Camping Lights

In this article we list and describe the diverse range of lights available today and the options you might consider before embarking on your camping trip. There is a comprehensive explanation of the technologies of electric powered lights and various fuel systems for lanterns. There is also a brief list of lighting products on the market today. Last, but definitely not least, we discuss the safety issues concerning lighting systems and provide some good tips on emergency lighting.

Camping Lights Overview

Technology has come a long way since the days of old, when the only lighting choices you had, were using either candles or hurricane lamps. These days, the choices are broad, giving you lighting that is; brighter, windproof, waterproof, safer, cooler and using a variety of power systems such as renewable energy.

When it comes to camping, a well planned lighting system will not only improve the quality and comfort for campers, it will also make the campsite much safer. The first step is to look at your own setup and the setup of others going on the trip. Consider the areas that may need light, such as around a caravan or camper trailer, around communal areas, tents and tables. Consider the lights that may be needed for personal or work use and think of the power that will be required. A good lighting plan beforehand will ensure a very enjoyable camping experience for everyone.

Incandescent Lights

A normal incandescent light contains a double-wound tungsten filament inside a gas-filled glass bulb. Tungsten wire is used because it tolerates these enormous temperatures without melting or losing atoms from its surface. The problem with these lights is around 90% of the energy that is consumed is released in the form of heat while only 10% is converted to visible light. Therefore, these lights run hotter, burn out faster, and use much more electricity for the same brightness. Apart from being very uneconomical, the heat released will add another sense of discomfort in the hotter climates. The only advantages these lights have today is they are extremely cheap and create a softer light, which makes them a popular choice for home lighting. These lights are rarely used for camp lights as they consume too much energy and also being fragile, are easily broken.

Compact Fluorescent Lights

Compact Fluorescent Lights, also known as CFLs are great for lighting a large area and they use less energy than incandescent lights. The reason is because CFLs do not waste energy on heat such as incandescent bulbs and therefore lasts much longer. For example, a typical 15 watt bulb is 4 to 6 times more efficient and produces the same amount of light as a 60 watt incandescent bulb. CFLs have U-shaped or spiral tubes and plug in like a standard lamp.
They are easier to pack and are less likely to be broken because they are a lot smaller than the older style long-tube fluorescent lights and much stronger than incandescent lights. The newer CFLs give a warm, inviting light instead of the ‘cool light’ light of the older fluorescents and the new electronically ballasted CFLs don’t flicker or hum.

240 volt AC CFLs can be used up to 45 watts, when powered by a generator or an inverter running off the car or trailer battery.

12 volt DC CFLs are available up to 20 watts. A 10 watt CFL can last up to four hours when powered by a 7 amp-hour Gel Cell, which equates to around 40 – 50 hours from a standard vehicle mounted battery. Obviously running this light off the vehicle battery may drain your starting battery, so either fit a second auxiliary battery or use a 12 volt remote portable power unit.

Some CFL lanterns are rechargeable and some are available with dual-mode, 12 volt / 240 volt settings, which can be very practical for campers. They also don't attract insects and bugs, which make them a great cooking lantern or table light at mealtimes.

Fluorescent Tubes

When it comes to lighting, the basic mechanism at work for producing light is mostly the same. Excite atoms by means of heat (as in incandescent bulbs), excite atoms by means of chemical reaction (as in Cyalume sticks) or excite atoms by means of electricity (as in fluorescent tubes).

In a nutshell, fluorescent tubes work by voltage moving through the tubes by electrodes at either end. The electrons move through an inert gas inside the tube (usually argon), which in turn, converts some of the liquid mercury (also in the tube) into a gas. As these electrons and charged atoms collide with the gaseous mercury atoms, this excites the atoms, which release short-wave ultra violet light, however this light is invisible to humans. The white phosphor coating on the inside of the tube converts this to white light, which is what we see.

Like CFLs, Fluorescent tubes are very efficient when it comes to the amount of light it produces to the energy it consumes. They produce around 4 times more light over a normal incandescent bulb consuming the same power. For example, a 150 watt incandescent bulb may produce about 2500 lumens, compared to a four foot 'daylight' fluorescent tube consuming only 40 watts of power to produce a massive 2600 lumens.

When you are out camping, anything over a few feet may be just too long and cumbersome to carry around and they are susceptible of getting damaged during transit. There are lanterns and portable lighting appliances that use smaller fluorescent tubes that you may consider. There are also some that utilise dual tubes with some being 12 volt and 240 volt rechargeable.

LED Lights

An LED, which stands for Light Emitting Diode, appears to be a tiny ordinary light bulb, but in fact it’s not at all. They are tiny semiconductors encapsulated in plastic and when power is applied, are stimulated by the movement of electrons. This in turn creates photons which is the light that’s visible to humans. LEDs are much brighter and are claimed to have a lifespan of over 10 years of continuous use. LED lights such as LED torches are generally made up of a cluster of LEDs that help focus the light in a narrow beam.
Some torches can have more than 100 LEDs and can run off 4 AA batteries. A typical LED light delivers less light than a CFL, however they draw considerably less power. With technological advances, LED lights are now becoming brighter and much more affordable. The great thing about LEDs is that they are geared for harsh environments. They can adequately function from -40 degrees to 82 degrees Celcius and there is no delay or ‘warm up’ time. Another advantage, especially when you’re out in the bush is that most insects are not attracted to LEDs. This is because most insects and bugs cannot see the spectrum of light that LEDs produce. The latest in high-powered LED torches use between 1 watt and 5 watt single Luxeon LEDs and are up to a staggering 60 times brighter then standard LEDs. These white LEDs have a rated life of around 500 hours (i.e. they will have a light output of 90% of original after 500 hours, depending on their operating temperature) and are aimed at the portable and emergency lighting market.

All in all, LED lights are great for camping as they do not consume much energy. Using solar powered LED torches and head lamps are a very cheap, effective and popular solution among campers. They provide adequate lighting to do most tasks at night and are also great for kids.

Halogen Lights

Halogen lights are similar to an incandescent bulb, except the tungsten filament is sealed into a small envelope filled with a halogen gas such as iodine or bromine. The problem with ordinary incandescent filaments was its relatively short life. This early failure was due to the tungsten filament burning hotter and thus decaying faster at the thinnest areas. In Halogen bulbs, the lamp creates a recycling action in which the decaying and evaporating tungsten redeposits back onto these hotter and thinner spots. Halogen lights can therefore last up to two to three times longer than ordinary incandescent bulbs and they can also run at much higher temperatures. Halogen worklights and torches give off a brilliant white light and are often waterproof and dustproof. A halogen bulb is often 10 to 20 percent more efficient than an ordinary incandescent bulb of similar voltage, wattage, and life expectancy. This will allow a 60 watt bulb to provide nearly as much light as a non-halogen 100 watt bulb.

Good quality, high intensity spotlights typically use halogen globes and are ideal for wildlife spotting. Halogen spotlights have very long, bright beams due to the light being backed up by large silver mirrored reflectors.

HID Lights

These lights, also known as High Intensity Discharge lights are typically used for lighting outdoor spaces such as sporting grounds and streets. The technology replaces the filament of an ordinary light bulb with a metal vapour gas. The light is emitted from an arc discharge between two closely spaced electrodes, which is sealed inside a quartz glass tube. The light produced is greater than a standard halogen bulb, while consuming less power, and more closely approximating the colour temperature of natural daylight. While the exterior of these lamps are quite rugged, the HID bulb itself is quite fragile and can be expensive to replace.

A 10 watt HID torch can beam an impressive 450 lumens, which is about as bright as a 50 watt Halogen bulb. It also emits a lot of Ultra Violet light so it would be a word of warning not to look at the beam. With variations of these torches commonly used in diving, you will find they are generally quite expensive and consequently not yet commonly used in camping products.

Fuel Lights

Fuel lanterns and lamps come in all shapes and sizes and can range from around 15 to hundreds of dollars. There are lanterns that run on propane gas, unleaded petrol, paraffin and lamp oils, kerosene and camping fuels such as Shelite and Coleman Fuels. Be sure to always carry enough fuels and also the right tools and spares for your type of lantern, which may include: spare mantles, wicks, cleaning equipment and tools to clear the jets for gas appliances.

Wick Lamps

Also known as an ‘oil lamp’ is a simple type of kerosene lamp which works in much the same way as a candle. The wick, which is normally made of cotton, absorbs the kerosene and when lit, burns and produces a yellowy flame. As the kerosene is burnt, capillary action inside the wick draws more kerosene up from the fuel tank to be burnt. These traditional lanterns are commonly made of wrought iron or bamboo and are usually found in hardware stores.

Pure Paraffin Oil

This oil is known to be the cleanest burning fuel suitable for wick lamps. Unfortunately for the consumer, due to additional refining, this fuel proves to be one of the most expensive. The flame produced by this odourless fuel is not as bright as with other fuels and may damage some lamps due to the ignition temperature being higher than other lamp oils such as kerosene.

Generic Lamp Oil

This can be found in supermarkets or hardware shops and it costs less than pure paraffin oil. Although lamp oil may cost more than kerosene, this oil burns much cleaner and emits fewer odours.


Kero is a much cheaper alternative, especially when it is bought in bulk. This fuel contains more impurities such as sulphur and aromatic hydrocarbons than lamp oil and the odours produced by burning kerosene in wick lamps can be quite objectionable indoors.

Mantle Lamps

A mantle lamp is very similar to a conventional wick lamp, however, the wick burns below a conical mantle (usually made of thorium) that incandesces when heated in a flame. This type of lamp burns much brighter and hotter than a wick lamp and also consumes much more fuel. These lamps can be adjusted for brightness, although if it’s adjusted too high, may cause the lamp chimney and mantle to soot up.

Pressure Lamps

These traditional lamps need to run on kerosene, but usually needs a primer such as Metho to get them started. This type of lamp can be far more sophisticated and fiddly to use than a wick lamp, although the light produced is much brighter. To work a pressure lamp the kerosene needs to be heated to a point where it is vaporised because vaporised kerosene burns much hotter than liquid kerosene. The kerosene in the tank is then forced into the burner by means of pumping up the air pressure in the fuel tank. This kerosene vapour is then directed into the mantle where it burns hot enough to make the mantle glow and produce a very bright white light.

Gas: Refillable

Many of these gas bottles can be refilled at any place that does camping gas refills, so you shouldn’t have trouble getting refills. The trend to bottle-swapping rather than refilling, means that it may get harder in future to find places to get your own bottles refilled. Refillable gas bottles need to be tested every ten years, though it’s usually cheaper just to buy new bottles.

TIP - In freezing weather, the gas wants to stay a liquid, so you won’t have a very strong flame. It helps to keep the gas bottle warm before use by storing it in an occupied sleeping bag.

Gas: Disposable

These use canister fuels such as: Propane, Butane or Isobutene. They are very clean burning fuels and are the easiest to use; turn the gas on and push the ignition and the stove or lantern is lit. These lanterns and gas canisters that fuel them relatively inexpensive and they can be bought at most department stores. The disadvantages of using these lanterns is they may not operate as efficiently in freezing weather and the canisters need to be deposed of properly.

Dual Fuel Lamps

These Lamps run on fuels such: Shelite, Coleman fuel, or unleaded petrol and are considered much more reliable than gas appliances. They don’t have 'jets' and instead use a generator which doesn’t get blocked as often. Dual fuel lamps do not flare up when tipped over, making them generally safer all-round. Some come with electronic ignition and can provide between 15 and 20 hours of light for just 1 litre of fuel.


Candles pose an obvious fire hazard and caution and vigilence must be exercised, especially around children. Tea light candles are an example of a very cheap lighting system and can look quite nice at night.

Headlamps, Torches, Spotlight, Lanterns and Strip Lights for camping

Solar Garden Lights

These low emitting lights are so cheap that they’re a good way of lighting up the tracks around a camp. Look for ones that you can switch off so the charge won’t be lost when they are packed away. More expensive ones have the solar collector remote from the light, which is handy if the light is needed under the shade of trees. For around $80 you can now get solar powered LED lights with movement detectors to provide good lighting, but only using power when it detects people moving around.

Wind-up Torches

These store the energy in a spring or they charge a battery so they can produce quite a good light for up to half an hour without having to wind. Shaker torches generally charge a super-capacitor and will only produce a good light for several minutes. Some hand-powered torches also hold batteries so you can choose your source of power.


If you’re changing a tyre, setting up a tent or just looking for a beer, you want a light that’s versatile. Matter of fact, you need a device where you are able to point light in any direction, clip it onto things, maybe even with a magnet base so you can attach it to the car body. Sometimes the glare when a light shines directly into the eyes makes it harder to see the work area, so worklights often have a hood or reflector which allows you to control where the light goes and where there will be shade. Worklights need to be tough because they can easily be dropped or knocked so you may be expected to pay more for rugged worklights. You can also buy LED worklights which are now more affordable than a CFL worklight. They generally deliver less light than a CFL, however, they draw considerably less power.

Table Lanterns

We all know how annoying mosquitoes and other insects are, especially when cooking up some tucker. A lot of these insects are not only attracted to the smells of food, they are also attracted by the white light. By using a LED lantern or a yellow 240 volt Compact Fluorescent Light, the light emitted will not readily attract bugs and other insects. 12 volt and 240 volt models often have rechargeable batteries which can be charged during the days drive and used all night if required.


Miners and cavers realised ages ago that if you need to keep both hands free, then a torch is a nuisance but a head lamp is great - just move your head to point the light where you need it. A head lamp is ideal for situations during the night such as: setting up camp, cooking or working on a vehicle. LEDs are ideal for headlamps because of the need to focus the light in a narrow beam. They range in power from a single small LED to 1 Watt LED. They may have multiple power settings to save battery power, achieved by varying the number of LEDs switched or by changing the brightness of all LEDs. Some models have different coloured bulbs such as a softer red, which is ideal for checking on babies at night. The lamp can also be adjusted and angled to the direction you want the light to go.

Handheld Torches

These come in a huge variety of sizes, from a single AAA cell to 6 D cells. For maximum brightness, a 2 or 5 watt QI (or halogen) bulb used to be an obvious choice, but today high-powered LEDs are available in up to 5 watts. Optional features are rechargeable batteries, variable brightness settings to prolong battery life and flashing mode for emergencies.


Many floodlights are designed to be weatherproof, due to their intended use outdoors. When they are mounted on higher places such as poles or trees, they can adequately light up a very wide area of ground. This can be a great idea for communal areas around the campsite. These lights are commonly bought with tungsten halogen lamps, however, you can also get: metal halide lamps (a member of the HID family of lamps) and sodium lamps. The thing with metal halide lamps is they take some time to warm up. Metal halide lamps as well as Sodium lamps also need to cool down before they can be turned back on. So use tungsten halogen where you need a lot of light instantly for relatively short periods.


If you’re trying to identify something in the distance or look for nocturnal animals, you want a spotlight rather than a floodlight. To do this the light needs a large reflector and a fairly powerful bulb. If they have a focussing control then you will be able to choose whether you want a very bright small spot or a wider, less bright circle. Handheld spotlights have Halogen bulbs from 5 watts to 100 watts (twice that of a standard car headlight) and may have sealed Gelcells or SLA (Sealed Lead Acid) batteries. They can be recharged from a 12 volt Cigarette Lighter Socket. Those without internal batteries run off a Cigarette Lighter Socket.

Strip Lights

Strip Lights are rows of LED lights designed to be mounted to vehicle/camping equipment. These are usually encased in plastic tubing with various levels of flexibility and are "powered" (must be connected to a power source). These types of lights are ideal if you have a particular area to which lighting can be affixed, and an ability to connect to power (for example across the top of a car boot opening with a nearby 12v inlet). White LEDs offer a very bright result, however yellow lighting is becoming increasingly popular for being less attractive to insects.

Using Lights

Using Lights Safely

One of the most important aspects in regards to lighting is the huge safety benefits it brings for campers. A campsite for example, will be much safer, when there’s enough light for people to avoid tripping hazards at night. As mentioned before, solar-powered garden lights are perfect for lighting up walkways and other dangerous obsticles. Sometimes low lighting is better than no lighting.

Cyalume sticks

These single-use chemical lights can also be used to mark a track, a trip hazard, light a fishing rod or used as a nightlight in a tent. These lights are totally waterproof and produce low light for up to eight hours.

Inside Lighting Hazards

Any inside lighting needs to be safe, quiet and in summer it needs to be cool. Considering all the flammable fabric and the restricted space in a tent or van, candles or gas/fuel powered lights are definitely not advisable. Also consider the danger of Carbon Monoxide poisoning - it’s odourless, produces minimal symptoms and can silently cause death.

Outside Lighting Hazards

Probably the biggest concern for campers would be the dangers associated with 240 volt AC lighting. Great care needs to be taken when wiring up batteries to inverters and lighting fixtures, etc. That said, you should always seek much more professional advice. Another concern is tripping hazards with wiring on the ground. Take care when you need to place extension chords and leads around and try to keep it neat and safe for other people. Also, be extra vigilant with children around those areas.

Emergency Lighting

A good idea is to keep a head lamp or torch in the glove box or some other shaded compartment. Since NiCd or NiMH batteries can lose up to 30% of their charge per month, you should use Alkaline or Lithium Batteries and keep them where they won’t be heated by the sun. Other considerations for having an emergency light on hand when you need it are:

• Put tape over the switch so the torch won’t be accidentally turned on. especially by children.
• Normal filament bulbs can blow at the worst time, so keep a spare bulb with the torch or use an LED torch.
• Keep a hand-powered torch on hand.
• Keep some cyalume sticks on hand

Final Lighting Considerations

So in summary, you first need to look at your own setup – and all of us are different. But whether you have a caravan, camper trailer, swag or tent there are the obvious areas where you will need to light. Then you’ll have to consider your particular situation such as the need to light a communal area, how many tables, tents and so on. For most campers, the main areas that need lighting are:
Cooking/tables, Worklights, Inside tents (nightlight, reading), Personal lighting (for moving about) the general campsite area (optional), spotlights (long distance, animal spotting) etc.

This article should have given you some more information about what options you have for lighting these areas but the final choice is personal. For some people the preference may be for full light saturation around the camp, whereas for others, it may be to only light the work areas during the meal times and then to sit back under the stars to enjoy the great outdoors.

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Created: October 2006
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