Plan the Ultimate Astrophotography Camping Trip

If you’re looking to plan a camping trip for some astrophotography and stargazing, you’ve come to the right place.  While many state and national parks boast some of the darkest skies in the country, there are many factors to consider when planning a trip.

Before we head out on our adventures these are the top 5 things we consider when selecting the perfect campsite for astrophotography and stargazing under dark skies:

1. Bortle Level on a Light Pollution Map
2. Moon Phase When Visiting
3. Celestial Events Occurring
4. Visibility Around the Campsite 
5. Selecting the Best Angles

In this article, you’ll discover how to find a dark sky campground to plan your next trip. They are the same techniques we use to plan our astrophotography and stargazing camping adventures, and we want you to use them so you can enjoy shooting the night sky as much as we do!

How to find a dark sky campground like Curt Gowdy State Park in Wyoming
Hanging out at Curt Gowdy State Park Wyoming | © Alison Takacs

Reading a Light Pollution Map

One of the easiest ways to find a place with minimal light pollution is by looking at a color coded light pollution map.  There are websites such as Light Pollution Map, one by the University of Colorado Boulder called The New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness, and one called Dark Site Finder, but our favorite is our own stargazing campground map. Here you can search a location and it will show you how much light pollution there is in each area.  Each level is color-coded to give you an idea how much city lights will impact your shots or your ability to see features with your naked eye.  

High light pollution is shown by the colors white/light gray on down to magenta, red, orange, and yellow as you move farther away from the city center.  If you are aiming to shoot or visualize the Milky Way core, we don’t recommend stargazing in these areas for optimal detail.

stargazing campground map centered on Texas
Our stargazing campground map | ©

As you head further out from the city boundaries, the light pollution level falls into the green.  This is where we begin to see some detail in the Milky Way. Although not the best, it’s the highest pollution level we like to shoot in.

If you’re looking for the best possible conditions, dark gray and black is ideal. It is in these areas that parks will boast their dark skies or become recognized for them.

Milky Way viewing with the naked eye is incredible and even more so with a camera. As you can see from the map, the west is far more valuable when it comes to these types of skies.

Shooting the Andromeda Galaxy at Ryan Park Campground, Wyoming

Just remember to go with the low Bortle numbers of 1 through 4 if you plan to really see the Milky Way. Those places listed are all dark enough and have minimal light pollution to see it and much, much more.

Keep up with the Moon Phases

Now that you’ve found a dark sky park or campground to visit, don’t ruin it by visiting when the moon will be bright in the sky. 

Astrophotography with moon over a field of bluebonnets
Shooting the moon over a field of bluebonnets | © Alison Takacs

A bright moon will wash out the star visibility, just as the city lights do.  We often plan our trips around the moon phase or when we know the moon will be setting early enough to darken the skies overnight.  We plan around these phases using apps such as Moon Phase Calendar Plus for iOS or My Moon Phase – Lunar Calendar for Android. 

You can plan your trip around small events like lunar eclipses, different planetary alignments, or even a particular meteor shower. Or, you can try to go out during a much more rare event like when a comet will pass by the Earth once and be gone forever. Including these types of space events can really amplify your enjoyment of astrophotography.

Visibility Around the Campsite

A dark sky campground under a moonless night is of not much value if the sky is obscured by too many trees.  The best campsite would be one that has open views of the sky and horizon.

After finding a location we wish to visit, we will check the campground and campsites on Google Maps. This allows us to see how much visibility a particular site might have.  If much of the campsite is surrounded by trees, we will pass and select the one that has little to no tree cover.  This often works in our favor as many campers like shade and will select the spots with tree cover, leaving the exposed sites for people like us.

Astrophotography through many trees
The Milky Way is always amazing to see | © Alison Takacs

Selecting the Best Angles

When it comes time to do some astrophotography, we like to ensure we get the best compositions we can. 

Astrophotography of Polaris star trails and bluebonnets on a lake
Polaris star trails over some Texas bluebonnets | © Alison Takacs

This means that our camper, which is often our focal point when shooting, is oriented in a way that allows us to capture what we want to in the sky.  This means if we are aiming to shoot the Milky Way core, we want to select a campsite that has visibility in the southeastern direction where the Milky Way core can generally be found.  If we want to shoot star trails and are aiming for Polaris, we want to make sure that direction is clear as well. 

Not only clear in terms of trees and structures, but also of other campers, who may produce some personal light pollution that may affect our exposures. We find it best to select the perimeter sites, where our view is unobstructed from people and other structures. Again, a satellite view of the campground using Google Maps is a great tool in aiding your campsite selection.

Now that you are ready for your ultimate dark sky camping trip, all you need is some good weather. You should know, even if you’re stargazing with some cloud cover, the movement in the sky can make for some interesting time lapse videos. So, don’t give up even if the sky isn’t perfectly clear.

Have fun and happy shooting!

If you are just getting started in the hobby, try reading this article on why we think astrophotography is worth it.

If you use your phone for astrophotography and want to experiment with light drawing with it you should try this article.

If clouds are getting you down, and you are debating going outside to shoot the stars, read this article on why you should still shoot with clouds out.

Takacs Family in front of Jayco RV
The Takacs Family

Jason and Alison Takacs are avid outdoor enthusiasts always ready to explore the most beautiful places with their two adventurous boys. They love traveling with their Jayco Jay Flight in tow on their way to hike the top trails in their home state of Texas and other distant lands. For years, they have focused on capturing both amazing landscape photos and also astrophotography from the places they have visited and shared them on Instagram and YouTube. Now, they are ready to share their experiences on this blog to help others enjoy what they have learned about nature, the night sky, RVing, travel, and everything in-between!