Category Archives: Camping Report

Brief descriptions of dark sky camping trips.

West Summerland Key, FL

Winter Star Party with Doug Biernacki from February 13 – 19, 2023.

WSP is more than just a six day event, it is a great winter project. The large investment of time and money really makes it a big deal. Having a successful event required careful planning based on incomplete knowledge, especially for the first time attending.

Overall, the trip was a great adventure that began upon departure at 0700 on February 11th, and concluded upon return home on February 20th. If nothing else, a week fantastic weather in the Keys was worth it. We had two great nights of astronomy and one fair night. The wind and clouds hampered astronomy on the other three nights. All-in-all, I consider the trip a complete success.

A huge benefit of this trip is that my confidence in taking the camper out on extended trips is greatly increased. It made for a very comfortable field accomodations.

Making the decision on December 19th completely focused my mind from that point until the gate opened on February 13th. At decision time, I had just completed a five-month run of planetary imaging that did not include any DSO imaging. The preparations were able to get me out to the telescope more this winter than any winter before, and reach a basic level of DSO capture and processing competence. Another benefit of this preparatory time is that given the changes in how my body responds to the cold in recent years, I have had to re-learn how to deal with cold weather.  In those respects WSP has been a very positive forcing function.

A rundown of my lessons learned follow.

WSP Specific:

Register in early November. Doing this will get us motivated to start honing imaging skills and tuning equipment earlier. Better choices for a staging stopover near Wesumkee should be available as well.

Arrive at the SCAS presentation/drawing early to find shade and bring chairs.

I’ll just note here that the two WSP-specific lessons learn is a testimate to how careful study and planning prevents surprises once boots were on the ground.


It takes a lot of effort to to tune equipment and improve skills to a desired level. In addition to the effort, the number of clear nights that it takes is a pacing function that spreads the effort over more time than we tend to anticipate.

Packing the Cherokee and camper on the day before departure and unpacking it on the day after arrival greatly simplified the departure and arrival process. This practice might be worth considering  on a case by case basis for other star parties.

If possible, park camper with tongue pointing north. In this orientation the morning sun will be on the door/awning side, and the door/awning side will be in the afternoon shade.

Where the observing field has not been marked off into observing spots, make land claims for camper, truck, and scopes immediately on arrival. In my estimation, we knew that we needed to do this, but had a less than optimal outcome because we tried to overthink it. The sequence should be to park the camper and level it from side to side before disconnecting, disconnect the truck and park it, and set tripods in the desired location. Final leveling and setup of the camper, and set up of equipment can then happen at a leisurely pace.

While on the road, scout out decent food locations.

Consider camp food options other than the food truck. What options are there that don’t require a lot of prep and cleanup time?

Be prepared for wind – observatory tent or similar.

Be prepared for rain – a light pancho will do. Setting up camp in Savannah could have been a lot worse if it had been just a little colder. Got rained on at Camp Wesumkee, but getting wet was ok down there.

Don’t favor DSO over planetary, or the other way around for extended periods of time, because the ignored skill set almost completely disappears.

Winter Star Party 2023 - 2023-02-13
West Summerland Key, FL - 2023-02-15 07:06L
Winter Star Party 2023 - 2023-02-15

Harney, MD

Farm V with Doug Biernacki November 4-5, 2022.

Between personal schedules and adverse weather forecasts, Doug and I did not make it to the Farm for DSO imaging and observing over the last new Moon period.

We were looking for an opportunity to try out some gear that would support colder weather trips, and this night was the first that came up. There was a bright gibbous Moon in the sky, and Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were well-placed for obsering and photographing, so we brought our planetary imaging equipment.

The sky was clear from well before dark and until scattered high thin clouds rolled in at 0100, and we ended our observing sessions well after midnight. There was minimal dew until after midight.

A highlight of this trip was the use of the camper’s furnace. At a low setting it was able to keep the inside of the camper in the high-50s with ease. In order to be sure that we could run the furnace (the fan part of it) all night, we brought a small, quiet, portable generator. As a bonus, were were able to poer our astronomical equipment with wall power. I can see that having the furnace and wall power for astronomy camping can be addicting.

The trip with was succeful from both an astronomical perspective, and from a new gear perspective. We are definitely able to make trips in colder weather than before.

Astronomy at the Farm V - 2022-11-04 08:43 EDT
Farm V
© James R. Johnson, 2022.

Harney, MD

Farm IV with Doug Biernacki September 9-10, 2022.

Trips to the farm by Doug Biernacki and I are usually reserved for DSO astronomy on dark sky nights around the New Moon. As those pristine skies are few and far between, we did not want to risk taking the camper out for the first time only to find it interfering with a rare astronomy opportunity.

Once the camper was ready for a trip, we decided that we would haul it to the farm at the first opportunity. This opportunity happened to be the night of the Harvest Moon. With sky conditions more suitable for planetary and lunar imaging, so that is what we did on this trip. .

The sky was clear from well before dark and until scattered high thin clouds rolled in at 0100, and we ended our observing sessionas at around 0130. Dew that we experienced was “normal dew” compared to past visits. The temperature stayed above 60 degrees, and it started to get chilly after prolonged exposure. Clouds had rolled in by sunrise when this image was taken.

An interesting change at the farm. What had been a soybean field adjacent to our campsite was planted in corn this year.

The first trip with the camper was a great success! We are hopeful that this shelter will allow us to extend the astronomy camping season well into the colder months.

Astronomy at the Farm IV - 2022-09-10 07:15 EDT
© James R. Johnson, 2022.

Harney, MD

Farm III with Doug Biernacki June 30-July 1, 2022.

This was my first trip to a dark sky site with the ZWO ASI6200 DSO imaging camera.

In addition to just absolutely enjoying the chance to get back out in the field, it was rewarding to see my DSO setup doing everything that I asked of it. I am not expecting a lot from my images, because I wasn’t on my A game, and didn’t ask everything of my setup that I should have. Although every aspect of running the equipment has been rehearsed and tweaked over the past couple of months, the Jim part of making it all happen correctly in the field was new, and I didn’t execute as well as I could have.

Once again we experienced extraordiary dew, which shut us down at about 0200.

Astronomy at the Farm - 2022-06-30 06:30 EDT
Farm III
© James R. Johnson, 2022.

Little Orleans, MD

HAL Remote Impromptu with Victor Sanchez May 21-22, 2021.

This was a very spur of the moment trip at Victor’s invitation. It was about a 90 minute drive. I took the Wrangler and a small tent.

The sky was at least Bortle Class 3, and the Milky Way was clearly visible. There were local direct lights that would be an issue for visual observers trying to maintain dark adaptation. The lights are not an issue for imagers as long as a dew sheild keeps the direct light off of the front glass.

This was the first time that I imaged with with the GM8 after doing the Gemini II upgrade. I still have some issues to work out.

I worked out a couple of issues that I wish had been found and taken care of before the trip, but that didn’t diminish how much that I enjoyed the trip.

I was up imaging until 0400 at which time I had done as much as I could do. I was tired and cold, so I jumped into a sleeping bag and checked out.

I would go to this site again in the off season (spring or fall), but I hear that it is crowed with in the summer time.

Astronomy Camping at Little Orleans Camp Ground
HAL Impropmtu
© James R. Johnson, 2022.

Harney, MD

Farm II with Doug Biernacki October 14-15 2020

This was my second trip to image with the Canon 60Da to see if I was ready to graduate to a dedicated and cooled astronomy camera.

This time we took a tent, which was great because it was very dewy again.

There were some lingering clouds after sunset, which delayed me a little in getting started. Also, clouds rolled in around 0030 which is when I shut down.

I was able to successfully image Andromeda Galaxy, and I made the decision to proceed with acquiring a dedicated astronomy camera.

I hope to have the camera by the time we return.

© James R. Johnson, 2022.

Spruce Knob, WV

NOVAC New Moon Weekend with Doug Biernacki September 28-30, 2019

On New Moon Weekends, NOVAC members, which Doug and I are, are permitted access to the observing field that is used for AHSP. These weekends, as the title suggests, are around the time of the New Moon, which are great DSO observing opportunities.

We had been itching to go and watching the weather all summer, and found busy schedules or weather that was not worth driving four hours for. Adding to the pressure is that its starts getting pretty chilly there in the mountians in Octobor.

As the late September New Moon Weekend rolled around, we saw a forcast that looked ok, but not great. At home we had experienced enough of thse forecasts that actually turned out to be great observing weather, so we packed up and took off.

We brought our own food and sheltered in the large tent, so we were completely self-sufficient save for using the Learning Center’s restroom/shower facility, and we were on the deck at the yurts for a few minutes to connect to let families know that we had arrived safely and to check the weather.

It turned out that we were the only two observers on the AHSP observing field that usually host 450 observers each year.

The weather was better than forecast on the first evening, and we got in some great observing time. Even though it was about as bad as we expected on Sunday, we did get some observing in. I let Doug use my Meade/G11 while I was working with the 60Da and camera lens to try to capture some of the distant thunderstorm activity to the south, and some wide field shots of the Milky Way. Non of my images turned out at all.

We had very little interaction with the Learning Center staff at Spruce Knob. We encountered a fella upon arrival who told us that we could set up any where we’d like, so we occupied the the tent-only  camping knoll. Other than that we had little interaction with the staff.

This was a very enjoyable trip, that I hope to do again next year. I hope to that my DSO astrophotography skills have greatly improved by then.

Spruce Knob 20190928/29 (1)
Spruce Knob, New Moon Weekend
© James R. Johnson, 2021.

Harney, MD

The Farm with Doug Biernacki August 18-19, 2020.

A friend with whom Doug and I worked before all three of us retired over the past couple of years allowed us to come to his family’s farm for astronomy. It turns out that Doug and our friend knew of each other from when Doug’s Boy Scout troop when there several time during his childhood.

My focus was on DSO imaging in a dark sky with the Canon EOS 60Da. This was part of an effort to demonstrate to myself that I am ready to graduate to a dedicated, cooled, astronomy camera. My target for this trip was Eastern Veil Nebula, which I successfully imaged and processed.

NGC 6960 Witch's Broom Nebula 2020-08-18 0258 UTC
Witches Broom Nebula

The sky conditions were very good for us. There were some lingering clouds at sunset that cleared right out. We believe that the sky was Bortle Class 4 or better, as we were able to clearly see the Milky Way.

Fog rolled in at about 0130. We could still see the sky straight up, but mositure was dripping off of our equipment.

Our plan was to image for a long as we wished, and then crash out under the pop up awning. This would prevent us from having to drive an 1.5 hours in the dark while completely exhausted. This all worked well, except dew formed on the inside of the awning and dripped on us while we were sleeping. We woke up cold, wet, and miserable.

This is a great place to do astronomy. It is reachable on short notice and after a short drive. I hope to visit the Farm again. Next time we’ll bring a tent.

Astronomy at the Farm - Doug Biernacki - 2020-08-18
The Farm
© James R. Johnson, 2022.

Green Bank, WV

Star Quest 2019 with Doug Biernacki June 26-29, 2022.

This was a very interesting site for a star party. I liked several things about it, but I think that I would choose ASHP over this one in the future.

I took a Fort Mead A-liner pop up. We were set up in a grassy field, near the portapotty and battery charging station. Meals, taken in a mess hall-like facility and showers were a bit of a walk.

This site has great dark skies, almost as dark as Spruce Knob. Many of the talks left me disappointed. While some “known” names were invited, they were not speaking on topics in which they had expertise. I felt that the talk was based on a web search that anyone could do.

On the last night there, the host organization had organized a public star party that I didn’t know anything about until people showed up asking for views while I was struggling with a technical issue.

Star Party at Green Bank National Radio Observatory (2019)
Green Bank National Radio Observatory
© James R. Johnson, 2022.

Spruce Knob, WV

Almost Heaven Star Party 2018 with Doug Biernacki September 7-11, 2018

This star party was dominated by very slow moving remanents of Hurricane Florene. Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

I arrived on 9/7, set up a Fort Mead A-liner camper, and I set up the NP101 on the GM8. There were clouds all around, but I was able to get some views until about 2130, at which time the sky was completely clouded over.

Doug arrived on 9/8. It remained cloudy during the day but started raining by nightfall. The rain continued most of the rest of the trip, sometimes driven by 40-50 mph winds.

NOVAC hosted several very interesting talks, which we took in. There was a couple of HAL members present as well. We especially enjoyed getting to know Alan. We also were able to visit the NOVAC observatory that is near the AHSP venue. It was interesting to compare what I was seeing there with the work that Chas and I had been doing in the HAL observatory.

The rain let up before it was time to pack up and leave. I am interested in attending another ASHP.

© James R. Johnson, 2022.

Spruce Knob, WV

Almost Heaven Star Party with Lisa September 3-6, 2016.

Memorable moments:

Lisa’s first camping trip. Parking was in a nearby lot, so the procedure was to drive in, drop off the gear, and remove the vehicle from the tent area. I could see Lisa looking at all of the stuff in a rather panicked manner, so I rushed off to park the Jeep and quickly returned to put here to work. She was fine after the tent (large enough to stand up and walk around in) was up. We were off of the ground in a double cot.

This was Lisa’s first time seeing the Milky Way. It was visible well before before dark. Lisa had noticed it and thought it was passing clouds.

We had never seen so many stars. There were so many that it was difficult to pick out the constellations.

James Stack and I used the Meade LX850 (12″ f/8) for visually observering many many targets over two nights. I was astounded by the amount of M31/Andromeda detail that was visible. This was the first time that I was able to see more than the fuzzy blob of the core at the eyepiece. I had heard that a dark sky would do more than either aperture or focal length to bring a better view to the eyepiece. Although I kinda understood this all along, the concept was forever etched in my mind on this trip.

SKWV is a great venue, and ASHP is definitely a star party that I would like to do again.

© James R. Johnson, 2022.

Wellsville, PA

York County Star Party with Keith Evans, July 27-28.

I must say that I really enjoyed my very first regional star party, and i hope to repeat that experience again some time.

The site was along side the runway on a grass strip airfield. There was a great food vendor, and about 20 other observers set up. Our shelter plan was to empty the back of the Grand Cherokee for me to sleep in the back. Keith wanted to sleep in the front passenger seat.

I spoke to one attendee who towed a 13′ Scamp behind his car. I thought that was very neat, and was determined to look into getting one.

JoAnn Shapiro, a HAL member that I had just met a week before at breakfast with Marty Cohen was there.

I brought my Meade LX850 (12″ f/8), and was equipped for visual observing. I saw many targets during the course of the night, and I was definitely able to see more detail than at HAL’s Alpha Ridge. With M31, for instance, I was able to see not only the fuzzy central disk blob, I was able to clearly see on spiral arm and dust lane in front of it.

We observed until about 0245, at which time high clouds started to move in, and we were too tired to go any more, so we shut down to get some rest. I was too tired to clear some room in the back of the Grand Cherokee, so I put my sleeping gear on the ground a crashed.

Waking up at 0630 was a wild scene. I was soaked from the dew, roosters were crowing, and cows were mooing.

Breakfast was good. I would like to do this again.

© James R. Johnson, 2021.