Sitting around a campfire, sharing beer or stories while staring into a dark night sky is what makes camping so enjoyable, among other things. If you want to have a good time, grab your family and best friends, and plan a camping trip, it’s a wonderful occasion to make good memories. I still remember the smell of burning pinewood and the pitch-black night skies of western Canada when I was 10 years old, and my parents took me on a 3-week camping trip.
But, as fire gives you warmth and comfort, I know many scenarios where the light of a camping fire is not enough. Especially if you go on activation oriented camping trips like backpacking, mountaineering, or kayak expeditions, there might be times when you need more light than a fire can provide. Or you go on a camping trip while a drought happens, making fires a no-no. There are many backcountry campsites in Europe where fires are not allowed anyway, which makes a good camping lantern important. But should you buy a gas or led camping lantern? Let’s talk about the pros and cons of the different styles of camping lanterns in this article!
In 2019, the time when I write this article, you can find many different options for camping lanterns. Lanterns are generally hands-free and have a good amount of light that they emit, plus they are easy to use. But things like size and weight, power source and durability as well as ergonomy, price and safety, and water-resistance are varying from lamp to lamp.
What Types of Camping Lanterns Are There?
We differentiate 3 main types of camping lanterns: Electric camping lanterns using LED lights, fuel-burning lanterns, and candle lanterns.
Electronic Camping Lanterns
Most electronic lanterns today are battery-powered LED lights. LED means light-emitting diode, and these lanterns usually use alkaline or lithium(-ion) type batteries to power a bright lamp that is very energy efficient. Some are rechargeable, and some are not.
You can also refill some LED lanterns with external battery packs via a USB charging port. LED lights have more or less replaced the typical lightbulbs from the 1990s and before.
Pros of LED camping lanterns
- Safe: LED lanterns are inherently safe. You won’t have to worry about flammable materials around the lantern, and they can be used by children and pets too.
- Convenient: Rechargeable batteries are easy to carry and reuse, and can be bought at any gas station. They are also easy to pack inside a backpack
- Lightweight: Most LED camping lanterns are pretty light
- Durable and water-resistant: It’s not hard to make a water-resistant electrical device today, thanks to integrated circuits and sealing. Thus most LED camping lanterns are also water-resistant
- a tent, near flammable materials, attached to a pack,
Cons of LED camping lanterns
- Non-rechargeable batteries are wasteful
- Batteries might not last for multi-day trips
- Light amount emitted not enough to light a large area
The lanterns all burn fuel. Some use butane in disposable canisters, some use liquid-fuel which is a refillable white gas or even unleaded fuel. Propane burning lanterns come with refillable tanks and are very efficient. Fuel-burning camping lanterns use a mantle as a medium to make the lamp function. This medium is covered by a film of the burning fuel, and when ignited starts to glow and emits light. Did you know that the mantles of gas lanterns where slightly radioactive in the past? It sounds weird, but you can read about it here.
Pros of fuel-burning lanterns
- Brightness: You won’t find a much brighter lantern than a fuel-burning camping lantern when it comes to how much area you can light with a small footprint of a camping lantern.
- Adjustable: Fuel-burning lanterns are super adjustable
- Long burn time: One canister can last for up to a full day of light
- Warm light: As you burn something, the light emitted is nice, warm and cozy
- Reliable: No need to worry about broken circuits or malfunctions. As long as the mantle is intact and you have fuel, there won’t be much trouble with a fuel-burning camping lantern
Cons of fuel-burning lanterns
- Needs fuel: If you want to restock, you need to carry extra containers with fuel or propane gas
- Fragile mantles: It’s easy to break the mantle if you are not careful, so bring replacements
- Heavier and bulkier than electric lanterns
- More expensive than electric lanterns
- Needs ventilation: Don’t use in tents etc.
- Hot to touch
- Sometimes loud (hissing noise)
Candle Camping Lanterns
Candle camping lanterns are basically nothing more than candles surrounded with protective housing and some deflectors to spread the light emitted by the candle. The light is very soft and natural, but due to their nature (candles are candles :D), they don’t emit a ton of light. Some of candle camping lanterns use multiple candles.
Pros of candle lanterns
- Soft light, creating a wonderful camping atmosphere
- No noise
- Enough light for simple tasks
Cons of candle lanterns
- Safety: You should keep candle lanterns away from sleeping bags, children and other flammable materials
- Can burn your skin when hot
- Does not give a lot of light, making them unsuitable for lighting up larger areas
Finding The Right Lantern for Your Activity
When you read the text above, it becomes clear that any lantern type offers some unique advantages. Weight, power source, and light output can be important on different scales. If you set up a base camp with a large kitchen area, you might need a powerful light to light up the kitchen, and that’s where a fuel-burning light shines. If you want to play cards with your friends in a cabin, candlelight might be enough.
Backpacking trips: Perfect for LED lanterns
If you just want to go on a short backpacking trip, an electronic LED lantern is perfect. The small size and lightweight mean it is good for stowing away in your backpack, and if you have a hook or lanyard, you can easily hang the lantern inside your tent as a reading light. You might need to bring some replacement batteries, depending on the length of your trip. The added water resistance is another great benefit – you never know what weather you run into, especially when hiking in autumn or spring! There are some great multifunctional lanterns with USB chargers, too, and if you buy a solar panel, you can even recharge them on the go.
You might even consider a candle lantern, although we always recommend people to bring some sort of headlamp as a replacement light. It’s not a good idea to bring a candle lantern as the ONLY source of light on an outdoor trip.
Longer Backpacking trips
Get a bigger LED lantern or a compact fuel-burning lantern ff you plan to venture into the backcountry for more than two nights. You will need a lantern with a longer average burn time. In general, greater lumen output also means that your lantern is brighter and has a larger battery. A larger battery makes the camping lantern heavier.
If you want to make sure you are on the right side, do this simple calculation: Count how many nights you will be hiking, find out the sunset time in the area you plan to hike in. Now estimate how many hours per night you will need light – 8-hour darkness does not mean you need 8 hours light as you will be sleeping for some hours. Multiply this number with the number of nights you will be out camping, and add 5 hours for emergency extra time. Example:
A hiking trip of 3 nights, with sunset at 8 pm, means you need ca. 3 hours of light per night. That makes 3×3=9hours + additional 5 hours extra for an emergency extra. So you need 14 hours of light. Now when you choose a camping lantern, make sure to have a look at both runtimes for low and high light output settings if the lantern has an adjustable light output. If you need more than one set of batteries, use the calculation to find out how many batteries you need: If your lantern has a 7-hour runtime with one set of batteries, you need an additional set to get up to 14 hours runtime and so on.
You can also bring multiple lighter lanterns if you have more than one backpack or have more than one tent in your backpacking group. Sometimes it’s also smart to just bring a backup lantern in case the main lantern breaks down.
If you are into more comfortable camping styles, such as car camping, you can also bring heavier lanterns. Car camping is common for mountain bikers, trail runners, and family vacations.
Your car is a perfect place to store a heavier fuel-driven lantern or a big battery-powered lantern. Because you don’t need to pack gear in your backpack, you have more options to choose from. You can pick any lantern, no matter how bulky or heavy it is, and you can bring plenty of extra fuel if you want to use the lantern on the highest intensity.
RV Camping is a special niche: most of the time, you will have plenty of light inside the RV, and some even have outside lamps installed. But as soon as you need more light outside or for the walks from the RV to other places on the campsite, a good lantern can still come in handy. And for storing fuel and extra backup batteries, the rules are the same as for car camping: A RV has plenty of space for a bright but bulky camping lantern!
Each camping lantern type has some advantages, and it all depends if you go on a backpacking trip or have a car or RV. If you need more information on the best fuel-driven camping lanterns read our guide with the best fuel-powered camping lanterns in 2020, you can find it here.
If you want the best camping lantern, check out our guide on the best portable lanterns.