A Guide to Lighting in the Backcountry

camping lightsThe mar­ket­place for camp light­ing today is vast and includes lanterns, stan­dard flash­lights, head­lamps, and the newest—strings of LED lights to deck out your tent. Each type has its pur­pose, draw­backs, and ben­e­fits, but they all beat the heavy met­al propane beasts from the days of yore.

Sort­ing out which is the best option comes down to your needs and camp style.

Weight is every­thing when you’re back­pack­ing, at least for any­one spend­ing more than a cou­ple of days in the back­coun­try or wilder­ness. The lighter the bet­ter and that usu­al­ly means a headlamp.

Bat­tery Power
Lithi­um bat­ter­ies out­per­form alka­line bat­ter­ies in cold con­di­tions, but if you’re most­ly a desert or tem­per­ate camper or back­pack­er, alka­line bat­ter­ies work fine. Just remem­ber to remove them at the end of your trip so you don’t have to wor­ry about con­tact point cor­ro­sion from the inevitable leak of an alka­line battery.

Recharge­able nick­el met­al hydride (NiMH) bat­ter­ies are anoth­er option, and per­form equal­ly well in hot or cold weath­er, but do tend to drain pow­er when not in use. Be sure to pack along some back­up alka­line bat­ter­ies even if you choose to use NiMH batteries.

Anoth­er new option show­ing up in camp light­ing is reg­u­lat­ed out­put, which pro­vides a steady lev­el of bright­ness through­out the life of what­ev­er type of bat­tery you’re using rather than slow­ly dim­ming as the bat­tery drains (which helps by giv­ing you a heads up to change them). The prob­lem is that when reg­u­lat­ed out­put bat­ter­ies expire, it will be a sud­den unex­pect­ed sit­u­a­tion. Hope­ful­ly, your spare bat­ter­ies aren’t in the bot­tom of your pack.

Water Resis­tance
If you’re spend­ing a lot of time back­pack­ing in wet or snowy weath­er, or plan to camp near water, con­sid­er a light­ing unit that can tol­er­ate the expo­sure, as well as a brief unex­pect­ed dunk in shal­low water (you know, just in case.)

Pow­er Lock
Look for light­ing that fea­tures an on and off switch that locks in place to keep it from inad­ver­tent­ly turn­ing on in a shift­ing pack.

Light­ing Power/Output
A light built with high lumen out­put will burn through bat­ter­ies faster than a light with a low lumen count. So go for midrange counts unless you need the secu­ri­ty of hav­ing a light that will let you crawl out of a canyon in the dark (260 lumens will cast a beam up to 656 ft.). Don’t make the mis­take of think­ing high­er lumens means brighter light, though. It real­ly depends on how the unit directs that light.

Light­ing that offers 60-lumen out­put is about per­fect for most back­coun­try camp­ing. But most light­ing units today come with high, mid, and low range options (like 130, 60, and 15 lumens), and the abil­i­ty to mode cycle through them. Some also have a strobe set­ting for emer­gen­cies. This is a good option to have in most cas­es but will add a bit of weight to the unit.

How much light­ing do you actu­al­ly need? A 100-lumen lantern will illu­mi­nate a work­ing area (for exam­ple a cook­ing site) for two to three peo­ple. Nei­ther head­lamps or torch­es (flash­lights) work well for more than one per­son; you still need lumens in the 60 count range. For cook­ing in the dark or read­ing, look for a light with a “flood” option.

Reach (a dis­tance of pro­ject­ed light) is not of huge impor­tance unless you are trekking in the dark, which is rarely advis­able anyway.

The Hours of Darkness
Final­ly, con­sid­er how much time you will spend in camp in the dark and with whom. Head­lamps make cook­ing in the dark an eas­i­er task. If you’re shar­ing camp with more than one oth­er per­son, though, con­sid­er the issue of too much bright white light bounc­ing around your shared space—especially if you have ear­ly-to-bed campers among your group. A lantern with frost­ed glass will soft­en light beams bet­ter than a head­lamp or torch unless either of those has a red light option on it.

Once you’ve fig­ured out those options, it’s time to con­sid­er the unit design.

Lanterns pro­vide a cen­tral light­ing source, shed­ding light beams in a 360-degree pat­tern, allow­ing more peo­ple to use it, in lim­it­ed ways. Inflat­able lanterns are a light­weight option for back­pack­ers who are more inter­est­ed in sub­dued light­ing. Nei­ther type of lantern offers any sort of direct, focused light­ing so nei­ther is very good for detailed tasks.

In recent years, man­u­fac­tur­ers have shaved weight and upgrad­ed the design quo­tients of the basic lantern. Look for a small LED lantern (for longer bat­tery life), tri­pod legs (to accom­mo­date uneven ground), large but­ton switch­es to make night­time use eas­i­er, and a hang­ing sys­tem (prefer­ably a hook) for use inside your tent or in a tree. All the bet­ter for extend­ed back­coun­try use if it’s also fold­able and durable. You’ll be hard-pressed, though, to find one weigh­ing less than 7 ounces.

Tent lights
Weigh­ing about the same as a lantern or torch, these are strung through the inte­ri­or of your tent, like Christ­mas lights. Much like inflat­able lanterns, they’re more about chill­ing than illu­mi­nat­ing a work area. And they absolute­ly will not help you nav­i­gate a guy-wire strewn camp to take a leak in the mid­dle of the night. Keep in mind, as well, that the bat­ter­ies run out much quick­er than most are rat­ed (many say 72 hours, but the ones we test­ed last­ed 25% less than that so it’s a crap­shoot). If you don’t mind car­ry­ing the extra weight of AAA bat­ter­ies than go for it.

Stan­dard torch/flashlight
Of all poten­tial camp light­ing, the basic torch is per­haps the most durable and the best for sig­nal­ing (most come with strobe set­tings). Look for one with an easy push tail cap but­ton rather than one you need to screw the head to turn it on or off (although some peo­ple love this fea­ture, many more find it too easy to leave it in the part on posi­tion, which slow­ly drains the bat­tery). You also want one with a hook or lan­yard on it so you can hang it over a work area or in your tent.

The most com­pli­cat­ed choice of all—simply because there are so many iter­a­tions available—is the head­lamp. By far, it’s the most ver­sa­tile and offers the most sta­ble, focused light­ing. Prices tend to track inverse­ly with weight. For the most part, the heav­ier the hand­lamp, the less you’ll pay. In the end, for many, it comes down to price point. If you’re an ultra­light week­long back­pack­er, you’ll like­ly be hap­py to pay more to car­ry less weight. For short­er trips, where weight isn’t as cru­cial, a low-priced head­lamp will do just fine.

Some head­lamps come with option­al beam set­tings includ­ing wide, also called “flood,” for read­ing, camp tasks or night­time elim­i­na­tion trips; or spot (also referred to as focused or nar­row beam) for long-dis­tance view­ing or night time hiking.

Look for one with mul­ti­ple lumen set­tings as well as a red light if you plan to camp with a group. Bright white (LED in par­tic­u­lar) light makes pupils shrink and will tem­porar­i­ly blind your camp mates (espe­cial­ly on high lumen set­tings). Red light doesn’t do that, mak­ing them a more con­sid­er­ate choice for groups. Every­one can still see what they’re doing but with­out all the blar­ing and glar­ing “light” noise.