The 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.