Camping Lantern Shootout
In the past decade, lanterns have taken a giant leap forward in efficiency and design. To assess the current state of camp illumination, we acquired various types of lanterns from an array of manufacturers for testing. After weeks of evaluation, only those units from our tests that met or exceeded advertised run time, displayed durability sufficient for multi-season camping applications and in our opinion offered excellent value made the final cut. What follows are some recommendations for using various types of lanterns, their advantages and disadvantages, and a number of suggestions.
Liquid-fueled lanterns are the oldest type of lantern. Nonetheless, they work well for lighting large areas, cast a pleasing, soft light and are inexpensive to operate. We recommend models that burn unleaded and white gas (sometimes called Coleman fuel). Gasoline costs less than half the price of white gas, but if spilled its odor is more offensive and persistent. You can fill the average fuel reservoir with unleaded and receive about 7 hours of light (more with some models) for your effort. Even the more expensive white gas fuels these lanterns for about
25 percent of the cost of similar propane lanterns. On the downside, liquid-fuel lanterns must be pumped periodically to maintain pressure.
One company, Coleman, dominates the liquid-fuel lantern market, and in our tests, two models came to the forefront: The Northstar Dual Fuel Lantern and the Premium Powerhouse Dual Fuel Lantern. The Northstar sports a battery-powered (one AAA) electronic ignition and a tube-style mantle. This is a very bright lantern that runs about seven hours on its high setting, nearly twice that long on low. We liked its stable design and non-skid base. Offering similar run times and brightness as the Northstar, the Premium Powerhouse Dual Fuel Lantern is a more basic and rugged traditional lantern, utilizing two sock-type mantles that are lit with matches. These lanterns cost about 9 cents an hour to run during our test.
Propane lanterns have been around for several decades and their popularity stems from their simplicity of operation. Simply screw a propane bottle onto the lantern, light it and forget it. There’s no liquid gas to spill and no pumping to maintain the lantern’s pressure.
Among propane camping lanterns, Coleman again masters the field. On the list is the Northstar InstaStart Propane Lantern. The unit slightly exceeded the advertised run time of 4.3 hours from a 16.4-ounce propane cylinder on high and 9.25 hours on low. Nonetheless, this is a fuel-hungry lantern that will require one propane cylinder per night while camping if burned on the high setting. However, it casts a very bright light though a single tube-style mantle. For most situations, the low setting provides adequate lighting for a large area. In our test, fuel costs for this unit averaged 70 cents an hour on the high setting, 30 cents on low.
Among the field, we also tested the Perfectflow Compact Lantern from Coleman. Although it exceeded the advertised run time of 12 hours on a 16.4-ounce propane cylinder, we were less than impressed with the light output.
No matter what propane lantern you use, for extended trips or continued use in a particular area, you can greatly economize by connecting a lantern to a bulk propane tank (like those used on a barbecue grill). Coleman’s Propane Tree (a pipe that attaches to the top of a bulk tank) and High Pressure Propane Hose and Adapter can convert propane lanterns to bulk fuel tanks. You can save in fuel cost over purchasing 16.4-ounce fuel cylinders and also eliminate the need to discard the disposable cylinders after use.
Battery-powered lanterns emitting light via LEDs or fluorescent bulbs are currently the rage in outdoor lighting. Though very convenient to operate, battery-powered lanterns come with two potential drawbacks. First, their light tends to be very white and somewhat harsh in comparison to propane or liquid-fuel lanterns. Also, dead batteries contain highly corrosive chemicals that represent an environmental hazard in landfills or disposal sites.
Our tests confirmed the old adage “you get what you pay for.” If you’re depending on a battery lantern for light in a remote location, invest in a quality unit from a reputable company. After putting some 30 units from a variety of manufacturers through our tests for brightness, run time and durability, here are the models that rose to the top.
For our purposes, we classified large lanterns as those requiring four or more D-cell batteries. Some of these models boast light intensity capable of usefully illuminating objects 50 feet from the lantern. However, the ultra-bright models can be expensive to operate. Buying batteries from discount sources will help contain costs, but operating a large lantern using eight D batteries may still cost over $1 per hour to operate on the high setting. Run time is greatly extended and cost dramatically decreased on the low setting. These lanterns are ideal for lighting large outdoor areas, but are generally too large and bulky to be hung from the ceiling of a tent.
The eGear 10-Day Lantern is on the small side in this category, but proved to be an excellent lantern. Powered by four D Energizer batteries in our tests, it handily exceeded the advertised run time on the high setting of 40 hours. The lantern burned an incredible 240 hours on low. We liked its compact, weather-resistant design (1.3 pounds without batteries) and infinitely adjustable brightness between the low and high settings.
The Black Diamond Titan is another large lantern operating on four D batteries. It ran 24 hours on high, about 170 hours on low. It’s a very rugged unit featuring a collapsible globe to conserve space when packing. The Titan boasts an actual push-button dimmer switch that toggles the lantern at any setting between high and low. An excellent feature on this lantern is a battery indicator light, which alerts the user to low batteries.
Among the most rugged of the large battery lanterns we tested, the Eureka! Warrior 400 LED Lantern provides enough illumination to light a camping area with an impressively long run time. On its high setting, the Warrior stayed lit for about 60 hours on a single set of six D-cell batteries. In addition to the lantern, the unit also incorporates directional LEDs (essentially a flashlight) on its back. The directional lights consist of a white, red and flashing red setting that serves as a signaling or warning light. On its red flashing mode, the unit operated for 5.5 days. We really liked this lantern’s simple design. The directional LED portion seemed an inferior substitute for a flashlight or headlamp, although the flashing red mode would certainly be useful in emergency situations.
On the big side is the Coleman Twin High Performance LED Lantern. This lantern is comparable in size to a two-mantle liquid fuel model. Powered by eight D-cell batteries, it ran more 10 hours on high and about 100 hours on low. Its switch allowed for complete adjustment of brightness between low and high. On the high setting, it adequately lights the average campsite.
In our test, medium lanterns were those that operated on three D-cell batteries. They’re very versatile — bright enough for outdoor light, compact enough for minimally intrusive lighting in a tent. The Energizer Weather Ready 360 Degree Area Light operates up to 15 hours on its highest setting. It sports highly weather-resistant construction and a non-slip carrying handle. This lantern has three settings: high, low and night light. It also comes with a detachable LED keychain light, a feature we found quite attractive should it become necessary to change batteries after dark.
Super-tough construction is one of the highlights of the Brunton Polaris XL LED Lantern. A 45-hour run time on high is outstanding in this category. It’s advertised with a 1,080-hour run time on low, a claim we didn’t have time to fully evaluate in our tests. A five-position illumination dial and a handy hanging clip round out the excellent features of this lantern.
We grouped the units that run on AA batteries together as small lanterns. These are best suited for remote camping or backpacking where space is at a premium, although they’re also ideal for pocket-carry and kids’ lanterns in car-camping settings. Don’t be fooled by their small size. Some of these little powerhouses throw a surprising amount of light, enough for reading, tent illumination and general camp chores.
Black Diamond scored big in this category with the Apollo Lantern. This light featured an extendable globe and a clever three-leg stand. It exceeded the advertised 15-hour run time on high in our tests when powered by Energizer batteries and is said to operate 60 hours on low. The Apollo also features a collapsible hanging ring and can be powered externally via the DC power port. It utilizes a dimmer button to move anywhere between the maximum and minimum settings. A low-battery indicator light alerts the user when it’s time to change the four AA batteries.
The eGear Grenade LED Lantern was one our favorite products in the entire test. It’s a very bright and durable little light that operates on three AA batteries. Run time on high was 25 hours, seven of which were at “maximum output.” On low it is said to operate for 50 hours. The lantern also has a flashing mode for signaling with a 50-hour run time. Two plastic clips and a carabiner allow for easy hanging. Our only complaint with this unit is the exposed power switch that can accidentally be turned on in transit.
Brunton’s Primus Pocket Camping Lantern is yet another nifty product with three settings that easily passed muster in this category. Powered by four AA batteries, it posted a run time of about 12 hours on high, and about 50 hours on low. This unit can stand on its non-slip, rubberized base or hang via a collapsible ring.
Our tests included a few specialty lanterns that didn’t fit neatly into any of the categories, or were just so unique that they required separate treatment. Two of these in particular caught our attention. The first is the Coleman Quad Lantern. This unit is a lantern with four removable panels that recharge from the base. An on/off button on top of the unit lights all the panels, providing 360-degree lighting. Each panel can be removed from the base and operated from an on/off switch on its back, essentially providing four mini-lanterns that can be removed and replaced for a variety of uses. The Quad operates on eight D-cell batteries with a run time of about 75 hours.
Another great specialty item is the Energizer Solar Folding Lantern. This lantern is bright enough for general camp lighting with the appeal of solar recharging. Exposed to the sun for about five hours, it yields about two hours of lighting. Leave it in the sun all day, and the rechargeable solar batteries inside will light your campsite and tent until bedtime. The lantern can also be operated via traditional, disposable batteries if you forget to leave it in the sun.
So it seems that no matter what your lighting needs are, there’s a lantern for you. Come to think of it, there may be several.