A beginner's guide to stargazing

A beginner's guide to stargazing

Become a successful stargazer
Forest Holidays


The forest is the perfect place for some stargazin

Light pollution from towns and cities turns the night sky orange and obliterates all but the brightest of stars. Away from this sky glow, you’re reconnected to a stargazing culture that stretches back to the beginning of human civilisation. 

Although local councils are now turning off street lighting to minimise light pollution to help promote darker skies, you need a truly dark location away from the city glow to really experience the night sky – and our universe in all its glory.  

That’s why our beautiful forest locations offer just the place for a night spent gazing at the stars.


An unforgettable highlight of a Forest Holiday

Getting started, here’s your first five constellations to spot. 

So, here you are: standing – or sitting – in the forest on a clear, starlit night, eyes trained on the skies above. Stargazing is one of the simplest, but greatest, pleasures of life and one of the unforgettable highlights of a Forest Holiday. We’ll share how to make the most of this opportunity. The best time to head out is a cold, clear winter night – so wrap up warm and bring plenty of hot drinks with you. 


What stargazing equipment will I need? 

So, what kit do you need? Not much! Because of the darkness of our forest locations, you can see many of the wonders of the night skies with your naked eye, although they’ll will need a good 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Any bright lights (such as from your torch or smart phone) will set them back again. You can reduce this effect by putting a red filter on your torch. 

Binoculars are cheaper, easier equipment to get hold of than a telescope, helping you to see the skies from anywhere. Look for ones with glass lenses and if you can get anti-fogging ones, even better. What about those deep sky objects’ we hear about? That’s the stuff that's not our solar system or stars - it's nebulae, star clusters, and distant galaxies. 


A nebulae is an interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionized gases.

Try the Night Sky App to identify stars 

If you have a smartphone, The Night Sky app is fantastic. Turn on your GPS, point your phone at the sky and it’ll identify exactly what you’re seeing. Set it to night vision though – remember the 20 minute adjustment time if you get too much light. And if you’ve gone phone-free in the forest? A good old star chart has been doing the job perfectly well since long before apps! Just set the date and time to show you what’s in the night sky.  

What should I look out for? 

So, you’re all set and ready to go. What are we looking for out there? When you find your spot and your eyes have adjusted, the first thing to locate is Polaris, the Pole Star, which is always due north. Once you have this in your sights you can gradually work out other constellations, which are groups of stars that have been named based on the shapes they suggest. Most of the main ones, such as Orion, are from the Greek myths, giving us a connection back to the mythology that has long been associated with the stars. 

Starting with our own solar system, you should be able to identify Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Then look out for star clusters such as the Seven Sisters, and galaxies such as Andromeda and our very own Milky Way. If you’re very lucky you could see a shooting star or meteor. August and November are particularly good months for shooting stars! On a good night, all the above will be visible to the naked eye, although binoculars or a telescope (when you’re back home) will improve the view. 

Top five constellations

Getting started, here’s your first five constellations to spot. 

  1. Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) has been used by sailors since ancient times to locate the fixed-point Pole Star and navigate home.
  2. Leo (the lion); is it a lion, as the Greeks decided? Or is it K9 from Doctor Who?
  3. Cassiopeia (the queen of Aethiopia) is one of the easiest constellations to locate and looks like a huge W, almost directly overhead.
  4. Cepheus (the King of Aethiopia) is one of 48 constellations identified by 2nd-century astronomer Ptolemy. Imagine a child's drawing of a house, complete with roof.
  5. Orion (the hunter), with belt and sword, is perhaps the most famous constellation - and one of the few that actually bears some slight resemblance to its namesake. 

Why does the view change every night? 

Have you noticed how the night sky changes from night to night, season to season and even from dusk 'til dawn? Remember, on earth we’re constantly moving. The earth is rotating on its axis and its orbiting the sun, along with (but at a different speeds) the other planets in our solar system; meanwhile, the stars are fixed. During the night, as we rotate, we gradually change our angle of vision. Over the course of a year, as we orbit the sun, we edge around roughly one degree per day. That's why a star chart is useful. It can show us what to look for and when. 

 Could you spot the Aurora Borealis? 

Nothing beats the feeling of wonder, the sense of your own connection with nature and the universe or the excitement of an unexpected sighting. The ‘big one’ – although they’re all ‘big ones’ the first time you spot them! – is the chance to witness the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights.  

2013 was a year referred to as Solar Maximum’, when the activity on the sun's surface peaked during its 11-year cycle. This meant a greater chance of eruptions, known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), which eject billions of pounds of plasma from the sun's surface. If the earth is in the firing line, this electrically charged plasma interacts with the earth's magnetosphere and causes spectacular light shows around the poles. Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be located in Scandinavia to witness these light shows; Scotland and even some parts of England have witnessed sensational sightings, with many amazing photos captured just this year, as far south as Cornwall!

What are you waiting for? 

The skies are ready for you in all their glory. Picture yourself, binoculars in hand, viewing the night sky from a woodland clearing or the edge of the forest, the complete darkness punctuated by twinkles of light that you can now confidently identify. Good luck, stargazer!

Did you know?

  • You can see the International Space Station without using binoculars, and you can track it moving across the sky. 

  • The sun is 300,000 times bigger than earth and 93 million miles away. If you could catch a plane to the sun, the journey would take 20 years. 

  • We're more connected than you might think. The gravity of the sun and moon bring about the tides in our seas. 

  • Footprints and tyre marks on the moon from the Apollo 11 mission will stay there forever - there is no wind to blow them away. 

  • How much do you weigh? If you weigh 50kg here on earth you would only weigh 19kg on Mars, because of lower gravity. 

Five best myths/legends

Stories of the skies in Greek Mythology...

  • Ursa Major was Callisto, Zeus' lover. She was turned into a bear by his jealous wife and cast into the skies by Zeus. Zeus had many lovers and…
  • Cepheus, the king of Aethiopia, was descended from the nymph Io, a favourite of Zeus, making him worthy of a place among the stars. Cepheus was married to…
  • Cassiopeia, who was punished by Athena for her vanity and condemned to circle the celestial pole forever. She also had to sacrifice her daughter…
  • Andromeda, who was chained to a rock and left to the monster Cetus, before being rescued by…
  • Perseus, the warrior who killed Medusa. He fell in love with Andromeda and they are beside each other in the night sky for eternity.