How to Light Up Your Campsite

Light Up Your Campsite - Camping Lanterns, Camping Lights and More

Setting the mood at camp is easy with the right lighting. Cozy, energized, whimsical, safe: All these feelings can be influenced by the type of lights you set up. Forget fragile kerosene lanterns; nearly all camp lights are now made with LED bulbs, which are highly efficient, can get seriously bright, and don’t cast off much heat. 

While some lights serve unique purposes, other quality camp options serve multiple purposes—such as charging USB-compatible electronics, setting an ambient mood, or providing a margin of safety while you work in the dark. Which lights best serve your campsite needs will depend on how much space you aim to illuminate, the level of brightness, battery life, plus the accessory or system’s overall portability and packability. 


There’s a whole vocabulary that comes with lighting, here are some of the basics: 

Lumens describe the max light output, or the power of the light. Higher lumens indicate a more powerful beam of light, while lower lumens indicate softer light. 

Run time will vary depending on the type of light, lumen output, and battery capacity or energy source. Solar-powered lights, for example, could run forever in a sunny place; battery-powered lights will only last as long as the battery holds its charge. 

Lanterns are free-standing lights that can usually spray light 180 to 360 degrees. These will produce some of the strongest and most customizable light beams—perfect for everything from the camp kitchen to the picnic table after dark. Cook dinner and play cards without worrying you’ll miss a thing. There are three basic types of lanterns:

Electric lanterns are great for car camping and some backpacking trips with larger groups of people.

  • Pros: adjustable lumens for both high and low light output; reliable in poor weather conditions; rechargeable; some have crank handles to recharge batteries; some can take batteries or recharge at home in between trips; long run times (up to 50 hours on low-lumen settings)
  • Cons: can be heavier than other light systems

Inflatable lanterns pack down to a flat disk when you’re on the trail, but blow up into a lantern once you settle into camp. Nearly all are solar-powered, making them a great companion for long treks.

  • Pros: adjustable lumens; solar-powered; supremely packable; can be lightweight; long run times (up to 50 hours on low-lumen settings)
  • Cons: require sunlight or pre-charging at home

Candle lanterns are rarely used, but come in handy in particular scenarios, like when sunlight or electricity is completely unavailable, you’re setting a nostalgic mood, or looking for help keeping mosquitos at bay.

  • Pros: don’t require sunlight, batteries, or electrical source to charge; nostalgic effect; can double as a mosquito repellant if citronella candles are used
  • Cons: potential fire hazard; not ideal in inclimate weather; requires lighter/matches; short run-time (up to 10 hours per candle, depending on conditions); low lumens 
Photo: Ben Herndon/TandemStock; (top) Ben Herndon/TandemStock Photo: Ben Herndon/TandemStock; (top) Ben Herndon/TandemStock

Tent lights are hung from the roof of your tent and provide hands- and head-free illumination as you wind down your evening. (Many lanterns are equipped with hang loops so they can double as tent lights.)

String lights are not only an excellent way to add ambiance or a splash of color to a campsite, they can also help reduce light pollution if you’re looking to lessen your impact on wildlife, or to spend the night star gazing without committing to pitch blackness. Many string lights are solar-powered or powered via USB (compatible with many multipurpose, solar-powered lights), and most are waterproof. 

Multipurpose, solar-powered lights can keep your camp’s nightlife going for days on end and charge your USB-compatible electronics at the same time. The ability to both light up camp and charge electronics is attractive for those who are spending one or multiple nights outside and want to keep a phone charged. But be wary: while solar-powered lights can usually replenish most of their energy bank over the course of a sunshiny day to light up the evening, solar alone isn’t always enough to charge a smartphone or GPS device. It’s not advised to use a multipurpose light as your only energy source, should an electronic item be an essential piece of gear. 

So, all things considered, what’ll light your way at camp? That depends on how you like your campground to look and feel. 

Camping with a large group of people? Free-standing lanterns will be your best bet. Depending on group size and how big of a space you’d like to illuminate, you may want to consider a single (or fleet of) lanterns. String lights can come in handy here, too.

Setting up camp for a night or two? Anything from lanterns to string lights to tent lights can suffice, depending on how much time you’ll be spending in the dark and how well you want to see. If you’re playing cards or reading, you’ll want more lights with more lumens; if someone’s playing a guitar around camp, lower-lumen lights like string lights or candles can help set the mood.

Backpacking a long trail? Check out an inflatable solar-powered lantern. They pack down small, eliminate the hassle of batteries because they’ll recharge via the sun, and it’ll give your skull a break from headlamps once you get to camp.

Basecamping? If you’ll be camping in the same place for a long period of time, a larger tabletop lantern with legs that elevate it off the table can brighten multiple directions, people, and activities at once.