Just Look Up: How to Read the Night Sky and Stars

Woman with lantern at night with stars and milky way


Whether it’s gaping at the Milky Way on a frozen night or gushing over a late summer meteor shower, the stars always leave me awash with a mixture of awe and content.

Since learning more about the constellations above us on a wilderness trip, my husband and I refer to the stars as our friends in the sky.

Not only does the sky provide endless beauty—from vivid sunrises to the band of shimmering friends spanning the sky—but it can be useful to look up and evaluate what’s above. If you spend any amount of time in the wilderness, knowing how to read what the sky is saying is an invaluable skill.

It can seem complicated, but it’s simple if you know what to look for.


How to tell when the sun is going to set

As the sun dips lower, you might begin to wonder how much sunlight you have left to make an informed decision on when to turn back or to start setting up camp. If you don’t have your phone or are in an emergency situation, you can try this DIY.

Extend your hand, fingers together, at arms length. Each finger width between the horizon and the sun’s position represents approximately 15 minutes.

If, for example, the sun is three fingers above the horizon, you have about 45 minutes until sunset.

Of course, the sun keeps the sky lit past the moment it sets, but this light is constantly fading, and the time left depends on a variety of things. In general, you have about 60 to 90 minutes past sunset until it will be completely dark.

Except for the stars.


How to find the North Star

Contrary to what many of us grew up believing, Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky.

The North Star is the star you’d see if you stood on the North Pole and looked straight up. It is the one constant in the sky, with all the other stars rotating around it. If you’ve seen night photographs with a long exposure and all the stars seem to be streaking in a circular motion around the sky except one, that’s Polaris.

The easiest way to find it is via the Big Dipper, which is a big, easy to recognize saucepan shaped constellation. If the pan was full of hot chocolate and you were pouring it into mugs to share around the fire, the two stars the liquid would run off point up to the North Star. You’ll find it five times the distance between these two stars away.

If you can’t find the Big Dipper because it is low in the sky, Cassiopeia is the next easiest way to find Polaris. Cassiopeia is a wonky, stretched W. Draw an imaginary line over the top of the W, from end to end. Double the length of that line, flip it perpendicularly, and it points straight at the North Star.


How to navigate with the stars

The North Star is useful because it can be seen due north from everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. If you are able to find north, the other directions in the clockwise mnemonic Never Eat Slimy Worms fall into place. For example, if you want to go south, keep the North Star at your back, and double check its location frequently.

A few other easy-to-find constellations provide directional clues as well. Orion the hunter is a good friend of mine, and if you get to know him, he’s easy to find. Look for his belt, the only collection of stars in a straight line in the sky. If it is clear enough to see his sword hanging vertically from his belt, it points down to the south.

Orion is a cold weather friend, being visible to us Northern Hemisphere dwellers only in the winter. In the summer, Aquila the eagle is your next best navigational constellation. Aquila rises in the east and sets in the west, just like the sun, but doesn’t slide along the horizon with the seasons like the sun does. If, aided by a fixed point to compare its location with from one moment to another, you see this constellation moving slowly upwards, you are looking east. This is only useful, of course, if it is near the horizon and not above you, so look for the eagle earlier or later in the night.


Constellations you can see in Canada

What you can see above changes with the seasons. I like to think of my friends in the sky in action to help me remember who’s near who.

In the winter, Orion takes his two dogs, Canis major and Canis minor, on a hunt. The dogs should be helping Orion track down Taurus, the bull with the red eye, but they are bounding off in the bush after Lepus the hare like a pair of silly hounds.

Unlike the North Star, Canis major’s eye, Sirius, is the brightest star in the sky.

In the summer, Aquila the eagle and Cygnus the swan fly around while Hercules dances, arms and legs flapping wildly, to the music made by Lyra the harp.

(Disclaimer: while the names are accurate, the stories may not match up with mythology. Find your own way to remember the constellations and where they are and do some research on the many other constellations out there!)


Other clues in the sky

Stars are great, but they’re only visible at night, and besides telling you the sky is clear (or cloudy if you can’t see them), they don’t really give you an idea of what the weather is up to.

Clouds can hold some great clues about the weather and your wet or dry future.

Cumulus clouds, like sheep, are tame. But when they become heaped, billowing large and tall, they can look scary. If they have a cauliflower top and a flat bottom, you can assume they are friendly for now. Keep an eye on them though, because if their tops start to lose that fluffy shape and become wispy, and the bottoms begin to bulge, precipitation is likely on the way.

Sun dogs, also known as mock suns, are blinding spots of light on either side of the sun, often showing off with rainbow colours. If these appear, it is a clue the sky contains cirrus clouds, which are wisps etched up high and are sometimes hard to see, and this may be an early sign of an advancing front. Bring a rain jacket!

Rainbow—the prettiest of all daytime sky occurrences—are obvious rain tattletales. If you see one and the wind is blowing towards you, put that rain jacket on!