Having a light specially suited for the task at hand makes life at camp much more enjoyable.
I'm getting to be an old geezer. I've been beating around the outdoors for 50 years now, and a lot has changed since I first started camping, fishing and hunting. Take camp lighting options, for example. When I went on my first real camping trip half a century ago, the only thing illuminating our campsite was the campfire itself. When the sun went down, my young friends and I huddled closer to the flames, hoping the fire would chase away imagined ghosts and goblins lurking in the darkness.
Nowadays when I camp, even though I'm seldom worried about things that go bump in the night, I carry a wide variety of lighting options, including flashlights, headlights, spotlights and lanterns. If I were backpacking, I would cull my selection considerably. But in the drive-to camps I typically visit, it's nice having different lights specifically suited for all sorts of tasks -- a propane lantern to illuminate the area outside the tent, a battery-powered lantern for inside use, a flashlight for trips to the latrine, a spotlight for seeing critters that come to visit ... well, you get the idea.
Fact is, there are so many different lights available for today's outdoors enthusiasts, it's easy to feel overwhelmed when trying to decide which to purchase. Is a fuel lantern best or one that runs on batteries? Should I buy an inexpensive flashlight with a conventional incandescent bulb or spend more on an LED or halogen light? Are rechargeable or disposable batteries best? These are just a few of the questions you may ask when perusing the many camp lighting options now available. To help you get the answers, we've prepared this guide to the primary types of lights and the pros and cons of each.
Flashlights provide a portable light source you can carry in a backpack, on a belt, in your pocket or even on a keychain. Prices vary widely depending on features, from $8 for a mini light such as Streamlight's NanoLight to more than $400 for a top-of-the-line model such as SureFire's Millennium Combat Flashlight.
When shopping for a flashlight consider the type of bulb used, the amount of light it projects and its relative lifespan.
A big difference among flashlights (and other battery-powered camp lights) is the type of light used (krypton, halogen, xenon or LED), the amount of light it projects (measured in "lumens" -- the more lumens, the brighter the light) and its relative lifespan.
Incandescent lights create light when electricity heats a tungsten filament inside a glass bulb. Originally, they had a vacuum around the filament, but newer ones contain krypton, xenon or halogen gas for increased efficiency.
- Krypton bulbs have double the average life (about 2,000 hours) of conventional incandescent bulbs but aren't as bright as halogen or xenon.
- Halogen bulbs are whiter and brighter than krypton bulbs and have a slightly longer life (about 2,500 hours).
- Xenon bulbs produce twice the light of halogen bulbs while consuming half the power and lasting twice as long (about 5,000 hours).
These three types are technologically superior to conventional incandescents, but the filaments eventually burn out, and the bulb must be replaced. Also, the fragile filaments often break when jarred.
The lights in LED (Light Emitting Diode) flashlights have no filament to burn out or break and don't get hot like incandescents. Solid-state construction makes them very durable and long-lived -- up to 100,000 hours of life. They also have extremely long run-times (hundreds of hours) at low illumination levels, unlike a xenon or halogen light that may have, at best, 5 to 9 hours of run-time. The drawback to LEDs is they don't project light over great distances; most are best for close illumination.
Also available are combination incandescent/LED flashlights such as Streamlight's Twin-Task Buckmaster Camo LED/Xenon Flashlight. These provide the best of both worlds, allowing you to adjust the brightness and thus energy consumption level of your light.
A headlamp is your best lighting option whenever you need the use of both your hands to perform a task.
Another consideration is whether to buy a flashlight that uses disposable or rechargeable batteries. Disposable (non-rechargeable) batteries, the standard AAA, AA, C, D and 9-volt units everyone is familiar with, have a lower purchase price, so it's less expensive to keep spares on hand. Their biggest limitation is their one-time use, which makes them about 30 times more expensive than rechargeable batteries. On the plus side, they have long storage life, 50% more power than lithium-ion rechargeables and immediate operational readiness. No charging is required before use. Rechargeable batteries (nickel-cadmium or lithium ion) have a higher initial purchase price and must be charged before use, but they are much more economical in the long run and often support a brighter bulb or LED.
Here are some additional points to consider as well:
- Disposable alkaline batteries -- While fairly inexpensive, performance is affected by heat and cold. They are brightest when first used and decline rapidly thereafter.
- Disposable lithium batteries -- Not affected by extreme heat and cold. Have a steady power curve over the life of the battery and a long shelf life of nearly 10 years.
- Rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries -- Highest performance/cost ratio of rechargeables. New technology has increased effectiveness, but must be fully charged to prevent memory-effect problems. Rechargeable up to 1,000 times. Must be recycled or disposed of properly.
- Rechargeable lithium ion batteries -- Can be charged up to 1,000 times with no memory-effect problems. Longer run-time but more expensive than standard lithium batteries. Environmentally friendly; can be thrown away.
With the above information on bulb and battery types, you begin the process of selecting a flashlight that's right for you, but before making a purchase, consider other features as well.
- Size: Choose a light that will be comfortable and convenient to use, store and carry. A five-D-cell light may have phenomenal light output great for illuminating distant objects, but it's probably too long and heavy for backpacking where a smaller light is more appropriate.
- Construction: Quality, long-lasting lights are built with superior components such as a machined aluminum or Nitrolon body, a Lexan or Pyrex bezel (the clear lens through which the light shines), a well-designed reflector behind the light, an easy on-off switch and weatherproofing features such as O-ring seals.
- Specialty lights: Many lights are made with specific purposes in mind, including emergency lights such as Bass Pro Shops' Crank Flashlight with Weather Alert Radio and tactical models such as SureFire's C3 Centurion. If you have a specific task in mind, there's probably a light made for it.
Headlamps are basically flashlights that provide the convenience of hands-free operation. Strapped on the forehead or clipped on a hat brim, they are excellent for tasks such as pounding tent stakes in the dark, settling into a deer stand before dawn, reading a book in your sleeping bag or tying knots when night fishing.
Scouting for game in the dark, varmint hunting, boating and emergency signaling are all tasks for which a spotlight is well suited.
The effects of different light and battery types used in flashlights are relevant to headlamps as well. One characteristic more pertinent to headlamps is weight. Models range in size from 1 to 5 ounces, and while those differences may seem insignificant, they can greatly affect comfort for some people when a headlamp is worn for long periods. Small-statured individuals may want to use lighter models that won't fatigue neck and shoulder muscles.
The best headlamps are jointed in some way so the light can be swiveled to aim it where it's needed. Some like Petzal's E+Lite Compact feature a combination of white and colored LEDs so you can switch to red or another color for enhanced night vision, emergency signaling or wildlife watching. Those with variable light levels allow you to balance brightness needs with battery life. Some headlamps also allow adjustment of the light beam from spot to flood so the light is useful for both long-distance lighting and up-close work.
When you need a super-bright, far-reaching light, a spotlight works best. Scouting for game in the dark, varmint hunting, boating and emergency signaling are all tasks for which a spotlight is well suited. Removable red lenses come standard with some lights to facilitate these activities.
Power options are important considerations when selecting a spotlight. Some spotlights work only off 12-volt systems, either a cigarette-lighter plug or battery-post clips. The user's mobility is limited by the length of the cord (usually 6 to 10 feet), but the light will shine continuously as the long as it's hooked up to a viable power source. Models that recharge on 110V or 12V systems also are available. The user's mobility is unlimited with these, but run-time varies from just 45 minutes for some halogen-light models to 2.5 hours for an LED spotlight. Several deck-mount marine models also are available for boating applications.
LED spotlights like the Coleman Cree XR-E have brightness levels measured in lumens -- the more lumens, the brighter the light. These aren't as bright as halogen lights, however, which typically are rated in terms of candlepower. The latter vary substantially, from 400,000 candlepower to 6.5 million or more on models like one of the Cyclops spotlights. Be aware as well that LED spotlights stay cool to the touch. A halogen light may get hot enough to cause serious burns if touched. Choose accordingly.
For safety reasons, fuel lanterns are for outdoor use only; battery operated models are best for lighting the inside of tents and other enclosed areas.
Lanterns are used to illuminate broad areas such as the inside of a tent or an outdoor campsite. Old-fashioned kerosene and candle lanterns still are available, but the two basic types most used by today's campers are battery lanterns and fuel lanterns.
Battery lanterns, which come in many varieties, don't get as hot or release fumes so they're the best type for use in a tent or indoors. They are useful outside as well, and are the best choice for kids to handle. Battery lanterns are not as bright as fuel lanterns, so they are better suited for lighting smaller spaces or for up-close activities such as reading.
Light and battery options are the same as for flashlights, so refer to that section above for additional information. Battery lanterns also are available with fluorescent light tubes, but these are quickly being replaced with longer lasting, more reliable LEDs.
A number of styles are available, from those that look like classic Coleman lanterns to very contemporary styles and colors. Specialty features abound. Coleman's Retro Remote Control lantern, for example, can be turned on, off and changed to one of its three brightness settings from a distance of up to 50 feet away. It has a built-in nightlight that will run for 100 hours. Great for emergencies is Bass Pro Shop's Wind Up Lantern and Flashlight Combo Set that requires no batteries or power cords. The flashlight and lantern use bright LED bulbs and can get about 20 minutes of illumination for 1 minute of winding. You also can choose lanterns with built-in features such as radios and cell-phone chargers.
For safety reasons, fuel lanterns are for outdoor use. These produce very bright light, although some like the Coleman lantern are adjustable and can be turned to a low setting for nice ambient light.
The two primary kinds of fuel lanterns are liquid-fuel and propane lanterns. Liquid-fuel lanterns run on white gas. Many also are available in dual-fuel models, which means they are designed to run on white gas or regular unleaded gasoline. The fuel is poured from a storage can into the lantern's small gas tank. Then, the lantern is pumped with a small thumb pump to pressurize the tank.
Propane lanterns run on disposable propane cylinders. The cylinders attach to the lantern by threading them onto a fitting. A plastic base then snaps on the bottom of the cylinder to provide a stable base so the lantern can be placed on a table or other surface.
The convenience of using disposable, screw-on cylinders has made propane models more popular than liquid-fuel lanterns. There's no need to pour fuel, no spillage possibility and no need to pump. Propane lanterns also can be purchased with an electronic ignition option, meaning no matches are required to light the lantern. This is another popular feature not available on most liquid-fuel lanterns.
Both liquid-fuel and propane lantern types use mantles -- small fabric bags that attach to the burners and produce the illumination. Single- and double-mantle models are available. Double-mantle models are typically brighter and slightly more expensive.
Mantles now are available that "clip on," using a simple wire clip that easily slips in place. Tie-on mantles, the old-fashioned type, are still in use as well. Although today's mantles are considerably stronger and more durable, and have been engineered to produce a whiter light, they are still the most fragile component of a fuel lantern. Spare mantles should be a part of any camper's standard supplies.
Propane lanterns are comparatively less expensive to purchase (comparing two-mantle standard to two-mantle standard). Liquid-fuel lanterns are less expensive to operate, although both types are inexpensive to run on a per hour basis. Both have similar run times, about 7 hours on high per tank of fuel, or about 14 hours on low. Propane lanterns have a more consistent brightness over time (each tankful that is) because of pressure regulators, whereas a liquid-fuel lantern might need to be pumped up once or twice during its run time to use a tank of fuel.
In the end, you should consider all the pros and cons of each type of light before deciding which is best for you. Fortunately, there are many different models from which to choose, and one of them is sure to be just right for your needs. Make your selection and let there be light!