Safe Dark Sky Observing
By Paul Markov, April 2001.

With the warm weather approaching, you may be thinking about venturing outside the city limits for some deep sky observing.  Few of us are lucky enough to own property in the countryside, so we have to use parks, conservation areas, or other public property as observing sites and because these areas are public, it means that anyone can access them.  This can be a concern, especially if it is 2 a.m. and you are all alone with thousands of dollars worth of equipment, and the concern is further exacerbated by the fact that most of us go out observing on a Friday or Saturday night, which is exactly when some people go to these public areas to party, drink, or just to cause trouble.

There are a two simple rules for avoiding putting yourself in a dangerous situation; refrain from using public parks and conservation areas, and never go out observing alone. Because it is often difficult to abide by these two rules, there are some further precautions you can take for ensuring safe observing trips.

If the only accessible site is a public park or conservation area, check it out well in advance before you actually go observing there, and see what kind of night-time activity goes on in that park.  Many of these areas are frequented by local kids who go there to play loud music and drink, and if you see this happening, you are better off looking for another site.  Once you have found a reasonably quiet location, try to find a place where you are sheltered by vegetation or terrain, this way if someone wonders inside the park you will not be seen, and also car headlights will not disrupt your observing.

The ideal situation would be to find a park or conservation area that is gated and is shut down at sunset.  If you can find such a place, contact the park authorities and ask for special permission to access the site after hours.  If you are able to work out a deal and obtain an access key, you will be assured cars will not be driving inside the area.

Alternatively, select a site that is not well known or marked.  For example, some of us have used a site that is actually an access road to a government piece of property.  It is a small dirt road that is hardly noticeable, it is not marked, and is really too small for anything other than just driving on it -  but there is enough space for a few cars and telescopes.

Using a private piece of property is typically not much safer and can get you in trouble with the owner if you do not obtain permission.  It is tempting while driving on a remote country road to just pull over and set up on the field next to the road, but chances are it is private property.  We did that almost twenty years ago, and once we were spotted by the owner, he became enraged because he thought we were uprooting and stealing small evergreen trees from his field, and to make matters worse, the owner was inebriated!  Fortunately, after a brief discussion the matter was settled and we were allowed to observe.

Going observing with a few other amateurs is always safer and also more fun.  Aside from the obvious safety factors, going observing with others will give you a chance to share telescopic views, learn from each other about various objects in the sky, compare equipment, and share a few laughs.  If you are looking to hook up with someone, just come out to the Toronto Centre meetings, the “city” observing sessions or the “deep sky” observing sessions, and mingle with the membership.  You will quickly find out which members typically head out observing in the countryside and where they go.

If the observing location you have chosen is a public area, you will probably have unwanted visitors once in a while. Some will drive in, ruin your dark adaptation, turn around and drive away.  However, some will stop and come see what you are doing in the middle of the night in the dark.  Some of these visitors quickly recognize that you are looking through a telescope and often become enthusiastic about it, in which case you should offer them to take a look through your scope.  Some others can actually be more a nuisance, or even worse, a threat.  If you are visited by the latter type, be cautious about what you say.  One of the first things you should say is that there is about a dozen more observers joining you and they should arrive any minute.  If asked about the value of your equipment, just tell them it is a used telescope that you’ve had for many years and it’s not worth much. If you are asked if you come out to that site regularly, say that you do not plan on ever going back and that you typically observe from your backyard.  If you feel particularly threatened, excuse yourself, go in your vehicle and lock the doors and wait till they leave.  Always act with personal safety in mind and do not worry about the equipment; if stolen or damaged it can always be replaced. 

Often public parks and conservation area parking lots are patrolled by local police.  This is good and bad.  It is good because shifty characters do not frequent areas that are regularly patrolled by police. It is bad because you may have to put up with bright spotlights and answer a few questions before you get “cleared” and can go back to observing.  I have had a few encounters with police at observing sites and all have been pleasant.

A cellular telephone has now become an invaluable item to make your observing trips safer. In choosing an observing site, it is a good idea to select a site that has cellular coverage. A cell phone can be useful in the event of problems with unfriendly visitors, in the case of a medical emergency, if you drain your car battery running your dew zapper, or if you get stuck in snow or mud.  It will also provide peace of mind for your family knowing that you are not completely out of reach. Make sure you know what numbers to dial (other than 911) in case of an emergency.  Find out phone numbers for the local police, ambulance, and towing company and put them in your accessory case.

Another safety precaution is to always let you family know exactly where you are going and when you plan on coming back home.  In the event of serious problems, at least your family will know where you are. Because many of the observing sites are typically quite remote and unmarked, it is important to give your family a detailed map of how to get to your observing site, and if you tell them you are going to be home by 2 a.m. do your best to arrive home on time, otherwise call to let them know you will be late so your family will not worry.

Finally, make sure you have an emergency kit in your vehicle as a small medical emergency can ruin your observing plans if you are not prepared.  Cutting your hand on a metal part or squashing your finger with a counterweight may force you to go back home, but if you have an emergency kit in your vehicle, you may be able to care for the injury on the spot and keep observing. And do not forget a bright white flashlight or spotlight for any non-observing related activities at the site! 


Copyright (C) 2001 by Paul Markov

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