Backyard Stargazing for Beginners

You got the Save Starry Skies plate because you value our amazing dark skies. (Or, if you didn’t get it yet, what are you waiting for?) But when was the last time you went stargazing? If it’s been a while, or you're brand new, use these tips to help you get started!

First of all, choose a location. The less light, the better you’ll be able to see, but you can still find some stars in town. If you’re feeling more ambitious, Nevada has plenty of dark skies within a short drive of the city. Try to find an area with no trees or buildings to block the view. In Nevada’s deserts, this should be a piece of cake!

Before you set off, gather your materials. has a free monthly star chart with astronomical events to look out for and objects you can see with the naked eye, binoculars, and telescopes. Print a copy of the map to bring with you, or you can try using an app. You’ll also want to bring a red headlamp or flashlight. A regular white light will impair your night vision and make stargazing harder. If you don’t have a red light, you can put red cellophane over a regular flashlight, paint the lens with red nail polish, or see if you can get a red light on your phone. If you have binoculars and a compass, bring those along, too. A folding chair will help you stay comfortable. And finally, remember to dress warmly! Temperatures drop quickly once the sun sets, even in the summer, so be prepared with a warm jacket, hat, and gloves.

Three people stargaze outside at night.

Photo by Kurt Kuznicki

Now you’re ready to stargaze! Use your compass or your phone’s GPS to find north. Take your star chart and hold it in front of you so that the words ‘North’ or ‘Facing North’ are right side up. The stars just above the edge of the chart should be on the horizon in front of you. The stars in the middle of the chart will be directly overhead (the zenith). Notice that East and West are the opposite of what you find on a map, because the star chart is meant to be read while looking up at the skies instead of down at the ground. Try exploring from all directions; face east and hold the chart so that the words ‘East’ or ‘Facing East’ are right side up, and see if you can identify any stars on that horizon.

The size of the stars on the chart correspond to their brightness. As you begin, focus on finding the brighter stars in the sky, and see if you can locate the rest of the surrounding constellation. You can use your hands to measure distances. Imagine drawing a line from the northern horizon to the zenith (directly overhead) and all the way back down to the southern horizon. You’ve just drawn a semicircle, which has 180 degrees. Directly overhead, the zenith is at 90 degrees. For most people, if you hold your arm outstretched and your thumb and pinky as far apart as they’ll go (think a “y” shape), the distance between pinky and thumb is about 25 degrees. The length of the big dipper, from the end of the handle to the edge of the bowl, is also about 25 degrees. How does your measurement stack up?

Illustration showing the how hand gestures correspond to different degree measures.

You can also use your hands for smaller distances. With your arm fully outstretched, your pinky is roughly one degree, your index, middle and pointer fingers make roughly five degrees held together, and your pointer and pinky are roughly fifteen degrees held apart. With some practice, you can ‘walk’ your hand across the sky and measure rough distances. This can help you get from one star you’ve found in the sky to another you can’t quite locate. On your star chart, you’ll see a dotted line across the center. This is the ecliptic, along which the moon and planets travel. If you see a very bright ‘star’ along this line, it may be a planet.

Once you’ve gotten familiar with the sky overhead, and located some of the constellations from the chart, take a look through your binoculars if you brought them. Compare with the view from your naked eye. What else can you see? The chart has a great list of celestial objects visible with binoculars. Even using a pretty basic pair, you may be surprised! 

You can build your stargazing skills by going out over time and observing how the constellations shift (remember, you may need to print new star charts as time passes). Soon you’ll find there are stars you can easily recognize and use as guideposts to locate a variety of objects in the night sky. And if you find you’re totally hooked on our starry skies, you can connect with local astronomy groups in Northern or Southern Nevada, or even check out these resources to plan a road trip to our state’s prime stargazing sites.

Now that you’ve learned more about our starry skies, consider sharing this unique aspect of our state. Bring a buddy on your next stargazing trip, and while you’re at it, tell them how they, too, can protect this resource for all Nevadans with the Save Starry Skies license plate. Let’s keep our skies dark for future stargazers, too!