Lanterns: How to Choose

Lanterns: How to Choose Got darkness? We suggest you skip the cursing and light a lantern instead.

Got darkness? We suggest you skip the cursing and light a lantern instead.

Types of Lanterns

Electric Lanterns

Battery-powered lanterns offer you a choice of three types of lamps.

  • LED: Best for long battery life; good light output; can handle rugged use.
  • Fluorescent: Larger fluorescent models produce high light output; fluorescent tubes require special disposal procedures.
  • Incandescent: Good light output; modest battery life; most use bulbs containing a bright-burning pressurized gas such as Krypton; more fragile than an LED lamp.

PROS:

  • Quiet
  • No exhaust
  • Safe around kids (LED and fluorescent lamps generate no heat)

CONS:

  • Battery usage and disposal

Fuel-Burning Lanterns

Gas-powered lanterns can run on several fuel sources:

  • Liquid-fuel: Refillable white-gas/auto-gas tanks; fuel-efficient; generates powerful light.
  • Propane: Refillable tanks; fuel-efficient; generates powerful light.
  • Butane: Disposable canisters; compact; easy to use; high light output.

PROS:

  • Stronger light intensity than most electric models

CONS:

  • Ample ventilation is needed (they're not intended for small, enclosed places)
  • They generate heat (considerable caution is required when you operate them around children or near flammable materials)
  • Noisy

Candle Lanterns

These use one or more candles to provide soft, natural light. Optionally, reflectors can be used to maximize the glow.

PROS:

  • Soft light and no noise = pleasant ambience
  • Adequate for close-up tasks

CONS:

  • Minimal light output
  • You must be vigilant to keep candle lanterns a safe distance from flammable materials (such as tent fabric)
  • They generate heat and can be hot to touch

Comparing Lantern Performance

Below are performance factors to consider when comparing lanterns. At REI.com, you can find them by clicking on the "specs" tab on individual lantern product pages. In REI stores, our product information guide for Lights (usually found in the camping department) also lists these specifications. Note: We do not offer specs for candle lanterns.

Light Intensity

REI's spec charts list a wattage number for each lantern. The higher a lantern's wattage, the greater its light intensity (or brightness). Keep in mind that a higher wattage often results in lower energy efficiency, which means a shorter burn time or shorter battery life.

Light Duration

This is expressed either as burn time or battery life. How long can you expect a lantern to provide light one tank of fuel (for fuel-burners) or on one set of batteries (for electric models)? This specification gives you a very good estimate.

For electric models, we test in an area where a constant temperature of 70°F is maintained. We insert fresh batteries, set the light at its highest mode and again wait for it to go dark. The time we record is listed under "battery life @ 70°F."



Other Considerations

Batteries

With electric lanterns, or any battery-powered light, do not attempt to use lithium or lithium-ion batteries unless manufacturer instructions state that the specific light is designed to operate with lithium batteries. If not, you run the risk of damaging, even ruining, a light by mismatching it with lithium batteries.

Alkaline batteries lose power quickly in temperatures below 20°F. (Lithium batteries, on the other hand, perform well in the cold.) To extend the life of alkaline batteries in the cold, carry them under clothing during the day and sleep with them inside a sleeping bag at night.

Mantles

Fuel-burning lanterns rely on cloth mantles to provide the glow that makes them function. Once burned, mantles become fragile and require careful handling. It's smart to carry several replacement mantles on any trip.

Size and Weight

For car-camping excursions, size and weight generally are not concerns. For backpacking, however, they are. To flood a campsite or tent interior with light, candle lanterns have been a traditional choice. Yet a bringing a lit candle inside a tent, even within a lantern's casing, is a risky practice. Small, compactable, new-generation LED lanterns make better alternative choices. An LED headlamp might also provide all the light you need.
 

A Technical Look at Light Intensity and "Brightness"

The basic explanation of "light intensity" provided earlier in this article is enough for most headlamp shoppers. If, however, you don't mind a little tech-speak, here are some additional details to explain the topic in greater depth.

"Brightness" is a word familiar to all of us, but lighting professionals and engineers regard it as a nontechnical term. They will tell you that brightness is not quantifiable and thus it is only a subjective interpretation of light intensity, which is measurable. In a technician's world, "brightness" typically pertains only to glare or excessive contrast.

The wattage numbers shown in our spec chart are actually "equivalent watts". As of this writing, most lantern manufacturers do not provide their own calculations of watts or lumens — the latter being a newer unit of light measurement that is gradually gaining acceptance by consumers at large. 

To arrive at our equivalent-watt number, technicians use a light meter at a uniform distance to determine the light intensity of each lantern's lamp. Light meters use units of measure called lux — a modern-day replacement for the old English measurement of foot candles. (If all this terminology is beginning to cause your eyes to glaze over, we understand.)

We convert lux to lumens and further convert that number to an equivalent number of watts — all because we believe most people are familiar with the wattage (and resulting light intensity) of household light bulbs. Our equivalent-watt calculation will give you a basic idea of what kind of light intensity to expect from a lantern.

So, to recap light intensity in plain English: If you want a brighter lantern, choose one with higher wattage. Just be aware that a higher wattage usually translates into poor energy efficiency — a shorter burn time or reduced battery life.