Tales from the Eyepiece: Cold Winter Nights

Tis the season for Christmas jumpers, hats, gloves, and of course, socks! All of these items can be put to good use under the cold winter night skies, writes Jon Powell.

The return of winter means the return of cold nights, but also of the beautiful Orion constellation.
Image: Dave Walker


Back in the early 1980s when I first started observing, I spotted a 'hand warming' device in a local shop window.

While the device appeared to be aimed at those who go hiking or camping, it seemed to tick all the boxes with regards to potentially keeping my mitts warm for an observing session during winter.   

Gloves are the obvious choice, but they can be cumbersome, and I usually find myself constantly taking them off and putting them back on when fiddling with the telescope.

And if you need to view a star atlas, turning the pages is out of the question. 

Yes, I know, it may seem a bit prehistoric in these modern times, but I still believe in using a well-illustrated atlas to help me locate various objects.

By the same token, thinner gloves, which give you more feel and grip, often yield to the cold quickly, so while you may well be able to fiddle with things a little better, numbness soon replaces feeling.

The hand warming device that I stumbled upon comprised several lengthy charcoal coloured flat sticks, each stick measuring about five inches long.

It transpired that the sticks, once lit, would slowly burn over a period of time, generating heat as they did so for several hours.

However, after purchasing said sticks, it dawned on me that having lit sticks in my pocket wasn’t a big or clever idea. Sadly, and having spent a lot of pocket money on them, it came to light that the sticks needed to be placed in far more expensive pouch that allowed the heat to be emitted safely.


Winter observing can be a test for even the most ardent astronomers. Unfortunately, bright fires are not an option!
Credit: iStock/serpseri


An error on my behalf and being sorely disappointed at making such a gaff, I duly approached my parents to buy the actual device, not the gubbins (the sticks) that go in it.  

I couldn’t wait to try out this new revolutionary device and in fact, I remember taking more notice of how my hand warmer would perform than my agenda for observing that night.

Another gem for staying warm involved the suggestion to use a plank of wood. 

The plank, which in my case could be either me or the piece of wood, would be stood upon, so no heat would conduct away from the body via the concrete surface below.

I actually tried this but was unable to tell if it made any difference. Again, I began more preoccupied with the plank than observing. The plank was constantly rocking from side to side as the ground was uneven.

It must have looked more like some sort of bizarre circus balancing act from a distance, rather than a method of keeping warm.

Finally, how about cuddling fellow observers to keep the cold out? I thought so!


With an interest in astronomy since the early 1980s, Jon has been a freelance writer and broadcaster since 1985, with a regular monthly daytime slot on BBC Radio Wales. His main astronomical instrument is a pair of 20 x 80 binoculars.

Like this article? Why not:
What was the star of Bethlehem?
previous news Article
Where in the Solar System is Santa’s workshop?
next news Article
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here