Shining a light on lights
Essential backcountry equipment
On every backpacking adventure I undertake, I look forward to crawling in my tent at night to do some organizing of gear, reading and relaxing before falling fast asleep snuggled in my sleeping bag. I use my Princeton Tec 4-LED headlamp that seems to last forever on 3 AAA alkaline batteries.
Try going backpacking for a weekend without a flashlight, headlamp or lantern. It is downright spooky. Most people would never even consider venturing out on an overnight trip without taking along a lighting device.
We all use lighting to find our way around camp at night. It prevents us from tripping over roots, rocks and gear. A light is useful when looking for things in your backpack and tent. I have used a flashlight to locate my tent when coming back from a "Mother Nature visit" in the dark. It seems those trips become more frequent with the passing of time.
And there may be occasions when lighting becomes essential during nighttime emergencies, such as for identifying a critical problem, searching through a first aid kit and attending to an injury. Lighting is needed should someone have to be evacuated for a medical emergency; to light the path back to a trailhead. These situations could not be managed safely and effectively without light.
Measurements of lighting
Understanding measurements for lighting is helpful in selecting a lighting device for backpacking and camping. The term "lumens" is a measure of light output that indicates how bright a light will glow. With a higher number of lumens, a light will be brighter. The distance that the light will shine is another measure, sometimes called "beam distance," measured in either meters or feet. And a third measure to consider is the length of time the light lasts, called the "burn time" or as noted in an REI guide as "run time." This of course will depend on the time provided by batteries, crank charge or other type of charge.
Beams from lighting can be wide or narrow. A wide beam is usually good for reading as well as for spanning a trail or camp area. A narrow beam is for focusing on an object far away. Some lights are designed with both types of beams.
Bulbs used for most backpacking headlamps today are LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs. LED bulbs are long-lasting and shine for thousands of hours. They draw energy at a very slow rate allowing batteries to last much longer than the ones powering incandescent bulbs.
Some flashlights, lamps and lanterns still use incandescent bulbs made with a tungsten filament in vacuumed glass that lights when electrified. The halogen bulb is similar but has halogen gas in the filament. They last longer than standard incandescent bulbs. The krypton bulb is another type of incandescent that is made with a krypton gas filament, giving off a warmer glow than the other bulbs. (Obviously not Superman's choice of light.)
Batteries for most lightweight lighting devices are alkaline, sizes AA or AAA. Some larger flashlights use C and D size batteries. Alkaline batteries are always recommended over heavy duty batteries since they offer greater power and have longer lasting life.
Lithium and lithium-ion batteries are used in some lighting devices. But use them only in lights that are made for the lithium battery. Always carry extra batteries when backpacking. It does not add too much weight to a pack. Cold weather drains batteries quickly. So for winter camping always insulate your flashlight or headlamp by placing them deep in your backpack or close to your body. Between trips, remove batteries from your headlamp and flashlight.
Keeping a leaky battery in a lighting device can result in corrosion and damage. When batteries burn out, be sure to find a proper place to dispose of them rather than in the garbage. And be environmentally conscious and consider using rechargeable batteries.
There are many options on the market when considering illumination devices for backpacking and camping. Backpackers conserve weight when packing gear. The following are a few examples of lightweight lighting gear made by companies with backcountry travel in mind.
Headlamps: The top choice for lighting by backpackers is the headlamp. One of several popular brands of headlamps is Black Diamond. They have a line of headlamps with high output LED lighting. Highlighted in Backpacker magazine's "2012 Gear Guide" is the Black Diamond Icon headlamp, which shines 100 meters at its brightest setting of 200 lumens. It is waterproof to three feet and weighs nine ounces, including the weight of four AA batteries.
The Princeton Tec online catalog displays 19 different styles of handheld flashlights as well as 19 headlamp styles. Many of the headlamps light the way with their Ultrabright LED and Maxbirght LED bulbs. Backpacker highlighted the lightweight 2.75-ounce Princeton Tec Spectrum headlamp, providing a 60-foot beam with three settings, and running for 146 hours on three AAA batteries.
According to Petzl, the company invented the first headlamp for outdoor adventure in 1972 by attaching a lamp and battery case to a headband. Since then, Petzl has developed a wide range of headlamps for multiple outdoor uses, including backpacking, mountaineering and arctic expeditions.
Their Tikka and Zipka series utilizes LED technology and runs on lithium ion polymer rechargeable batteries. The Hybrid Duo, designed for caving, is waterproof and resistant to humidity, dust and impacts.
Pelican, the folks that make waterproof cases, also has a wide array of flashlights and headlamps. There are eight styles of headlamps in their 2600 series. For example, their 2680 has a one-watt LED reflected bulb in an ABS resin case that is corrosion proof and submersible.
Designed for high adventure, the Mammut headlamps use a cutting-edge Lucido lighting technology with a controlled range of light emission that is highly efficient. They have four styles designed from the simplest to the complex headlamp.
Flashlights: When looking down the flashlight aisle at Fleet Farm, I am amazed at the many brands and styles available. But when it comes to backpacking, I look for a lightweight flashlight.
The Mini-Maglite, for example, is a quite a popular lightweight flashlight. With technology developed by Anthony Maglica in 1979, the Mag-Lite flashlight has expanded to include a myriad of styles, from small (three inch) to large (19 inch) flashlights with incandescent and LED bulbs. Their metal tubular lights are made to withstand impact and often outlast many other brands. The lightweight option, Maglite Solitaire, is only two ounces and runs on one AAA battery.
In addition to flashlights manufactured by all the brands previously mentioned, other brands (Gerber, SureFire, Fenix and Energizer) also offer lightweight flashlight and headlamp options with a variety of bulbs and batteries.
Lanterns: When looking at fuel lanterns versus battery lanterns, the former tends to give off a brighter glow and burns fuel rather than batteries. Battery lanterns do not produce fumes and are not a fire risk. Fuel-burning lanterns burn white gas (such as Coleman fuel), propane or isobutene. Some lanterns weight one to three pounds.
Two examples of lightweight fuel lantern are the Primus Easy Light, weighing in at 6.8 ounces, and the Snow Peak Giga Power at 4.7 ounces. Both lanterns run on isobutene.
Examples of lightweight battery lanterns include the Black Diamond Orbit with LED lighting weighing 4.8 ounces, and the Snow Peak Hozuki LED at 5.9 ounces. Energizer has a solar-powered Solar LED lantern.
The Highgear SmartLite seven-ounce lantern runs on a charge from a USB cable rather than batteries, providing four hours of burn time when set on high and 10 hours on low. It has a hand-crank that will add more burn time should the charge run down. A built-in manual reflector allows it to double as a flashlight.
One of the gear items that won Backpacker magazine's "2012 Editors' Choice Awards" is the Snow Peak Snow Miner two-in-one headlamp and lantern. Serving as a headlamp on the trail and around camp, this 3.5 ounce, 80-lumen beam lamp converts to a lantern with a light-dispersing globe that can be hung in your tent. Candle lanterns: Small candle lanterns are sometimes a backpacker's lighting choice. Most lanterns are composed of an aluminum base, lid, a glass globe (also called a chimney) and a handle. Both light and heat are emitted, making the candle lantern a versatile lighting option without the expense of fuel or batteries. And most candles do not weigh any more than batteries.
UCO (utility, comfort and originality) candle lanterns have been around for over 40 years. Their Original Candle Lantern is popular among backpackers and campers, providing nine hours of burn time on one candle. Recommended for lightweight backpacking is UCO's collapsible Micro Candle Lantern, weighing in at 3.9 ounces.
I have a portable Coleman candle lantern that works with either a tea-light or votive candle. It easily fits in my backpack and serves me well.
Darkness fell over the landscape as I rested my backpack against a tall white pine tree. A small group of us were late getting to our campsite. Our task was to set up camp, start a fire and cook our evening meal followed by cleanup in the ever increasing darkness. We divided up the chores.
My LED headlamp served me well, as did the other campers who had similar lighting. I am so familiar with my Sierra Design four-season tent that I could probably set it up blindfolded. But with lighting, the job was accomplished even more quickly. Although lighting was not needed for starting the campfire, my headlamp was necessary to find adequate firewood. My headlamp allowed me to work hands-free when helping prepare our meal over a camp stove. And my lamp came in awfully handy for clean-up after our meal.
It is surprising how much we rely on our flashlights, headlamps or lanterns for camping tasks that take place after dusk. When it comes to doing them in the dark, a quality lighting device is greatly appreciated.
Jim Joque is the coordinator of disability services for the university of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is also an adjunct adventure education instructor at UWSP, teaching courses on camping, backpacking, snowshoeing, adventure leadership and Leave no Trace concepts.