Spending a night outdoors is something everyone should experience. Sitting by the fire and laughing with friends is where friendships really grow.
While the night can be magical and mysterious, the dark can be difficult to navigate. Tripping over chairs and fumbling through packs can be a real pain. Lanterns are a crucial piece of camping gear to light your way. In this article I’ll walk you through the different types of lanterns and how to choose the right product for your needs. Lanterns are also great at home for emergency preparedness or a survival kit.
There are three main categories when it’s comes to outdoor lighting: flashlights, headlamps, and lanterns. While flashlights and headlamps are now primarily battery-powered LEDs, lanterns are unique in that there are still some gas-powered variants along with battery-powered LED versions.
Flashlights are what we are most familiar with. They can vary greatly in features and capabilities, with some flashlights giving off more light than your car’s headlights. Overall, flashlights are “throwers” of directional light. This means they are very good at projecting light a long distance in a certain direction. There are models that are better at illuminating wide areas in front of you (these are called floods), but they still run into the issue of not being bi-directional. Flashlights are convenient, easy to use, and good quality lights can be relatively inexpensive. While an important part of a lighting system (especially at home), flashlights have been overtaken by headlamps in the outdoor scene.
Headlamps are exactly what they sound like: head-mounted lamps. These are great for an individual; they can put out a good amount of light but don’t weigh much, can generally throw and flood light, and are very ergonomic. However these aren’t the best for illuminating a campsite as they do not provide 360° of light, and you tend to blind whomever you’re talking to. Headlamps are best suited to individuals, not groups. For help selecting a headlamp, check out this article.
Lanterns are great for hands-free illumination of a surrounding area. They generally provide 360° of flood lighting and are hands-free. While some lanterns have features to throw light, the ability is usually not as great as with flashlights or headlamps. Lanterns come in multiple sizes, with larger units working best for car camping and smaller units for backpacking. Lanterns are also unique in that there are gas and electric models.
Gas-powered lanterns are best when weight is not a concern and more light is needed. Gas lanterns come in two varieties: liquid fuel and propane. Liquid fuel, or white gas, is the same fuel used in many cooking stoves, and propane lanterns use the same canisters as many backpacking stoves. Liquid fuel lanterns are the absolute brightest lanterns out there, but also the heaviest and most expensive. Many liquid fuel lanterns are bright enough to light up an entire campground and are usually adjustable so you can dial the brightness to your liking. Disadvantages of this system include the potential mess of pouring the fuel, and the need to occasionally pressurize the gas by pumping.
Propane lanterns are a step down from liquid fuel in terms of brightness, but they also usually cost and weigh less. These lanterns are easy to use; you simply screw the lantern onto a fuel canister, light it up, and that’s it. Both styles of gas-powered lanterns use mantles. These are small fabric bags that encompass the burner and are essential for light production. While mantles are more durable then they used to be, it’s definitely worth having an extra mantle or two when you go on trips. Another tip is to choose a lantern with the same fuel as your stove; that way you don’t need to fuss with multiple fuel types.
It’s important to note that neither of these lanterns are meant to be used in enclosed spaces; they are only for use in well-ventilated areas. They also produce a lot of heat and care should be taken around flammable materials, children, and pets.
While too heavy and bulky to take on backpacking trips, gas-powered lanterns are the answer when light output is your number one priority.
Electric lanterns are all similar in that they use an electric power source to power an LED bulb. Where they differ is in the type of power source and their size and weight. Electric lanterns can be powered by alkaline batteries, rechargeable batteries, or even an external power source. Their sizes can range from those that will fit in your pocket and illuminate your tent to others as big as a gallon milk jug.
Alkaline batteries (known as “primaries” in the flashlight world) are the most familiar power source. They are relatively inexpensive, reliable, and easy to swap out once they are depleted. A downside to this power source is the added cost of replenishing dead batteries. Some alkaline powered lanterns can be converted to run on rechargeable battery packs.
Electric lanterns come in a wide variety of shapes and styles.
Rechargeable batteries, when sold with a lantern, are generally power-packs as opposed to rechargeable individual batteries. These packs can either be fully integrated and sealed within the unit, or accessible and replaceable. Personally, I like lanterns in which I can access the battery. That way I can replace the power pack when it dies and continue using the lantern. Some of these can be charged by plugging into a power source, and some require you to take out the batteries to charge, and some allow you to charge via either means.
Finally, a few rechargeable lanterns have the ability to run on alternative power sources, such as a USB power packs, solar panels, or hand cranks. The Luci lanterns, powered by a small built-in solar panel, throw out a lot of light and are very lightweight and portable thanks to their inflatable design.
And of course, many of these lanterns can be converted to run on primaries. While rechargeable batteries are great because you don’t need to constantly buy new batteries, if your lantern does not have the ability to change out battery packs then you could be SOL when yours grows dim. Think about the duration of trips you typically take before deciding which lantern will be best for you.
Overall, electric lanterns are great because they are long-lasting, durable, lightweight, inexpensive, and safe. Many lanterns have different modes to allow you to adapt the lantern to your lighting needs. On the other hand, even the larger electric lanterns aren’t quite as bright as their gas-powered counterparts. Electric lanterns are not a great choice for cold temperatures because the electricity-producing chemical reaction that takes place in batteries (whether alkaline or rechargeable lithium-ion) is hindered by low temps.
The output of light is measured in lumens; the higher the lumens the brighter the light. Not all lanterns are measured equally; some are measured inside the lantern at the bulb while others are measured from outside the lantern (this value is called an “out the front” value). Overall, a brighter lamp will consume more energy so many models offer multiple modes or brightness levels. For lanterns, lumens start out around 40 and can run up to 700 for the brightest modes; most lanterns will offer something in the 150-350 lumen range. For just poking around camp at night 100 lumens is sufficient.
Keep in mind that perceived brightness can be affected by optics and design; some lanterns will provide great lighting on the table they are set on but not much else, while others will cast their light a bit farther.
How many lumens you you really need?
Size & Weight
While not a definite rule, size and weight are generally proportional to a lantern’s light output. Smaller lamps are perfect for backpackers, since they will have a low output and weigh only a few ounces. The low output is really all that is needed for a trailside meal or reading in your tent. On the other hand, larger gas lanterns will weigh a few pounds but be able to light up an entire campground and the ensuing festivities.
Remember to also consider the weight of your power source when accounting for the total weight of a lantern. A light is useless with nothing to power it!
The collapsible Black Diamond Orbit Lantern is slightly larger than a locking carabiner and weighs just 3 ounces.
It’s important to note that battery type is important when using your lantern. Some lanterns are able to use alkaline and lithium batteries, but not every lantern can. Also, lithium-ion rechargeable batteries are a great way to use rechargeables with a “primary” powered device.
Alkaline batteries lose about half of their capacity when the ambient temperature is below freezing. While they won’t retain their full capacity, lithium batteries perform much better in colder temperatures. If you must run an alkaline setup, I recommend keeping the batteries in in an inner pocket or in your sleeping bag to prevent the cold from draining them.
Burn Time & Run Time
“Burn time” and “run time” are interchangeable terms that will provide you with an expectation for how long your lamp will provide light based on a set amount of fuel or the use of one set of batteries. Remember that is just an estimation and these times can and do vary. I recommend erring on the shorter side and I typically bring extra batteries with me (unless I’ve replaced the batteries right before a short trip).
Few lanterns or lights will be full-immersion waterproof but many offer water and splash resistance. These standards are referred to as the International Protection Marking and will provide you with insight as to what your lantern can withstand. Overall, an IPX-0 rating means there is absolutely no water ingress protection, while an IPX-8 rating guarantees functionality after/during submersion of up to 3 meters. For casual outdoor use, an IPX-4 rating is sufficient; it offers protection from splashing in any direction. Check here for a full rundown of the different IPX ratings.
Other Features to Look For
While there are many different types of lanterns, it’s actually pretty easy to pick the right one. The main things you need to think about are power source and lumen output. Once you know your power source and lumen output, it’s just deciding on physical size, weight, and features that best suit your needs.