Having light, literally, at our fingertips in the modern world has made it so ubiquitous that when preparing and packing for a camping trip, it’s often one the most-often overlooked things.
Typically, most camping newbies grab that plastic convenience-store flashlight that lives in the kitchen junk drawer. And the batteries haven’t been changed since that last big storm when the power went out and the batteries were dead. They’ll flick it on, shake it a couple times and after it sputters to life they consider “Camp Light” checked off their list. These are the people who show up at their friend’s camp site for the night, then stumble back to their own tents in the dark because even though they “checked it before they left the house,” now the batteries are dead. Please… don’t be those people.
With the introduction of LED technology to the masses, the options for powerful and versatile camp lighting have grown in recent years. Read on to get an introduction to the myriad illumination tools that can make your time away from civilization just a bit more civilized.
Getting to Camp
Regardless of whether you’re hiking miles into the bush or just a few yards from your car, getting to camp poses its own set of challenges. If you’ve set out before first light or lingered too long at that scenic overlook to watch the setting sun (or made that last stop at Denny’s for a proper meal), it’s likely that at some point you’ll need light while you’re getting to camp. The best appliance for this is a headlight—it frees up both hands for carrying coolers or kids if you’re car camping, or for trekking poles and balance if you’re hiking. Headlights come in a dizzying variety of options, so it’s important to really think about how and where you’ll be using yours so you can choose the best one for the different jobs you’ll be asking of it.
If you’re just going to be using it for navigating short distances around your campsite, in the tent, or maybe cooking dinner, you’ll be fine with a very basic one like this 25-lumen-output Barska or the Pelican 2750PL that has a low output of 63 lumens and a high of 193 lumens. But if you’re planning on doing some spelunking, look for one that’s more rugged—and waterproof. Perfect examples of this would be the Fenix HL25, the Nitecore HC50, or Black Diamond’s Icon. All three of these are waterproof and/or submersible, impact resistant, and have multiple output modes along with strobe functions for signaling in emergency situations.
If you’re going hunting, look for models that offer different colors like red, blue, or green that will allow you to see, navigate, or signal to a buddy without spooking game. These will be at the higher end of the price spectrum, but you’ll be getting very versatile lights that will offer you the ruggedness you need for frequent use on the trail. Nitecore’s HC90 maxes out at 900 lumens and features red, blue, and green secondary LEDs. The Fenix HP40F goes up to 450 lumens with a three-output blue LED and an external battery pack that not only lightens the weight and stress on your neck, but allows for more batteries, offering longer run times.
Finally, think about the power. Is it rechargeable? Will you have access to a power source to recharge it? Does it take easy-to-replace AA or AAA batteries, or the more specialized CR123 that might be harder to find but often offers longer run times and shelf life?
Once you’re in camp, the headlight will still be useful, especially if you need to set up a tent or cook. If you’re looking for more power or more versatility, a handheld model might offer more usability for you. Handheld models come in a variety of sizes and output ranges. The one I use when I camp is the Vulta Volcano Multi-Spectrum. With its five outputs, from 1 to 880 lumens, you can have as little or as much light as you need, plus it has six red and six blue LEDs for reading or navigating without affecting night-adjusted vision. What I like the most about it is that it can stand on its tail and comes with a diffuser. With the diffuser on, the light is softened and radiates more like a lantern so it’s ideal for sitting around a table playing cards, or in the tent getting ready to bed down for the night.
Another ideal option is the iconic Mini Maglite Pro+. This LED-updated version comes in a variety of colors, runs on two AA batteries, and keeps Maglite’s legendary focusable flood-to-spot beam with its familiar twist-type head switch. Olight’s S10-L2 Baton is another general-purpose light for around camp. This has a minimum output of just 0.5 lumen, which is ideal as a nightlight for the dark and stormy nights, but goes up to a respectable 400 lumens on its high setting. It has a lockout function to prevent accidental activation in your pack, is fully submersible, and features a magnet on the tail cap so you can slap it on your trunk or rear hatch to give you illumination when you’re packing or unpacking.
Finally, for those who just need More Power, Nitecore offers the TM26 “Tiny Monster” Quadray. Living up to its name, this powerhouse has an output range that tops out at a staggering 4,000 lumens, runs on disposable or rechargeable batteries, and even has an integrated ¼"-20 tripod mount so you can arrange hands-free area lighting when you need to set up camp at night or if you need to get ready to head out before first light. When 4,000 lumens is overkill, it has a low output of 3 lumens, with three other levels for whatever task you need to perform around camp.
Now that your campsite is set up and you’re settling in for some hardcore relaxation, your lighting needs change. Whether you’re looking to prepare dinner, clean up afterwards, or just want to play cards or backgammon, the way you need to light your area changes. This is a shift from directed light that is the feature of the previous recommendations to a more omnidirectional light that everyone can enjoy.
If you have camping companions who would rather play on their small electronic devices, Goal Zero offers a Lighthouse 250 lantern that features a USB charging hub. This lantern gives you the option of 180- or 360-degree lighting with an internal rechargeable battery that can be charged via a USB port, a fold-out hand crank, or plugged into a Goal Zero solar panel to charge during the day. With the battery charged, you can light your table while putting a charge into a phone or other device. Legs fold down to elevate the lantern on a table, and a handle allows you to carry or hang it.
Keeping with alternative energy options, LuminAID’s PackLite 12 is a folding lantern, designed to conserve pack space, and has a rechargeable battery and a solar panel on the top so you can charge it during the day and use it to light your cribbage game after dinner. The PackLite Spectra is similar to the PackLite 12, but offers eight colored-light choices in a single unit, so you have options at the table or in your tent.
For an all-around versatile campsite lantern, Bushnell’s Rubicon A350L lantern runs on easy-to-find D-cell batteries, can stand alone or be hung, and with three outputs up to 350 lumens, it gives as little or as much light as you need. Another all-purpose lantern is the Fenix CL25R lantern. Starting at 0.8 lumens in nightlight mode and going up to 350 lumens, this compact lantern weighs just 4.5 oz and stands less than 4" tall. Packed into that little housing are white and red LEDs that throw light in a full circle, and an internal battery compartment that uses the heat from the LEDs to regulate the temperature, giving it an operating temperature down to -31 degrees Fahrenheit. Multiple mounting options include a ¼"-20 tripod mount, a folding loop to carry or hang it, and a magnetic base.
If you’re more interested in a multi-tasker, Black Diamond’s Orbit v2 lantern/flashlight might be something worth looking at. Offered in five colors, it features a lantern that puts out 105 lumens of dimmable, ambient, non-glaring light; and on the tail cap is a conventional flashlight that outputs 50 lumens. This gives you the best of both worlds in one package. A larger version of the Orbit, the Voyager v2, goes up to 140 lumens in lantern mode and from 10-50 lumens in flashlight mode.
To light larger areas, BioLite’s NanoGrid area lighting is an ideal solution. Powering the system is the PowerLight lantern and charger. Much like the Goal Zero lantern above, the PowerLight functions like a conventional lantern, emitting up to 200 lumens in a 180-degree half circle—and it has an integrated USB charging port for phones or small electronic devices. Designed specifically to work with this is the SiteLight lighting system. Two individual lights are strung on a 10' cord, each with a maximum output of 150 lumens. For more light, simply get another string of SiteLights and daisy-chain the two together. This would be perfect to fully illuminate the area under a folding canopy if one light were hung on each side with the lantern on a table or hung from the center point.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention good old reliable candle power. As just about any James Cameron movie, well… ever, should have informed you: you can’t always depend on technology—and in fact, you probably shouldn’t. If you have the room and weight capacity you may want to consider back-up illumination that doesn’t rely on electronics. One of the most basic options would be Coghlan’s Survival Candle. Compact and lightweight, this three-wick candle will provide a decent amount of light with all three lit at the same time, or if you want to conserve it, you can light one wick at a time and extend the candle’s maximum burn time to as long as 36 hours. A step up from the candle is UCO’s Original Candle Lantern. Offered in six colors, it burns either 9-hour citronella or 12-hour beeswax candles and collapses down to just 4.25" to make it easy to pack. Moving up to something more appropriate for pop-up campers or car camping is the full-sized UCO Candlelier Candle Lantern. This uses up to three of the nine- or twelve-hour candles, has a glass chimney and, when using the heat shield, produces enough heat to warm small amounts of water or food.
As you can see from all the recommendations above, your lighting choices are vast. It’s important to consider not only the output, but also the light’s versatility—will this work for just one job, or will it pull its weight as a multi-tasker? Again, consider how it’s powered and how easy it is for you to obtain and carry spare batteries. Take a look at the different run times at different power levels, to make sure you’ll have light for your whole trip and not end up carrying a dead flashlight for half your hike. Finally, pay close attention to size and weights. If you’re car-camping, a larger flashlight and/or lantern might be perfect, but if you’re going to have to lug all your gear yourself, space becomes precious and the ounces add up quickly—especially after eight hours over rough terrain. Preparation is everything and, the more you plan ahead, the better your camping trip will be.