As discussed in our buying guide Head Torches, having a light source strapped to your head is the most user friendly way to go for most active outdoor scenarios. There are a few other options for lighting systems while you’re out in the wild however, including hand-held torches, self-supporting lanterns (battery or butane powered), and LED lighting systems with a remote battery pack (solar or USB rechargeable). In this guide we’ll look at the best circumstances for each product’s use and their pros and cons in different situations.
As described in Head Torches, a “Lumen”is a unit of measurement of the total amount of visible light emitted at the source of the light, aka the brightness. The higher the Lumens, the brighter the light. As a point of reference, remember that a candle emits around 10 Lumens, and a head torch between 20-300 Lumens.
Hand Held Torches
Suggested Uses: General purpose compact back-up light source. Have one in the first-aid kit, keyring, car glove box, around the house, engraved for a gift etc.
Hand held torches can be small and still very powerful. Tiny modern LED models throw out surprisingly high Lumens, particularly compared to dated classics like the ubiquitous half- kilo “Dolphin” torch. Hand held torches are also extremely rugged, usually made with a metal housing which can be crush proof and submersible. Lightweight models will be powered typically with watch batteries or between 1 and 3 AAA sized batteries. They can have a Lumen range of up to 100-200 Lumens, a weight range between 40-200gm, and a price range between say $35-$100+.
Hand held torches of course have the extreme disadvantage of taking up a hand to hold them, and have been essentially made redundant by (hands free) head torches for most outdoor activities. A small solid metal hand held torch however can be a great contingency back up to a plastic head torch, kept permanently in the first aid kit or car glove box. They are sometimes sold in nice presentation boxes and these make great gifts. A nice personal touch can be to have a message engraved on the side of the metal housing at a key cutting/watch repair shop.
Suggested Uses: Group lighting scenarios like cooking, playing cards etc., lighting up a tent, hut or campsite in general.
A self-supporting lantern is ideal when lighting is needed in a group scenario around the campsite or in a contained area with multiple people needing light (like in a tent or hut). A small lantern for used by a group while camping compliments the use of individual head torches, as a lantern gives out a diffuse all-around light (compared to the more focussed, directional light of a torch). Lanterns come in different sizes and types, and the system you choose will generally be related to its intended activity.
Battery powered LED lanterns are generally the toughest and lightest option for group lighting in the field. Compact AAA/AA battery models weigh between 100 - 220 grams, have brightness of around 45 – 80 Lumens, and cost between $50-$85. Larger “car camping” style models cost $120+. They take D size batteries and weigh up to 700grams, but can put out a generous 250 Lumens.
LED lanterns will usually have a dimming function to save battery life, and a blinking battery level indicator on the side. Lanterns usually have a hanging loop at the top (for in the tent etc.), and larger models will have fold out legs as well (great when preparing dinner in a group for example).
As a guide, a 100gram 45 Lumen model is the perfect size to hang inside a 2 person tent for reading, playing cards etc. A 220gram 80 Lumen model is more suited to a 4 person tent or cooking around a stove outside the tent, and a big heavy 200 Lumen model will light up a radius of around 14 metres, probably your whole campsite!
A butane powered lantern is probably the brightest lightweight light source you can buy, with Lumen ratings usually well above all battery powered alternatives. Butane lanterns provide bright incandescent light, burning a butane/propane mix on a glass shielded mantle.
At around 170grams, the lantern itself is reasonably lightweight for its power, but of course a canister has to be carried too. The self-sealing fuel canister is the same used on most butane hiking stoves, and they are sold in 100, 230 and 460gram sizes. These lanterns burn around 40grams of butane an hour. As a guide, a 230gram canister will be enough fuel for 2 people on a weekend walk (using the canister on the stove to cook 2 meals a day and using it on the lantern for a few hours at night).
The downside of butane lanterns is that they are fragile, having a glass shield and delicate mantle. The mantles are light, inexpensive and field replaceable, but the glass wind shield obviously cannot be thrown around. These lanterns usually come with a firm plastic case to help prevent damage. These lanterns are obviously also a potential fire hazard as they get very hot during use, and cannot be used in confined spaces (like a tent or snowcave) because of the harmful gasses they produce. They are also noisy, particularly on full power.
Other LED Lighting Systems
Suggested Uses: To enhance the utility of a Solar or USB battery system, small group lighting scenarios like cooking, lighting up a tent, etc.
With the emergence of new solar and USB rechargeable battery packs in the outdoor equipment market, interchangeable USB plug LED lighting systems are being introduced to enhance the useability of these systems. A lightweight LED lighting system is great for small group activities, and is in competition with the less powerful lanterns.
A simple USB lighting strip made to compliment a remote battery pack can be extremely lightweight (around 40grams) and cheap (around $10-$15), but has the obvious encumbrance of needing the heavy battery pack/solar kit to power it (100-600+grams, $100-250+). With low brightness ratings of around 25 Lumens, these products wouldn’t usually be bought for the sole purpose of lighting, but if you are already investing in the solar panel or USB battery system to charge a GPS, camera or mobile/satellite phone while away from civilisation, the addition of the plug in LED lighting system is a no-brainer. These lights can also be useful for travel, being able to plug into any USB power source like a laptop or wall adaptor.