Staring up at the stars can be awe inspiring even on a normal night. Stargazing during a rare astrological event? That’s truly special.
The upcoming total lunar eclipse (which starts late on Sunday, May 15, and continues into the early hours of May 16) will offer amateur astronomers the chance to watch the effects as the sun, Earth, and moon align for the first time in three years. Earth’s shadow will completely cover the moon—and the moon will appear bright red in the night sky, earning its “blood moon” nickname. It will be visible in North America, South America, Africa, and Europe, peaking at 4:12 Universal Time (UTC).
Luckily, you don’t need anything to take in this mesmerizing event—your eyes on their own will be enough! But you have a few ways to make experiencing this phenomenon even better. Here’s what we at Wirecutter are bringing with us.
Binoculars for a better view
The lunar eclipse will be obvious even to the unaided eye—but for a closer look, the best way to view the eclipse is with a pair of binoculars. “Any pair will do,” Richard Tresch Fienberg, astronomer and senior advisor for the American Astronomical Society, told us in an email interview. “There’s no need to buy new ones if you already have a pair; the same binoculars you’d use for sports events, concerts, or birding are also useful for stargazing.”
If you don’t have a pair of binoculars handy, Wirecutter has a few binocular recommendations for birders that also work well in plenty of other situations—in fact, we say in our guide that binoculars that are great for birders are great for anyone.
The Carson VP pair is about as inexpensive as a really good set of binoculars can be. These rugged fog- and waterproof binoculars offer excellent optics, which make them perfect for folks looking to dabble in hobbies that require a high-performance optical tool.
Our picks, all tested by a professional ornithologist, are a bit pricey, but they’re worth the investment if you plan to use them often. In contrast, you may not want to pour hundreds into a pair of binoculars you plan to pull out only for once-in-a-blood-moon astrological events—and that’s fine. As you search for a pair that fits your budget, Fienberg recommends keeping the following in mind:
- Any pair of binoculars that magnifies between 7x and 10x with front lenses of diameter 25 mm to 50 mm will be easiest to find at a relatively low price. Common types you’re likely to see in your search include those identified as 8×25, 7×35, and 10×50. (The first number signifies the magnification, while the second number indicates the diameter of the lens in millimeters.)
- The higher the magnification, the bulkier and heavier the binoculars will be. Fienberg says most people can hold 7x or 8x binoculars steady, and some people can hold 10x binoculars steady.
- You need to mount higher-power binoculars on a tripod or monopod, and that works only if the binoculars have a tripod socket or come with a tripod adapter. Casual binocular users can skip this and stick to handheld models.
Star wheels and stargazing apps that act as celestial guides
Stargazing becomes more meaningful when you understand what you’re looking at. Ria Misra, Wirecutter’s editor of travel and outdoors coverage, likes to use the handheld David Chandler Company The Night Sky star wheel when she goes stargazing. This small wheel is compact enough to keep in a glove compartment, and it’s durable enough to survive spills or wet grass. It comes in versions that cover latitudes from 20 degrees to 50 degrees; Ria suggests making sure you’ve selected the right latitude for your home sky. You can also make your own star wheel—astronomer Luke Huxley recommends using Sky & Telescope’s free guide (which comes with detailed PDF instruction sheets) to craft your own if you’re up to the challenge.
Stargazing apps can be especially helpful for amateur astronomers. Huxley, who offers guided astro tours in Boulder, Colorado, recommends Star Tracker Lite and SkySafari Pro. These simple-to-use apps employ your phone’s camera to single out constellations, planets, and the stars visible to the naked eye. Star Tracker Lite (iOS, Android) is free and can work offline. Huxley says he likes to use Star Tracker Lite to locate different constellations but prefers to use the paid version of SkySafari (iOS, Android) for richer information about the night sky.
A headlamp to illuminate your path
The Vitchelo headlamp is easy to use, and thanks to its two separate buttons, toggling between the red- and white-light settings is simple—so you’re less likely to accidentally use its white light, which can disrupt your night vision.
To get the best view of the night sky, you should be as far away from intrusive light pollution as possible. (DarkSiteFinder.com can help you search for an area nearby with the least amount of light pollution.) But once you’ve arrived, stumbling around in the dark as you set up your stargazing station is inconvenient at best, dangerous at worst. Bring a headlamp along with you—but make sure it has a red-light setting.
Why red light? Because bright white light can disrupt your night vision once your eyes have adjusted to the dark, so you should avoid using bright light in the middle of your stargazing session. By using the headlamp’s dimmable red-light setting to glance at your star wheel or search through your backpack for a pair of gloves, you’ll preserve your night vision and avoid annoying any fellow stargazers around you. (If you accidentally turn on the white light, it will blow out your night vision for approximately 20 minutes.)
Creature comforts to keep cozy
You’ll find the lunar eclipse more enjoyable if you bring along a few things that make the experience more comfortable. Craning your neck to peer at the stars while you’re shivering on the cold, wet ground is no fun.
To take in the night sky properly, Ria recommends lying down rather than sitting up. “If you’re sitting in a folding chair or camp chair, you’ll have to crane your neck upward for hours and swivel to see the sights,” she says. Instead, she prefers to spread out a comfortable blanket (like the Wirecutter-recommended MIU Color Outdoor Picnic Blanket) so she can lie down and look up at the largest possible slice of sky.
MIU Color Outdoor Picnic Blanket
We recommend this blanket for picnics, but its waterproof layer also makes it a great stargazing companion since it can keep the dampness of the ground from seeping through.
Warm clothes are a must, especially since the temperature is likely to drop throughout the night. Pair a warm base layer (we recommend plenty of affordable options) with wool socks, a puffy coat, and gloves. A pair of touchscreen gloves, such as the Moshi Digits pair we recommend, will be especially helpful if you’ve downloaded night-sky apps to your phone. If you’re always cold, you may want to bring along another blanket—we like the Rumpl Down Puffy Blanket, a cozy outdoor blanket made with dirt- and water-resistant fabric and stuffed with warm down—or a wearable sleeping bag.
You can also cut through the chill by sipping on a warm drink—tea, hot cocoa, a hot toddy—as you take in the astronomical wonders above. The Stanley Classic Legendary Bottle (2.5 Quarts), the top pick in our guide to the best thermos, keeps beverages warm for up to eight hours. This sturdy, leakproof thermos holds up to 10 cups, and as a bonus, the cap doubles as a cup.
This article was edited by Annemarie Conte and Ben Frumin.