After a long day of invigorating hiking, you have found a camp for the evening. Dusk is settling across your campsite, and you have too much to do. There is no way that you will be able to set up sleeping quarters, stash gear safely, and cook food before the sun goes down on your outdoor adventure.
Don’t get caught in the dark! We can help you prepare for this situation. It’s time to turn on the light, but which light is best for you?
Lamps & Lanterns Compared: What's the difference?
- Size: Extremely compact and light; only batteries need to fit inside a pack
- Lumens: 40 to 120 on average; flood and focused
- Precision: Direct light source
- Ease of use: Hands-free and portable
- Power: variable battery types
- Size: Variable but generally large and rigid; must go inside a backpack
- Lumens: 150 to 350 on average; area coverage
- Precision: 360-degree lighting
- Ease of Use: Requires camp space; must use hand to carry
- Power: variable (electric and gas powered)
Breaking Down Your Light Options
When you are only able to take what can be carried on your back sustainably over the course of a long day of hiking and camping, size becomes a crucial aspect of anything you pack. Nothing should take up more than its fair share of space, and that space must be allocated based on necessities first followed by luxuries.
How much space will your lighting choice have inside your pack?
Headlamps can be placed on your head for the duration of the hike if necessary. If this isn’t something you want to do, they can also be folded up to take little to no room inside a pack.
Of course, all smart campers will pack some extra batteries just in case, but those are small items that require very little space. These are almost an afterthought that can be stuffed into the very top of an already very full pack.
Lanterns are quite rigid. They’re dead weight in a pack that can’t be crammed, smashed, or stuffed into fitting any better. Unlike headlamps, they aren’t something that can be carried without taking a room in a pack, so space must be budgeted to fit them.
Many lanterns don’t have stable bases and also require tripods with poles to prevent them from tipping over while in use. They also take more battery power for use, so backups are a must.
Lamp/Lantern Size Winner
In our first lamp vs. lantern contest, headlamps reign supreme. They are significantly smaller and more portable than their rigid counterparts.
The brightness of camp lighting is measured in lumens. Most campsites need anywhere from 40 to 120 lumens to be effective depending on the task at hand. Many lighting sources offer colored lighting to preserve battery power and prevent blindness in eyes that need to be able to adjust to the darkness of night in the wilderness.
Headlamps tend to run around 60 lumens of focused lighting. Many of them have flood and spotlight settings. Flood settings allow for decreased luminosity in a larger space so that reading and writing can be done after dark.
Spotlights focus all the lumens into a very narrow beam that can illuminate things much farther away. This is a great option for night trails but can often blind other campers if you forget that you’re wearing the lamp and shine it right into their eyes.
Lanterns have a wide range of lumens, but rarely go as dim as headlamps because they are made to cover a wider area. Many campsites operate using 120-lumen lanterns. Some of them come with a toggle to a lower light setting for nightlights and use after campers go to bed.
Headlamps win this round, too. They offer a wider range of lumen variability and can be hyper-focused for an intense beam instead of being spread out to offer less brightness over a larger area of space like a lantern.
Precision: Beam vs Flood
Considering the tasks at hand is important. Are you planning to use your light to cook and read, or is it just for finding your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night? Are you camping with a group of people who have all agreed to split supplies, or is this a solo vacation?
Headlamps are a great option for solo campers. They are extremely precise and shine light directly where you are looking. These are perfect for cooking after the sun sets if your food isn’t being prepared over a campfire.
Lanterns offer less precision. They shine in a 360° range instead of being directed at a specific point. As such, they’re a great option for larger groups of people but not that well suited for more precise tasks that require brighter lighting. The advantage to lantern precision is that many models have a built-in SOS strobe light for emergencies.
This is a very close call, but the lantern is the winner in this category. A lot of campers would rather have enough light for their entire group than a small beam of precise light. The lantern's emergency strobe is also a great feature.
Ease of Use
When choosing between lamp vs. lantern, you should also carefully consider how easy it will be to use the light source on your trip. No one wants something that is difficult to operate or change when batteries get low. High maintenance is not a viable option in the wilderness.
Headlamps are extremely easy to use. Strap the light to your head and forget about it. These lamps can guide you down a trail after dark while keeping your hands free for other necessities like firewood and navigation tools.
These require a bit more work. Many lanterns have stands that will tip over if used on uneven ground, while others come with tripods. More lightweight versions simply have a pole or hook that needs to be attached to some equipment rather than self-standing.
If you want to go to the bathroom in the dark, you will need a hand to take the lantern with you, which will leave the rest of the campsite in the dark. Changing batteries is simpler for these, though. Since they rarely carry focused and sweeping toggle switches, they can often be as simple as a single on-and-off power button.
The headlamp wins this round. Nothing could be easier than strapping the light to your head and turning it on then forgetting about it while it guides you through your tasks and it is better for late night trailblazing.
When deciding on a power source, it is important to consider how many lumens you plan to use. In general, the higher the lumen count, the more power it draws.
Another thing to consider is how many hours you plan to be awake in the dark. Will you need the light to last for a couple of hours for one person or will this be an all-night ghost story soiree?
Once you figure out how much power you will need, you can decide what the best power method is. Alkaline batteries are pretty standard, but some models use more efficient batteries, and some don’t take them at all!
We suggest matching your lantern or lamp power source to your other gear. If all of your equipment takes the same battery type, you will need to carry fewer spare packs in your backpack.
Headlamps run on battery power; different models can use different types. For better performance in cold weather, use lithium batteries. In the more temperate climates, old-fashioned alkaline batteries work just as well.
Rechargeable batteries are less recommended, but more and more headlamps are using nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. That is because they don’t need to be replaced continuously and carrying spares.
Most lanterns run on standard alkaline batteries, but the power sources vary greatly. Many inflatable emergency lanterns will charge using solar power during your day hike and activate in the evenings. These are not recommended for shadier hikes that offer less exposure to sun because they can’t charge effectively.
Gas-powered lanterns offer more light and some warmth over solar lanterns or lamps, but they are much heavier options and require space for both the lantern and the fuel source (like kerosene).
We like the lanterns for this category. While most campers will not find this a significant debate because they tend to use AA or AAA alkaline batteries, the versatility of lantern options makes it a winner. Many of the lantern sources last significantly longer and don’t require additional spares be packed for emergencies.
Pros and Cons of Each
Final Verdict: Lighting Options for Camping
After comparing the different uses, our clear favorite is the headlamp. If each camper has a headlamp and remembers not to blind each other, the site will have plenty of light without heavier gear weighing down packs.