The Complete Guide to Camping and Survival Lanterns

When the sun goes down, most people feel safer and more secure if they have a reliable light source. For centuries, humans have relied on lanterns to bring light to dark places. While lanterns were the only lighting choice for our great-great-grandparents, a good lantern is still a handy tool, especially when standard electric lighting isn’t an option. 

A good camp lantern provides a homey and comfortable feeling to your campsite. Also, a reliable light source is necessary for safety and convenience, whether your campsite is just feet from your car or deep in the backcountry wilderness.

A quality lantern also makes a valuable addition to your home emergency kit, providing a ready source of illumination should the lights go out unexpectedly. 

Lantern technology has taken a huge leap forward since the days of our great-great-grandparents. Today, trusty camp lanterns may be powered by gas, batteries, a USB port, or even solar panels. With so many great options available, choosing the right lantern can feel overwhelming, especially for those new to the camping or survival scenes.

There are tons of factors to consider when choosing a lantern. You need to think about portability, power sources, and how large an area you need to illuminate. Whether you are a survival pro or a relative newcomer to outdoor adventure, this comprehensive guide is designed to help you explore your options and help you choose the best lantern for you.

Lanterns Through History

Humans have been using lanterns as their primary light source for centuries. According to The History of Lamps, lanterns were first mentioned in the historic writings of Theopompus, an ancient Greek poet. There is also archaeological evidence of lantern usage in ancient Egypt and China. 

The earliest versions of the lantern used simple candles. Others used oil as fuel to keep the flame burning. Rendered animal fat, especially whale oil, was a common fuel source for lanterns in the early 19th century. 

Kerosene would eventually revolutionize lighting. John H. Irwin is responsible for designing the first coal oil lamp in 1862. Coal oil, which initially emitted thick smoke, was eventually refined into cleaner burning kerosene. Kerosene is still commonly used to fuel lanterns in many parts of the world. 

The 20th century inspired many new innovations in lighting technology. The famous Coleman lantern, which remains a popular choice for camping, was first introduced in 1914. Fueled by “white gas” (naphtha is its technical name), the Coleman lamp produced a cleaner burning flame. It also emitted a steady white light rather than the flickering yellow flame produced by kerosene lanterns. 

With the development of modern electric lighting, lanterns have mostly disappeared from American households. However, they remain a convenient lighting option when electricity is unavailable.

Types of Lanterns

Outdoor enthusiasts have largely kept the lantern alive by using modern versions to illuminate their camp sites. Today, there are countless lantern choices for those who find themselves without a reliable source of electricity. While Coleman lanterns are still a popular choice, you can also choose from battery and solar-powered options. 

Here is a breakdown of the main types of lanterns as well as their common uses. Use this info to help you choose the best camping and survival lantern to suit your individual needs. 

Fuel Lanterns

The most common and traditional type of lanterns rely on kerosene, propane, Coleman fuel, butane, or some other fuel source to generate light. Fuel lamps are a bright and reliable light source. A common fuel-burning lantern will generally produce a brighter light than even the most sophisticated battery-powered LED lantern. 

Most fuel-burning lanterns use mantles. A mantle is a small woven bag made of ceramic mesh that attaches to the lantern’s burners. According to How Stuff Works, these mantles start out as silk fabric sacks which are then impregnated with a mixture of thorium oxide, cerium oxide, and magnesium oxide.

The mantles on fuel-burning lanterns can be pretty fragile.

Once the mantle is installed, the silk is ignited to burn away the silk. A brittle ceramic shell is left behind which produces a bright white light. These shells are highly efficient at producing light due to the chemicals used to treat them and the large surface area of the mesh bags. 

Ceramic is breakable which makes the mantle the most fragile part of a fuel lantern. They also wear out over time. If you’re smart, you’ll keep several spare mantles on hand, just in case.

Replacing the mantles on your fuel-burning lantern can be a bit tricky. However, this quick video from ReplacementParts.com walks you through the process step by step. 

Expense, Reliability, and Portability

Fuel-burning lanterns are generally a more affordable lighting option than battery powered lanterns, even when the cost of fuel is factored in. Fuel lanterns are fairly inexpensive to operate on a per-hour basis. The typical fuel tank will allow you to run your lantern on its highest setting for about seven hours. Turn the lantern down to low, and you can squeeze up to fourteen hours out of a typical fuel tank.

If you find yourself in cold weather, a fuel-burning lantern is an obvious choice. Fuel lanterns run more efficiently and reliably in cold weather than anything that runs on batteries.

While fuel lanterns are dependable and affordable, their size and weight tend to make them inconvenient for hiking. Both the lantern and fuel tanks will take up a considerable amount of pack space. When planning a backcountry hiking trip where every ounce can feel like a ton, you may want to consider a more compact and lightweight lighting option.

Fuel Lantern Safety

Fuel lanterns come with some major safety concerns. Highly flammable, they can be dangerous to use in fabric tents. They also emit toxic fumes so should only be used outdoors or in well-ventilated areas. Be sure to keep your fuel-burning lantern away from flammable material. 

Use caution and limit horseplay around your lantern to prevent tipping. Always place your lantern on a sturdy surface or hang from a proper lantern hook. You should also keep a close watch on children and pets if you choose to use a fuel-burning lantern to light up your campsite.

Pairing Your Fuel Lantern and Your Camp Stove

Your lantern and your camp stove are the dynamic duo of any campsite or long-term power outage. It is basic common sense to choose options that can share a fuel source. For example, if your camp stove runs on propane, so should your camping lantern. With an interchangeable fuel source, there is less gear to pack. A shareable fuel source also provides a solid option if one or the other runs out of fuel miles away from home.  

Battery Lanterns

A great option for use inside your tent, RV, or house, battery lanterns come in plenty of shapes and sizes. Although not as bright as a fuel lantern, a battery lantern provides several great benefits.

Battery-operated lanterns illuminate without producing a significant amount of heat. Also, without an open flame or a highly flammable fuel source, a battery lantern is a safer option for use indoors or around small children and pets. 

D cell battery

Compact models offer backpackers a lightweight option for backcountry hiking trips. Most battery lanterns use primary-cell batteries. This includes D cell, C cell, and 9-volt batteries. Although primary cell batteries can be heavy, they generally have a long run time. Having backup batteries is essential as batteries need to be replaced when they expire. However, rechargeable batteries can help save precious packing space.

Some lanterns come with alternate recharging capabilities. By using a recharging cord that draws power from your vehicle’s cigarette lighter, a standard electric outlet, or a USB port, rechargeable lanterns become a convenient lighting option for those who don’t plan to wander far from their home or vehicle. 

Bulb Type

Another thing to consider is the type of bulb your lantern uses to generate light. 

Classic incandescent light bulbs produce brighter light but consume considerably more power than their LED counterparts. Lanterns that use conventional bulbs will burn through batteries quickly, so be sure to stock up on spares.

LED lanterns are superstars in energy efficiency.

Lanterns that use LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology consume far less energy. According to Energy Star, LED products produce light approximately 90% more efficiently than traditional light bulbs. This means you’ll burn through fewer batteries. However, LED lanterns also produce significantly less light, so you may need several to produce enough light to be comfortable.

Solar Lanterns

Technically powered by batteries, solar lanterns rely on the power of the sun to charge their power source. Solar cells included with the lantern convert light into electric power. That electric power is then used to light an LED. 

Some solar lanterns also produce enough power to charge your cell phone or other electronic devices. 

Solar lanterns are generally lightweight. The solar panels can take up significant space, although some backpacking models feature convenient collapsible panels. 

Sun-powered lanterns require exposure to sunlight to properly charge the battery. This can be problematic during inclement weather.

Solar lanterns can be unreliable and inefficient during freezing weather. If you need a lantern during freezing temperatures, a fuel-burning lantern is by far the most reliable option. 

Features to Consider

Here are the most important features to consider when searching for the best camping lantern.

Light Output

The brightness is measured in lumens. According to the Energy.gov website, the more lumens produced by a light source, the brighter it will appear. For reference, the typical household candle emits approximately 12 lumens. Meanwhile, a typical household LED light bulb hits the 800 lumen mark.

If you need to illuminate a large area, it’s hard to beat a traditional fuel-burning lantern. Fuel-powered lanterns generally produce a much greater amount of light than other lantern styles. A standard, dual-mantle, propane powered lantern produces up to 1000 lumens and spreads a glow up to 22 meters from the light source.  

For backpackers with small campsites and even smaller pack space, 100 to 200 lumens is probably more than enough. This level of brightness can easily be achieved with a compact battery-powered lantern.

Size and Weight

As I mentioned before, fuel lanterns tend to be heavier and more bulky than most battery lanterns. This makes them best suited for emergency use at home or for camping from an RV or close to your car or truck.

For backpacking, weight and bulk come at a premium. Equipment must be prioritized to ensure there is enough room for essential gear. Therefore, rugged destinations usually require lightweight, compact lighting options.

Durability

The best camping and survival lanterns must be durable. Lanterns have to survive rough conditions, including exposure to weather and the general wear and tear of outdoor use. 

Durability is a major concern for rugged campers and wilderness hikers. Your light source must withstand the rough handling associated with trail hiking and still work reliably at the end of the day. Look for a lantern with sound construction and strong materials.

Adjustability

The most basic lantern models have a simple on/off switch. This design doesn’t allow you to adjust your camp lantern’s brightness or energy consumption. 

However, many camping lanterns provide additional controls so you can adjust the brightness to better suit your needs. An adjustable lantern allows you to turn up the brightness to fill a large campsite, or turn it down to offer a warm glow for cozy reading inside your tent. 

Preparing for an Emergency

Lanterns are good for more than just camping. They can also be used for emergencies at home. Both fuel-burning and battery-powered lanterns make a perfect emergency light source that can be used in the event of a natural disaster or extended power outage. 

If you live somewhere prone to hurricanes, earthquakes, or other natural disasters, a solar lantern (or a lantern with an extended battery life) is essential. A solar lantern will guarantee lighting for days should you be without electricity for an extended period. The best solar lantern models will also charge your cell phone and other electronic devices with built-in USB ports.

Proper Lantern Care and Storage

Proper maintenance and storage will ensure your lantern will reliably light up the night for years to come. Fuel-burning lanterns, like propane lanterns and butane lanterns, typically require more care and maintenance than electric lanterns.

Fuel lanterns require specific care and maintenance. First, they must be kept clean. Because nighttime insects are naturally drawn to light, they may become trapped inside your lantern. Be sure to clear your lantern of any dead bugs or other debris after each use. 

The outside of your fuel lantern can be wiped clean using regular soap and water. Delicate glass components are fragile and can break easily with rough handling, so you will want to use extra care during routine cleaning. Dry your lantern completely before storing. Choose a dry storage area away from extreme temperature fluctuations.  

You should also visually inspect your fuel lantern before each use. Check the fuel canisters and valves for damage. Most manufacturers provide specific care instructions with each model. Read your user’s manual thoroughly before use and refer to them regularly. 

Care for battery-powered lanterns is relatively simple. The exterior of most battery lanterns can be wiped clean with a damp cloth. You should also remove the batteries from your lantern when it is not in use. This is particularly important during long-term storage and will help prevent dangerous battery corrosion and serious damage.  

Final Thoughts

Before you can properly choose a camping or survival lantern, you first need to weigh your needs. If backpacking in the rugged backcountry is on your agenda, a compact, lightweight battery-powered lantern is a great option. However, if you need a lantern for unexpected power outages, your family may appreciate the bright warm glow of a traditional fuel-burning lantern. 

No matter what your individual lighting needs, the information in this article should save you time by helping narrow down your search for the best camping and survival lantern.

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