If you’re planning a family stargazing trip to a dark sky area or just to your backyard, use these tips to make it a success. Plus, our favorite stargazing apps for finding constellations.
Sometimes this means we go to Disney… sometimes we go camping or plan a visit to our local Parade of Homes… and sometimes we just plan a fun day trip or outing to break up the construction monotomy — like stargazing!
Planning a Family Stargazing Trip
WHEN to Go Stargazing as a Family
When is the best time of year to go stargazing?
You can plan a family stargazing trip any time of the year, but summer break is a popular time since there’s no need to be up early for school the next day. You’ll also typically find more clear night skies during the summers, but of course that depends on your climate and forecast!
As the nights get longer in fall and winter is also a great time for family stargazing, since there are more hours of dark. Winter stargazing takes different planning to stay warm but can be totally worth the view!
What day of the month is best for stargazing?
It’s always better to watch the stars during a new moon phase (during or just before and after the new moon) so the moonlight doesn’t interfere with viewing. Check space.com for a complete moon phase calendar when planning.
To keep the littlest astrologers’ attention, it’s helpful to schedule your family stargazing trip during a a meteor shower or other astrological event.
Why? It’s a lot easier to pick out a planetary or star conjunction (when two planets/stars appear very close to one another in the sky) than an isolated star or constellation, and the rarity of the event helps add to the special memory of the night.
We like to use StarDate.org to see what’s in the sky this month and when there will be a meteor shower next, and EarthSky.org has an updated visible planets and night sky guide each month.
What time of night is best for family stargazing?
You can stargaze anytime the sky is dark! Hardcore astronomers often begin late at night and continue into the early morning, when the sky is the darkest.
For family stargazing, think about your child’s natural sleep and wake times and which is easier to adjust.
Do you want to keep your child up later on a night they can sleep in the next day? That’s great for kids who are natural night owls.
Is better to put them to bed at a normal time and wake them early in the morning? For a natural early bird child, this might be better stargazing option. Especially if you can work in a nap or rest time that day to make up for lost sleep!
WHERE to Go Stargazing as a Famly
When you’re surveying the night sky, you want to get away from city light pollution as much as possible. It’s also helpful to travel to a higher altitude.
For our family stargazing experiences, that means we head to the mountains! You can find a good stargazing location near you by joining a local astronomy club or using the Dark Sky Map app.
Can I stargaze in my backyard?
Yes! Just follow these tips from Jamie Carter via Forbes Magazine to walk you through finding the basic, brightest constellations and star clusters for yourself and your children to have a successful family stargazing experience.
He also suggests that backyard stargazers:
- Start about 2 hours after sunset and stay out for about 30 minutes.
- Use a red flashlight when needed, or set your stargazing app to night mode.
- Set your child’s expectations appropriately: you’ll still be able to see stars, but your backyard viewing won’t look like Hubble telescope views or astrophotography.
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What You Need for Family Stargazing
After you’ve decided the when and where of your family stargazing experience , you’ll want to have a few supplies to help things run smoothly and keep everyone comfortable and happy.
1: Star Charts and/or Stargazing App
For kids and beginning adults, a simple star chart book is a great place to start!
These books tend to highlight the most visible bright stars, while also containing information about the milky way galaxy and other relevant scientific concepts. A great introduction to the science and a starter for family stargazing.
If you want extra help and information, try one of these apps for phones or tablets. Be sure to use the night mode!
- Star Chart (free for iOS and Android, paid upgrades available)
- Sky Safari ($3 iOS / free for Android)
- Star Tracker (free for iOS and Android, paid upgrades available)
- Sky View ($3 iOS / $2 Android)
2: Telescope or Binoculars
While you can often see many constellations and even planets (like Mars) with the unaided eye, adding a telescope or binoculars to your family stargazing experience makes it even better.
While you can get telescopes for kids for under $50, you’ll get better results with a beginner telescope in the $100-$200 range like these.
You might also find it more comfortable to explore using astronomy binoculars, which start at around $100.
READY TO REALLY DIG IN TO THE SCIENCE?
For little learners (and their adults/parents):
3: Red Flashlight
When stargazing, especially with kids, put away the lanterns and devices to maintain your night vision! (One exception might be your stargazing app set to night mode.)
It will take your eyes 15-30 minutes to adjust to the dark night sky (called “dark adaptation”) and every new light source resets your eyes’ dark adaptation time. Red light has the least impact on your eyes dark sky adaptation.
You can purchase a red flashlight for around $10, or make your own by wrapping an existing flashlight or headlamp with several layers of red cellophane, adding a red acrylic lens, or hacking a red soda bottle cap (read more here).
Wanna decorate your budding astronomer’s room? (Or your own, no judgment.) Use these free printable vintage astronomy maps and art.
4: Star-Friendly Seating
You don’t want anyone to get a sore neck from gazing up and the night sky, so there are a few options to make your family stargazing experience comfrotable.
BLANKET: Throwing a blanket down on a grassy area will let you recline in comfort and is the simplest star party seating. Add a pillow and/or camp sleeping pad for extra padding.
FOLDING COT OR CHAISE: A folding/reclining camp cot or chaise gives you the same positioning as a blanket without the worries about rocky ground (and more comfort for getting up).
RECLINING CHAIR: If you’re in a rocky area where you can’t lay on the ground as well, a reclining camp chair or zero gravity chair will help support your head while giving you a good star viewing position, especially if you’re using a telescope or binoculars.
5: Outdoor-Friendly Snacks
With any family activity, snacks are a deal breaker for us. The right snacks make the activity even more fun and keep everyone’s bellies full so there are no hangry sibling fights!
Grab some juice boxes or water bottles, and toss in a few of our favorite snacks:
- fresh fruits and veggies – pack in individual cups or containers for easy campsite snacking.
- popcorn – air popped popcorn makes stargazing feel like nature’s best movie, or add some excitement with a new flavor popcorn recipe or popcorn balls.
- trail mix – always a family favorite, and in the dark the kids might even eat the raisins 😉 (or, use trail mix to make these yummy no bake trail mix cookies!)
- hot chocolate or another warm drink – it does get chilly, and a warm drink does the trick! Mix up a batch of hot cocoa or one of these hot drink recipes and use a large thermos dispenser or individual insulated mugs to serve.
How to Join a Star Party
If you’re not sure of a good stargazing location near you, or if you don’t have the equipment to see what you want to see — join a star party!
There are local astrological associations all over the world, so chances are good there is one near you, and many host public stargazing parties throughout the summer or other seasons.
- Find a local astronomy club using the Sky and Telescope directory.
- Join a large established annual event like these listed at Go Astronomy.
You can also go stargazing anytime of year, no matter the weather, at your local planetarium or observatory. (Find yours here.) They’ll also likely have connections to clubs and other information.