AS WE MOVE THROUGH THE SEASON, HERE'S HOW IT MOVES US...
From frozen forests to star-filled skies, a world of treasure is waiting when you head out into the night.
So, this winter, will you get up in the dark, go to school and work and finish in the dark, head straight home at about 5pm, and just sit out the long nights until spring?
Or...will you lean into the darkness, get nocturnal and savor the wonders that dark winter nights have to offer?
Nightscapes are entirely different places to explore. Walking outdoors after dark can feel new and different. A little wilder, more primal. The sun sets as the earth tilts and a whole different shift of insects and animals come out to work and play. And above, a deep, velvety darkness – a rolling night sky pulsating with stars, planets and distant galaxies – to navigate and enjoy.
Night skies are not all equal. Light pollution can make true darkness unattainable. If you are an urban or suburban dweller, heading to rural areas will give you the best shot at seeing stars, planets and meteor showers. You might catch a meteor or two from the suburbs, but to experience the true spectacle of multiple meteors a minute, you need to avoid city lights. There are dark-sky sanctuaries, dark-sky parks and dark-sky reserves, designated as such because of the exceptional quality of their starry nights; these nocturnal environments are scientifically and educationally valuable.
Expert stargazer Dan Pye is the Director of Astronomy and Science Communication at Kielder Observatory, which is at the heart of the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park in northern England. ‘When we look up at the sky, we’re gazing into the world's greatest time machine,’ he marvels. ‘We are at the mercy of the speed of light; we could be focusing on something that left our universe over 300 years ago, which translates to a distance of 300 light years away. And what’s more profound is the fact that when we see that light, it is a physical entity, a little photon that left a place trillions of miles away, travelled through the vacuum of space and then struck the human eye. So, it’s a physical connection with something that's trillions of miles away, with light that has travelled through the universe from 300 years in the past. That still blows my mind.’
If you are night walking in areas of the world like Norway, Sweden, Finland or Canada, then you might see the most grandiose sky show of all, the Aurora Borealis. Discover the stories our ancestors told about the spectacle in Legends of the Northern Lights before they had scientific explanation.
All you have to do to appreciate these diverse nightscapes is get out there, get into the right gear and get looking up.
NIGHT WALKING KIT
‘With long nights and cold, clean air, winter is the best time to stargaze. It is much darker, and the cold can make the atmosphere more stable,’ says Dan.
‘The key is to avoid a full moon, which is a huge source of natural light pollution. Head out the week before the new moon for the least lunar interference with the stars. And don’t be put off if weather conditions aren’t perfect. You don’t need a totally clear night to see a lot in the sky.’
Seasoned stargazers also recommend allowing 20-40 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark, but that’s part of the joy of night walking: your senses begin to work in diverse ways. Normal vision takes a back seat as more primal senses take over to interpret a darkened world. Peripheral vision comes into play, as it is more effective in low light than middle vision, which enables your eyes to pick up detail when you are looking directly at something.
‘Take binoculars with you when you are night walking,’ advises Dan. A pair of 10 x 50 binoculars will give you an enhanced view of the constellations and planets. Andromeda, the closest major spiral galaxy to our own, is 2.5 million light years away. Yet, on a clear night, you can see it with the naked eye.’
Pick a route to explore at night that you are familiar with in daylight. Define where you are going and take a physical map with you in case you go off track. You are not aiming for distance, but a rich experience. Mature woods without too many head-height branches can reveal intensely bright stars through the gaps in the trees. Wide open beaches, open heathlands and off-road tracks are also wonderful for night-time exploration. Avoid anywhere that is too hilly with steep drops and unpredictable obstacles.
NIGHT WALKING KIT
We recommend you do a bit more prep for a nocturnal excursion; here are some key tips to get the most from an after-dark adventure.
Download a stargazing app
Apps can assist your stargazing expeditions. Dan Pye recommends Stellarium, a planetarium app that shows exactly what you see when you look up at the stars. Identify stars, constellations, planets, comets, satellites and other deep-sky objects, in real time, by pointing your phone at the sky.
Filter your phone
The app is sorted; next up is your phone. Dimming the screen is not enough, as even the low light emitted makes it hard for your eyes to adjust when you look up. Most phones have filter options; go to display settings and turn the colour filter on. There’s a rainbow of options, and stargazers recommend red to minimise the adjustment required by your eyes when you look away from the screen and up to the sky.
Take a red LED torch
When you are walking in the dark across different terrain, you need to see where you are going. Take a red LED torch, or even a rear red cycle light. A harsh blue, white light will inhibit your night vision, whereas red has the least impact.
Wear the right gear
Supportive boots with a good grip are essential as you look up into the night sky while treading a dark path. We have crafted rugged all-terrain boots just for this kind of environment.
Cities have significant light pollution, so it is best to walk somewhere more rural for successful stargazing. Take a companion with you; install a ’find a friend app’ on your phone so you can be located; and tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return.