Whether it’s being caught out on the trail after dark, finding the latrine in the middle of the night, or simply wanting to read a book inside your tent while snugly tucked in your sleeping bag, lighting is extremely important for any outdoor trip. And sometimes for the unexpected outdoor adventure as well! Ever been on a day hike that turned out longer than you expected, leaving you stumbling in the dark? Not only is lighting important, the size and weight of it will often determine whether or not you bring it along. Get one that you find convenient to carry at all times and follow the Boy Scout motto to “Be Prepared.”
There have been some great advances in lighting in recent years. My favorite is the LED light. I used to be a big fan of the Mini Maglite, which I will describe later, but the features of the LEDs far outweigh the Mini Maglite for my personal use. Although I love my LED headlamp, there are still situations that it is not ideal. Like everything else in life, the different lights available to us all have their pros and cons. I will discuss some of the features to consider when purchasing your own lights for your camping and backpacking trips.
Different situations call for different types of light. If you are walking along a trail at night, it’s important to have a light that is bright enough to illuminate the trail ahead of you. Rocks, snakes, drop-offs are all things you want to avoid, so a light that is made more for large area lighting would not be necessary or appropriate. On the other hand, if you are in camp and want to illuminate the campsite enough to see the general layout but not necessarily each stone and twig on the ground, you’d probably appreciate a light that glows over a broader area. I’m sure you’ve noticed how the light of a flashlight allows you to only see what is directly in its beam. That might be fine for the trail, but around camp it’s nice to see a larger area than just the spot beam of the normal flashlight. Keeping that in mind, let’s explore some of the choices out there.
When it comes to personal lighting, there are several things to consider when choosing your type of light. There are primarily two types of lights available to the backpacker due to size and weight limitations: incandescent and LED. There are some small fluorescent lights out there, but their still-considerable size and weight pretty much limits them to car camping.
LEDs have brought a new dimension to outdoor lighting. They’re extremely lightweight, and since the bulbs don’t generate near as much heat, they require far less energy. Depending on what light you have, the batteries may be as tiny as a camera or hearing aid battery. And they last much, much longer than the old flashlights. This means you won’t be carrying the loads of heavy AA batteries necessary to keep ordinary incandescent flashlights working. And LED bulbs last forever. . . or nearly so. Chances are most people will never have to replace the bulbs as long as they own their flashlight.
One of the most amazing flashlights is one that can actually fit on your keyring like the one shown to the left! In fact, that’s exactly where I keep one of mine. These tiny LED lights put out some very impressive light for the least amount of weight possible. It is only about one inch long and, at half an ounce, nearly weightless! It’s tiny enough to fit on a key chain in your pocket, so there is no reason to ever be without a flashlight. A friend of mine went on a rugged, cross-country day hike that unexpectedly lasted beyond daylight, but because he just happened to have a similar light with him, he and his friend got out without any mishaps. This is an excellent item to keep in your backpack, fanny pack, purse or pocket at all times.
If you get stuck setting up your tent or cooking in the dark, it is nice to have both hands free. Yes, you can hold a flashlight in your mouth, but believe me, this will get old quickly, it is not in the slightest bit convenient, and can make you feel like gagging. You might even experience a similar problem that one of my hikers did in the Canyon. She went to the composting toilet at Indian Garden Campground in the middle of the night. While clenching a Mini Maglite between her teeth, she prepared to use the restroom. When she sat down, the flashlight dropped into the depths below—still turned on! She went without a flashlight for the rest of the trip—and needless to say—took a kidding from the group until the end!
As you might guess, one of the most useful type of lighting in this situation is a headlamp. With the arrival of LED, you now have some remarkable choices. Some of the newest ones include a clip-on style that you can use on a hat brim, minimizing weight even further by not having the elastic band to hold it on your head. But even the headlamps with an elastic band are much lighter than their older cousins. Because the lamp and battery are so lightweight, not nearly as much support is needed in heavy elastic to hold it in place on your head. Some, like the Petzl shown to the right, include a red light as well as white that allows lighting an area without ruining your night vision. And the white light is very bright! A friend of mine used it on a Hermit to Bright Angel hike, and I was very impressed with it!
There are several things you should be aware of when using a headlamp. Remember that you have a Cyclops beam of light shining brightly from your forehead. Be careful when looking up to talk to someone, you’ll blind them and totally ruin their night vision! I cannot tell you how irritating it is trying to talk to someone who is shining their light straight in your eyes. Some headlamps have the beam section on a hinge so you can face it downwards to avoid this problem. Try to remember to use it! The direction of my Petzl’s beam cannot be redirected, therefore I will wear it around my neck while walking around or talking to someone. Its beam points slightly down and illuminates the ground without blinding someone when I come up to them.
Another option for lighting is the basic flashlight, and of course and, you can get these with LED or incandescent bulbs. As I mentioned above, the LED is much lighter and tends to be a better choice when considering the weight of your backpack. Remember, ounces do matter when you are carrying your entire house on your back! There are many excellent brands of flashlights out there; Energizer, Mini Maglite, Rayovac, REI, Coleman, Princeton Tec, Petzl are just a few of the choices out there. When making your decision, look at the features and weight of each and choose one that provides the type of beam and brightness that you will require for your particular needs.
Before the arrival of LED, my favorite flashlight was the Mini Maglite. And Mini Mag-Liteis now making their flashlight in LED, but it is much heavier than many of the other excellent choices out there. Because it is constructed of aircraft aluminum, it is very durable. This is always important for me since my gear gets abused in the rocky environment of Grand Canyon, and it has fallen a time or two (or three or four)! To turn it on or off, as well as for changing the beam from a flood to a spot light, you simply turn the head piece of the flashlight. There are no switches that break or turn on accidentally inside of your pack (using up your batteries). One of the nicest features is the spare bulb stored in the tail cap! And by removing the head piece completely and setting the flashlight inside to hold it, you have a 360° area light. And last, but not least, several companies make a webbing head strap that holds the Mini MagLite on your head, allowing you to keep your hands free.
A problem with any headlamp or flashlight is that while helping you see things clearly within the beam of light, they prevent you from seeing anything outside of that circle. After turning the light off, it takes a while for your eyes to become adjusted to the dark again. I like to allow my eyes to adjust to the dark and use a light as little as possible. You’d be amazed at how much you can see if you use your night vision. As a ranger in the Canyon, I often hiked out at night, rarely using a light. If there is any moonlight at all, the more popular trails are very distinct and easy to follow. If you see someone hiking like that, do them a favor and don’t shine your light into their eyes!
The main problem with the lights shown above is that they all require batteries. Batteries are heavy, expensive, and polluting, so I try to limit my use of them. Thanks to one of my hikers, several years ago, I discovered and fell in love with Krill lamps. These are electroluminescent light sticks that do use two AA batteries, but you get 50 hours of light from them versus five to seven hours for the lights listed above. In addition, the bulb life is rated at 2000+ hours and often lasts for more than 3000 hours!
Without the batteries, the light weighs a mere ounce! Seriously! The Krill lamp is not bright enough for some things, but it is the light I use most often around camp since it puts a gentle glow around my campsite and doesn’t destroy my night vision. I carry a LED flashlight or headlamp for those times I need a very bright light but use the Krill for for my camp light and walking around. The Krill is especially useful during the heat of summer when I want to start hiking early to avoid the heat. These lights are ideal for night hiking! An unexpected but delightful surprise was the fact that wildlife is not bothered by the light at all! Ever wanted to see one of those ringtails always trying to get into your pack? Here’s your chance!
If you’ve ever seen or used those chemical lightsticks that you break to activate, then you’ll know the kind of light you get from one of these lamps. Chemical lights have always been very lightweight, but unfortunately they are not reusable. Once used, they are worthless trash. You cannot turn them off either; they usually burn well into the night after you want to go to sleep. Krill lamps use a more powerful version of the technology used in Indiglo watches. They turn on and off by simply twisting the base.
The light is night vision compatible, which makes it an excellent choice for night hiking and chores around camp. The light produced is soft and complements human night vision by stimulating the rods in your eyes. In contrast, the light from a flashlight stimulates the cones in your eye resulting in “night blindness” when you look away from the flashlight’s illuminated area or turn it off.
There are several different lamps and colors to choose from, but for backpacking purposes, I highly recommend the Green Extreme 180. The other colors are primarily used as markers for military and emergency service applications. They are extremely durable; I can vouch for that. If I can’t break it, I don’t think you will! As for energy usage, I have had the Krill light over a decade and cannot remember ever changing the batteries. Talk about energy efficient! This is one of my staples for lighting. It weighs less than 3 ounces with batteries.
If you are looking for a brighter lamp to use just around camp, then you have a couple more choices. The first one is the candle lantern, shown to the left. They are not extremely bright, but if you have a light-colored tent, they should be bright enough to read by. I have a Sierra Designs Light Year which has white walls, making it very bright and much easier to read by candlelight. If your tent is darker colored, it may be more difficult to read with the candle lantern since so much light is absorbed by the darker material.
My main complaint with candles is that they can be very messy and inefficient. If I move around inside of the tent and accidentally knock the candle lantern hanging above, the wax can spill all over the inside of the glass globe. I do not know how often I ended up cleaning my globe, but it got tiresome. Also the candle would not always burn down to the end. So you ended up with a lot of messy wax that had to be carried out. One time down in the Canyon, I had a candle melt in the heat of the day while on a day hike. The wax ended up all over my GoreTex and down sleeping bag! That did it! There had to be another way.
I was introduced to an oil insertfor the lantern. The use of advanced thermoplastics and high temperature adhesives led to the development of the Ultralight oil lantern and the oil insert. Now instead of burning candles, my oil insert uses lantern oil and fits into my candle lantern. You can use any lantern oil, but Ultra-pure Lamp Oilburns cleanest and doesn’t get smoky. It offers about 12 hours of light per fill up, which turns out to be much lighter in weight than carrying candles. The light is also much more even, and now if I knock the lantern, there is no mess. I have had oil seep slightly out from under the lid, so I carry the oil separately in a tiny Nalgene bottle. It’s definitely been worth the time it takes to transfer the oil to the lantern. This has been a godsend for fall and winter hikes when nights are long!