Over the past six months, the travel industry has been dramatically altered. Many of us are uncertain what travel – if any – is safe to do right now… or when we can go back to traveling “normally.”
Some forms of travel have begun to return, especially outdoor adventures and road trips. Often overlooked, astronomy travel is another great way to get away while still practicing safe travel and avoiding crowded destinations. In fact, if you’re doing it right, a stargazing trip will help you escape just about all other people, making it the perfect kind of travel to plan in our socially distanced world.
Defining autumn between the astronomical markers of the autumnal equinox (September 20th) and the winter solstice (December 21st), here are tips on planning a safe trip to enjoy the night sky this season.
Plan Your Trip Around the Moon
If only I meant literally around the moon – unfortunately, I just mean that you should plan your trip based on the moon phase.
Some people love to admire the moon itself, in which case you should plan your trip near the bright full moon (October 1st, October 31st (the only blue moon in 2020), November 30th, and December 29th).
If instead you want to enjoy the stars and the early evening Milky Way, plan your trip in the week surrounding the new moon (September 17th, October 16th, November 14th, and December 14th).
It’s also worth noting that one of the year’s best meteor showers, the Geminids in December, happen to peak the same night as December new moon. This is a perfect opportunity for a late-autumn astronomy getaway. Other good astronomy events in the autumn include:
- The Orionids meteor shower will peak on October 21st, near the October new moon.
- The Leonids meteor shower will peak on Novembel 17th, another instance of good timing near the November new moon.
- Jupiter and Saturn are approaching a great conjunction where they appear at their closest in the sky for 20 years; this will happen on the winter solstice of December 21st
Choose a Socially-Distant Destination
The best part about astronomy-focused travel is the fact that one of your primary goals is to get as far away from others as possible. After all, light pollution is a human invention, and our urban areas are the most dramatically impacted.
That said, there’s more to planning a safe stargazing trip right now than just getting away from the city. Most national parks are now re-opened to visitors, though it’s important to check to see what amenities are open at any given park you want to visit.
Another option is to look at state parks or other federal land for your astronomy getaway. These areas are often even less crowded than the national parks are right now – despite the significant decrease in park attendance across the U.S. while most people stay home.
Unfortunately, most state and national parks that typically offer astronomy programming to help the public learn more about the night sky have canceled those offerings this year. They may still have brochures and other resources to help you understand what you’re seeing overhead during your visit though.
Book Accommodation Away from Light Pollution
Hotels and vacation rentals are certainly working hard to re-gain customers, and many have stepped up cleaning and hygiene practices to help reassure guests that they’ll be safe during a trip. However, these kinds of accommodation are often plagued by light pollution too, making them less-than-ideal if your goal is to get out and enjoy the night sky.
Instead look into camping at your chosen destination; most national and state park websites have detailed information about camping availability. Many also offer reservations to ensure that it’s possible to socially distance between parties.
If you’d prefer something in the middle, consider glamping. Not just for the Instagram influencer, companies like Under Canvas have built luxurious tent encampments near some of the country’s top national parks but emphasize smaller footprints and limited light pollution. Their “Stargazer” tents are also perfect if you want to lay in bed and see the stars overhead as you drift off after a day of adventure.
Pack Extra Layers to Combat Autumn Chill
Autumn is marked with increasingly cooler temperatures before winter begins in late December. This means that even more dramatically than in the summer months, you’ll need to plan ahead and pack extra to ensure comfort while stargazing during this season.
Don’t overlook an extra blanket or two to insulate from ground chill. A hat and gloves are also worth the space so that you can stay out longer and see the wonders of the universe whirling overhead.
With these tips, you’re better equipped to plan a trip that allows you to enjoy the night sky before the bitter chill of winter makes it less pleasant – and also stay safe given current travel restrictions and safety precautions. However, the night sky will still be there once the COVID-19 pandemic is better managed; you can always stay home and plan a spring stargazing trip instead.