Have you ever seen a truly dark sky before? I’m talking about one where you’ve stepped outside and your mind was blown by the sheer number of stars in the sky.
If you haven’t, don’t worry, you are in the majority. One well-known study shows that over 80% of Americans can’t see the Milky Way. To me, that is a pretty shocking number, because people are missing out on so much beauty!
As a family that travels frequently in our RV to see the night sky, we regularly escape our suburban, light-polluted neighborhood to sit around and enjoy the stars. It’s important for us to get away from excessive light and find dark skies. Seeing the stars just makes us happy!
In this article, we will help you better understand what light pollution is, why it’s a problem, and what can be done about it…basically everything you need to know about light pollution as a camper. We also hope to inspire you to not just get away from light pollution to enjoy the stars but to also educate others and possibly even take action in your own community.
Use our stargazing campground map to find the darkest skies near you.
What do Astronomers Mean by Light Pollution?
When astronomers and stargazers talk about light pollution, we usually mean artificial light that is excessive or misdirected. In simpler terms, it’s too much light or light shooting off in all directions instead of one controlled direction. It can come from different types of light sources such as neighborhood streetlights, stadium lights, homes with unshielded floodlights, stores and businesses with strong lighting, and many other types of lights.
You’ve seen them before. These light sources aren’t correctly aimed or are way too excessive and basically escape into the night sky which can impact both people and animals. If you don’t need the light on, simply turn it off or minimize it as much as possible.
With all this overdone artificial lighting or light pollution, we lose our connection to our universe without the aid of telescopes. It also means we might then need to travel somewhere far away from home without too many lights.
Now, let’s talk about the actual beauty of the night sky without any light pollution to ruin it. It’s always inspiring for our family when we visit places with almost no light pollution.
What Does the Night Sky Look Like Without Light Pollution?
Without light pollution, the night sky looks absolutely amazing! You are able to see so many details in the Milky Way that are just not possible under light polluted skies. It has a well-formed structure with both light and dark areas and spans beautifully across the sky like a river of light (depending on the season). You are also almost overwhelmed with the sheer number of stars in the sky and don’t just see a few dozen like you might see in a very light polluted city.
You can also easily see different Messier objects with your naked-eye like Andromeda, the Orion Nebula, and the Seven Sisters which can help drive your curiosity as to why in the world you live in a light polluted city…at least that’s what we keep thinking.
Yep, we need to move one day or become full-time RVers.
How Far Away Can You See Light Pollution?
Depending on the size of the city and how much light light pollution it has will determine how far away from it you need to go in order to escape it. This distance can be as little as a few miles, but it might also be more than one hundred miles.
I’ll use Las Vegas as an example to help you understand how far you might need to travel. I’m not picking on Vegas. It just has a relatively round light pollution ring and a very bright urban center, which makes it a great example.
If we started from the city center and traveled away from the heavily light polluted downtown area, we would be moving away from Bortle 9 skies where high quality stargazing is next to impossible. As you travel northeast up the I-15, you will slowly begin to see more and more stars. Once you arrive at the junction with US-93, which is about 20 miles away, you will be under roughly Bortle 5 skies. You will see more stars than downtown, but you are still in a pretty light polluted area.
Continuing north on US-93 until you get to NV-168, you’ll be roughly under Bortle 3 skies if you decide to stop. You are now 50 miles away from the city center, and in a much clearer spot than the vast majority of Americans regularly enjoy. You aren’t clear of light pollution yet, so keep going.
It’s actually not until you drive just past Nesbitt Lake over 115 miles from downtown that you’ll be in Bortle 1 skies! It’s crazy how far light pollution can impact the surrounding landscape.
This was an example for a large, heavily light polluted area, but the same can be done with a smaller city.
Let’s use Boise, Idaho as another example. Feel free to look at our map to orient yourself. If you travel southwest away from the city center, you will need to go about 95 miles to Antelope Reservoir to get to Bortle 1 skies. That’s still quite a distance to eliminate almost all light pollution.
Each time you shrink the size of the town you are looking at, the distance needed to reach light pollution free skies also shrinks. Some towns only have a radius of a few miles of light pollution around them. Some have much more. It just varies depending on how many regulations each city has in place to help prevent this growing issue and obviously how big the city is.
Is Light Pollution Permanent?
One positive about light pollution is that it isn’t permanent. We can actually do something about it since lights have the ability to be turned off or minimized. It will just take everyone being committed to taking care of this environmental issue to make things better.
So, let’s look at some ways you can help with light pollution.
How Can You Help with Light Pollution When Camping?
One of the easiest ways to reduce light pollution is simply to minimize the amount of lights you use at night. This means both at home and on the road if you are RVing. We know many people feel it is their right to pollute the night sky after everyone has gone to bed, but honestly it’s not good for both other people and the environment. We actually wrote an article on Thor Industries’ blog about arriving late at night and light courtesy, so check it out after this one.
By using motion sensors, you’ll be able to better control the light you use on the outside of your RV when on the road. It’s also a better way to deter burglars if that’s a concern of yours.
You also might want to think about what kind of shielding you have on your lights. Some lights you can purchase just shoot light out in all directions. When it isn’t as focused, it simply adds more light pollution to the surrounding areas. So do a little research before buying lights.
Dimmers and timers are also great items to install on your RV or home if you don’t already have them. After a certain time of night (which is most commonly 10 PM), you can either have your lights turn off completely on a timer or use a dimmer to at least lessen the unnecessary amount of light you are giving off during the late hours.
You know that red light night mode that usually kicks in at 10 PM on your phone? It’s basically designed to minimize blue light coming off your phone display so you can sleep better at night when you are done surfing.
The same goes for lights in and outside your house or RV. It’s a good idea to swap out cooler blueish color lights for warmer cooler lights closer to yellow and red. Use warm colored bulbs instead of white lights that emit high energy blue wavelengths which are more harmful to our bodies than other colors do.
Warm colored lights also keep more bugs away as a side benefit. That’s another great reason to turn your lights off at night when you are outside hanging out and looking at the stars.
What is Blue Light Pollution?
Blue light pollution is any excessive light given off by LEDs in the form of blue light. Most older sources of lights used to be more in the “warmer” part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but that began to change in the 1990s with the invention of blue LEDs. Like many great inventions with good intentions, there usually tends to be an unexpected side effect. We are now seeing this with blue LEDs which is increasing blue light pollution and impacting us all.
Blue LEDs were originally considered a fantastic invention as they were very energy efficient at using electricity and therefore helped move us towards being a more “green” society. These lights were also cheaper to manufacture, which was another win. This LED breakthrough actually led to the scientists earning a Nobel Prize for Physics, and it was a scientific discovery widely viewed as a positive for our world. Unfortunately, we have learned a lot more about light from blue LEDs since the 1990s. It also has lots of drawbacks including blue light pollution.
How is Blue Light Pollution Harmful?
These are a few ways blue light pollution is harmful to our world. If you are exposed to too much blue light, it can alter your circadian rhythm and sleep by messing with your melatonin production. Then you could have more difficulty getting the rest you might need. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side
It can also increase glare and cause more difficulty while driving at night.
Studies have also shown blue lights impact animals, and it can cause them to alter their behavior and even reproduction cycles. Read our article on the impact of light pollution on animals once we have posted it.
Anytime you can turn off lights at night, it will be a big help to reduce any potential blue light since many newer LED lights now give off blue light.
What are the Different Types of Light Pollution that Impact Stargazers?
There are four main types of light pollution: light trespass, glare, skyglow, and clutter. All four of them are an issue, but as camping stargazers, light trespass and sky glow are the two we feel impact us the greatest when we are out in nature enjoying the night sky.
Let’s look at them.
What is Light Trespass?
Light trespass is when excessive light comes from a light source and projects onto another property or space where it isn’t wanted. This light is “trespassing” onto a man-made structure like a building or a natural landform.
You can actually control light trespass when setting up your exterior lighting at home or around a campsite. Just make sure the light isn’t shining on other people’s property or where they are camping. It’s just simple common courtesy.
We know it’s strange to think of light as “trespassing” onto another person’s campsite, but think about how they might be impacted. Here’s a camping example we see regularly. If your lights from your RV or campsite decorations are left on all night, and they shine into someone’s tent or pop-up camper, they can bother your neighbors. They can’t enjoy the night sky let alone go to sleep if the lights are blinding them. It’s just polite to respect their campsite boundaries (just like they will hopefully respect yours by not walking through your site).
Check out our campground etiquette course we made for Roadpass University for more information on this topic. (https://university.roadpass.com/courses/campground-etiquette)
What is Sky Glow?
Sky glow is really the biggest issue for stargazers when it comes to light pollution. In simplest terms, it is caused when artificial lighting goes upward into the atmosphere and is reflected back downward causing a glow that can be seen for miles. It commonly comes from city lights, but it can even be caused by gas flares such as what is seen in the Permian Basin in our home state of Texas. The light from both artificial lighting and sources like gas flares can scatter in the atmosphere because of gas, dust, and particles in the sky.
What we end up dealing with is light from many populated areas that spread into unpopulated areas. Sky glow is a major problem for anyone looking to escape the city and enjoy the beauty of the stars because it can impact stargazers over 100 miles away from the main source in some cases.
What is Glare and Clutter?
Glare is basically that annoying bright light you see that can cause you discomfort such as when headlights shine in your face or when you look up at bright street lights against the darker sky. I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with glare. It can temporarily ruin your night vision when you get blasted by a bright, glaring light source.
Clutter is when too many brightly-lit signs, streetlights, and other man-made objects are all grouped together in an area causing excessive light. Think of a busy urban street with lots of signs and lights everywhere.
Both clutter and glare are annoying, but they are not our biggest concern for us when we are camping. Sky glow and light trespass are basically our main enemies as camping stargazers even though all four forms of light pollution need to be combated to help our planet.
As RVers that enjoy stargazing, light pollution impacts us because we see the night sky slowly disappearing more and more each year. We need to search harder and harder to find dark sky places to enjoy since cities keep growing, and the amount of light pollution is growing with them. You can see this by simply looking at a light pollution map from a decade ago and comparing it to a more recent one. This is an expanding problem that will require an all hands on deck approach to fix since it’s not just an issue for stargazers but us all as a community.
If you are looking for more information on the topic of light pollution, please check out the International Dark-Sky Association. They are an organization dedicated to preserving our night skies.
You might also want to check out this brilliant article on science.org (https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.1600377) on the topic. Scientist Pierantonio Cinzano is a leader on the topic, and he has some great papers on his website on light pollution.(http://www.lightpollution.it/cinzano/papers.html)
About the Authors
We are avid stargazers Jason and Alison Takacs also known as “Roadtrippin’ with Takacs”. With our two boys Preston and Grayson, we seek out some of the darkest skies in the country while also going on many incredible hiking and other outdoor adventures. As part-time RVers, we try to see as much of this amazing world as possible in our spare time and hope you will join us through this blog and other forms of social media as we explore the night sky and other natural wonders as hardcore astrotourists.