, camping, and massive telescopes. The Premier Star Party of the Rocky Mountains was held June 22–26, 2022.

Related: The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

There’s also International Dark Sky Week in April and both Utah and Colorado host Dark Sky Months with events and extra outreach to inspire visitors to make changes in their own homes and communities. Utah’s 23 accredited International Dark-Sky Association places include four of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks, 10 state parks, and two towns. Colorado currently claims 15 of the world’s 196 International Dark Sky Places.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The coolest Dark Sky Places in the US

Across the 94 Dark Sky Places in the United States, you’ll find friendly amateur astronomers and ample opportunities to gaze uninterrupted into the heavens. Consider picking up a red light headlamp—a hands-free way to illuminate your path but not obstruct the experience. Check the weather forecast, bring layers and plenty of water, tell someone where you’re going, and don’t forget to look down every once in a while. You can fall off a cliff if you’re not paying attention.

West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

The bend isn’t the only thing that’s big in one of America’s most underrated national parks—the number of stars you can see here is massive. Big Bend is an ultra-remote superstar. Located in far West Texas, you’ll find yourself with plenty of peace and quiet as you hike through desert canyons, marvel at the Chisos Mountains, or kayak down the Rio Grande. But don’t forget to save some energy for after dark: Big Bend’s extreme isolation makes it the least light-polluted of all the national parks in the lower 48 so that as the sun goes down the heavens explode with stars. Park yourself anywhere beneath its 1,112,000 acres of dark skies for a night and take it all in.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon may be the best national park in America! That’s debatable. But it is the most recognizable and extraordinary place to stargaze. A few years ago, the Grand Canyon Village began retrofitting its lighting to be more dark sky-friendly and in 2016 was rewarded with Provisional Dark Sky status. Between that effort and its accessibility, Grand Canyon’s allure for the astronomically inclined is not up for debate.

Related: Exploring a State Park or National Park this Summer! How to Choose?

There’s an annual Grand Canyon Star Party held each June and the Desert View Watchtower is a popular spot for capturing the Milky Way with astrophotography. On a full moon night, take a ranger-led hike along the rim, or on other nights a ranger-led constellation tour. Here’s how to plan your visit.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Like its state parks, Utah’s national monuments often hide in the shadows of its big five national parks. As such, only about 100,000 people visit Natural Bridges each year and most of those folks don’t stick around once the sun goes down. This is unfortunate—Natural Bridges became the first international Dark Sky Park back in 2007 owing to it having some of the absolute darkest skies in the country and countless astronomy events held through the summer. At night, the sky positively explodes with stars and celestial bodies and the canyon walls are pitch black in contrast to the celestial river that is the Milky Way rising over Owachomo Bridge. Let your gaze drift through the arch, upward and uninterrupted.

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene