Lighting technology has come a long way since the days when your dad would pull out his trusty Coleman lantern and fumble with a match to flood the area with the glow of burning propane. Today, camp lights are available in all shapes and sizes, whether you’re looking for something featherweight enough to bring deep into the backcountry or bright enough to fling light to the farthest reaches of your campsite. Many are electric, rechargeable, solar-powered, highly efficient, and loaded with features. But if you like the glow of an actual flame, you can still get that too.
Take a look at quick info of five of the best lights, then scroll farther for more info on these and other top-performing models, plus buying advice.
Types of Lights
We tested a ton of lights, but they can broadly be broken down into lanterns, string lights, systems, and smart lights.
These are the modern equivalents of the whale oil lanterns that sputtered above some of the world’s greatest authors, and also updated takes on the aforementioned Coleman. Whether electric or fuel-powered, they throw light 360 degrees and aren’t great at directing illumination at any small individual detail. They are useful for creating ambience across a campsite, since you can set them on top of tables or tailgates and, depending on their construction, hang them over a rope, tree branch, or hook. Some we tested even pack down small and inflate to spread their light.
Like Christmas lights, but without the festiveness. Each string contains multiple LEDs and produces a glow that can spread farther through your campsite, even if, like a lantern, it’s not as bright in any individual area. Though string them up somewhere, like inside your camper, and they can illuminate every corner of an area far better than a lantern, which only has light coming from a single point.
Some systems operate as off-the-grid breaker boxes, with several lights—which you can control individually or all at once—branching off of one central control unit (see the BioLite Solar Home below). Others are more modular, with their own batteries and a number of configurations so you can swap lights into and out of different ports.
The Internet of Things comes to the campsite. These lights seem run-of-the-mill, but connect them to your phone and you can control brightness, on/off, and color. Some of them even come with speakers if you’re really looking to bring today’s technology to a patch of dirt near you.
Rechargeable vs. Single-Use Batteries
Most of the lights here are rechargeable, whether through cords or built-in solar panels, making them easy to maintain and saving you the hassle of buying and popping in a pair of AAs or AAAs every time the battery dies. That comes with its own annoyances, though; few things are more frustrating than realizing your rechargeable lantern has no juice as you’re halfway out the door. Best practice is to top them off after every time you return home, and—if you go a while between camping trips—check and recharge them every few months. Say that sounds like too much to remember, then you’re better opting for a single-use battery model. Or pick something like Black Diamond’s Apollo or Volt, the best of both worlds that run on disposable and rechargeable batteries so you won’t be left in the dark if you’re not near an outlet or forgot your spare battery pack.
Do Lumens Matter?
Yes. But not as much with these lights, when you’re trying to illuminate a wide area in your campground where people congregate like the picnic table, as with headlamps and flashlights. For those, you’ll generally want a powerful light with plenty of lumens that you can shine in one direction for picking out detail and far off objects. There’s less of a need for that at a campsite, where a broad swath of light will be more useful as you’re pitching a tent or cooking up dinner. Better to get one high-powered lamp or several mid-power ones to keep in a central location, then bring along the separate directional light for fine tasks or when you venture beyond the bubble of illumination to answer nature’s call.
Other than the MPowerd Luci Outdoor 2.0 and Nite Ize Radiant Rechargeable Micro, every light on this list puts out at least 100 lumens, which should be ample enough for basic camping needs. But you’ll want to take into account the design of whichever light you buy, too. Like we mention above, string lights are great for spreading their lumens over larger areas but won’t concentrate them anywhere.
How We Tested
We brought in more than two dozen lights to test, spanning a range of power sources—disposable batteries, rechargeable lithium ion, fuel, solar—and constructions—lanterns, string lights, systems, and smart lights. We went to established brands, companies that have done well in other tests, as well as innovators new to the market.
Throughout the rounds of testing, we’ll spread the lights across our campsite, hanging some from a truck’s cap door, an awning, nearby tree branches, within the cap, and on top of a cooler. Then we go about campsite tasks: cooking, cleaning, packing up, searching for that lighter we’d dropped, fixing broken gear, and sitting down to read. As such, we tested how easy these lights were to use, how well they mounted and stood, the quality of their light color, toughness, and how well they cast light throughout the campsite.
To quantitatively test the lights’ performance against the lab-tested, company-provided metrics, we fully charge each one and run it on its brightest setting until it dies. We also read beneath them, measuring how close we have to be to pick out the words. We power them up one light at a time, start to read, and carefully (glancing down occasionally so as not to trip) walk away from the light until our eyes begin to strain, then measure the distance. We read from both books and soup can ingredients lists to test with a variety of texts and background colors.
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz. | Lumens: 500 | Run time: 7 h 15 m | Reading distance: 33 ft.
The Base Lantern is like the iPhone of camp lights. At its simplest, it does just what you want, with intuitive operation. It’s light, plenty bright, and easy to turn on. But as we dove in, we discovered feature after feature that we now can’t imagine living without. This powerhouse pumps out 500 lumens from a massive battery. Leave it on its brightest setting and it’ll go for more than seven hours, plenty of time for a few nights at camp. But it also recharged an actual iPhone, with plenty of power left over. And we loved how we could connect some BioLite string lights with what looks like a headphone jack, and even dim them separately from the lantern to adjust the levels of light in different areas. The BaseLantern has a single button to turn on, dim, switch from lighting both sides to just one (a battery saving feature when we didn’t need 360 degrees of light), or select from a rainbow of light colors.
The light really stands apart, though, when you connect to the easy-to-use BioLite app. We had access to all the standard features like dimming and light color from my phone, but we could also set alarms (which wake you up by turning on the light at a specified time) and even use a proximity sensor so the light turned on when we approached and off when we left. Add in the solid metal construction, a massive lighting surface, and easy-to-read battery indicator, and this light is an all-around winner.
MPowerd Luci Outdoor 2.0
Weight: 4.4 oz. | Lumens: 75 | Run time: 7 h | Reading distance: 8 ft.
At 75 lumens, this little light isn’t the most powerful, but it packs into a tiny package, weighs almost nothing, and costs less than a backpacking meal. It’s also one of the best we tested for backpacking trips. Despite the small size, it had an impressive glow. The lantern’s LEDs are mounted at the top, all aligned pointing down, but surrounded by a reflective surface to throw the light farther. Thanks to that it lit our campsite well enough for us to cook and walk around confidently. And when we put it in the truck cap, there was plenty of light to read, even on the lantern’s weaker settings.
Some may not like that the Outdoor 2.0 is only solar powered, meaning you can’t plug it into an outlet to charge before a trip. An integrated strap does make it easier to hang from the inside of your tent or outside of your pack as you hike, which was helpful for charging. Forget charging a phone from it, as there’s no output port. But conserving this power means it ran on its full brightness, with all 10 LEDs on, for seven hours, though it did begin to dim slightly toward the end before fully going out. A simple button clicks through three brightness settings, with the only other button bringing up an indicator to show how much battery the lantern had left.
BioLite SolarHome 620
Weight: 2 lb. 8 oz. | Lumens: 100 (per light)| Run time: 6 h 30 m | Reading distance: 18 ft.
This system is better suited for your RV, vanlife, duck blind, or off-the-grid cabin than it is for any tent or car camping site. The SolarHome is based around a central unit that you mount to a wall, and this unit has a light, radio, and charging ports for electronics like your phone. It also comes with three lights on long wires that mount into the control unit, one of which has a motion sensor. Each of these attachable lights has its own on/off switch, so we could turn them on or off independently to tailor the brightness. All of this is powered by a six-watt solar panel. It’s easy to mount with nails or wires to your roof, a tree, or the top of your vehicle. We chose to leave the panel unmounted though (despite it not having legs), and leaned it against things to face as directly into the sun as possible whenever we got to a campsite. The system is constantly recharging via the solar panel, and the 3,300-mAh battery is plenty to get you through cloudy days. The system doesn’t come with any means of charging without the panel, so be sure you give it some sun. Thankfully, it’s light and has a 21-foot-long cord, so even if we parked in the shade we could get it to the nearest patch of sun.
The system is supremely easy to use, and fun, even. We found ourselves checking the display screen for the percent of sun power the panel was receiving and how long it’d take to charge the battery. We loved that, with the system installed, we had a reliable source of power to charge a phone off of wherever we stopped. The lights themselves all work great. At 100 lumens each, they’re not staggeringly bright, but it was handy to control each easily with its own switch. And the cords are 18 feet long, so you can run them out to have lights in different rooms within a small house or cabin.
—BEST STRING LIGHTS—
MPowerd Luci Solar String
Weight: 11.8 oz. | Lumens: 100 | Run time: 5 h 45 m | Reading distance: 10 ft.
If you’re looking for fun mood lighting for your campsite, the Luci solar string is your illumination. The small bulbs don’t put out a lot of light individually, but stretch them across a campsite or underneath a dining fly and they create a nice warm glow that’s great to eat beneath. Whereas other string lights come in at a humble six to eight feet, these span 18, meaning we could actually illuminate an impressive amount of ground with them. We wrapped them along the edge of a camper awning and was impressed that they didn’t just add a bit of decoration but afforded plenty of light to read from. So we mounted them inside the truck camper and easily illuminated the cap. It was so effective, in fact, that we often turned them on only their lowest setting. Straying only a bit out of the area the lights encircle, though, we had trouble making out details.
We also love how the lights are integrated into a hard plastic carrying case, which keeps the bulbs protected and organized around the core so they don’t get tangled. The end of the string has a USB port so you can charge the lights before hitting the trail, but the case also has a solar panel for charging and an output USB so you can juice your phone off of it. At about three quarters of a pound, these aren’t really backpacking lights and better used to supplement a headlamp and a lantern, but they add an undeniable charm to the campsite, are easy to use, and run impressively long.
Revel Gear Day Tripper
Weight: 7.1 oz. | Lumens: 1,000 | Run time: 26 h 38 m
The Day Tripper shines (if you’ll pardon the pun) when you’re doing certain tasks around the campsite and need plenty of lumens. It has the most of any light here, but since it’s directional, it isn’t the best for ambient illumination. (The included strap and carabiner are more for securing the Day Tripper to a pack; they won’t do much to keep it pointing in a certain direction if you use them to hang it above a table or in a tent.) If you do want a wide swath of light, spring for Revel’s Trail Hound, which plugs into the Day Tripper’s USB-A port. Operating both the lights together was easy; pressing the power button once lit up and turned off the string, while hitting it twice worked the Day Tripper’s panel light.
Speaking of the panel light, the thing is almost blinding. And it stayed lit for an incredibly long time, gradually dimming as the power dwindled. Though we would have preferred if it stayed on full brightness before the battery drained completely. Another hang up: Though the Day Tripper has a solar panel on the back for charging, some online reviewers brought up that they had issues getting it to provide power. And if the battery runs all the way down, you can’t reboot the light via solar—you’ll need the cable.
—EASIEST TO USE—
Goal Zero Lighthouse 400
Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz. | Lumens: 400 | Run time: 3 h 5 m | Reading distance: 30 ft.
An electronic take on the traditional lantern, the Lighthouse’s 400 lumens easily illuminate an entire campsite with a simple twist of the on/off dim knob. And if we didn’t need an entire campsite lit, we could turn off half the lantern and set it against a wall. This was particularly useful for not blinding the people beside us in a tight campground.
The Lighthouse also has a number of features that we liked. The legs are easy to swing out and stabilize it, but if you want to flip the lantern upside down and hang it, their shape easily hooks onto branches and even two-by-fours. The charging cable is incorporated into the lantern and wraps around the base neatly so you never have to rummage through your bag for that tiny cord. The lantern also has a crank for hand charging that works surprisingly well—we wound the lantern quickly for 10 seconds and got a minute of full power light. There’s also a USB output so you can charge your phone. This light is heavy, so it isn’t great for backpacking. But in a cabin, workshop, or go bag? It’s hard to find better.
Nite Ize Radiant Rechargeable Micro
Weight: 1 oz. | Lumens: Unlisted | Run time: 10 h 8 m | Reading distance: 8 ft.
This spunky little lantern won us over with its tenacity. It had an impressive battery life when running on high, outlasting many of the other lights here. Granted, it doesn’t put out a ton of light given its size—Nite Ize doesn’t even list a lumen count—so it’s able to eke out more time. And the Micro’s frosted housing diffuses the beam nicely, making it easy on our eyes for reading or those times when you don’t need full-on direct light.
Further boosting the Micro’s utility is the swiveling mount with a clip, meaning it can be hung on a loop or line inside a tent with the light pointing down. It doesn’t weigh much, and the rechargeable battery powers up quickly, even if it did take a little prying to open up the Micro and get at the plug for the micro-USB. For when you want to set a party vibe, the light has red, green, blue, and alternating settings (in addition to the plain white light), which are easy to flip through by pressing on the power button.
Other Great Options
LuminAID PackLite Max 2-in-1
Weight: 8.5 oz. | Lumens: 150 | Run time: 6 h 26 m
We like the PackLiteMax for its versatile blend of portability and power. It boasts more lumens than other similar lanterns that collapse and is only one-inch tall when packed down. It’s equally at home strung above a picnic table (via the adjustable strap) at a car camping site as it is tucked inside a pack for longer weekend treks, where it won’t hog much space or add much weight. And during our testing, we found the light lasted longer on its highest setting than LuminAID’s claimed five hours, but that could be due to the fact that the solar panel on top is almost always charging the PackLite. (A handy indicator turns on to tell you when it’s pulling in juice from the sun.)
Also sitting on top are two ports—one micro-USB if you need a quicker charge and one USB-A for plugging in your other gadgets to the PackLite so it can give them a power boost. The light’s 2,000 mAh battery holds just enough to give a phone a full charge. And though the frosted lantern can make picking out fine print hard, the construction shines light nice and wide for a large area of illumination. If you do bring the PackLite one a longer trip, maybe back it up with a portable charger that you can plug it into, since it takes a while to fully charge off the sun.
Black Diamond Apollo
Weight: 10 oz. | Lumens: 225 | Run time: 6 h 10 m | Reading distance: 20 ft.
The Apollo packs away extremely well, and we loved how the three legs fold up tightly around the light, with no hooks or handles to catch on anything in your pack. It makes it easy to store the lantern in a pocket or pull it easily out of the depths of your bag. The 2,600 mAh battery keeps it powered on max brightness for six hours, but if you need more on a long trip, it’ll also run on AA batteries. It’ll run for an impressive 18 hours on those batteries alone, meaning we got a combined total of 24 hours of full-strength light out of the fully charged Apollo.
At 225 lumens, it’s not the brightest, but it throws its light impressively far. You may still need a headlamp for finer tasks if you aren’t near the lantern. But we enjoyed that it has a USB port for charging our devices. It also has a battery indicator, not only for the rechargeable battery, but also your AAs. The Apollo isn’t super light, so it’s not a great companion on a minimalist trip. But for a weekend backpacking, climbing, or bike packing/canoeing trip, it’s right at home.
Primus Easy Light
Weight: 6.6 oz. (plus canister) | Lumens: 490 | Run time: 4 h 10 m (on a 4-oz. fuel canister) | Reading distance: 10 ft.
If you like the warm glow of a flame rather than an LED, turn to this Primus. Instead of a propane tank though, it runs on the small fuel canisters that many backpacking stoves utilize. This puts the Easy Light in kind of its own category; it’s not really a great backpacking light, but it runs on backpacking fuel. While it isn’t heavy, at only 6.6 ounces, the glass of the lantern means you really do have to travel with the protective transport case (which, though bulky, we love—the hard plastic fits the lantern perfectly). For those not used to a gas lantern, lighting it takes some practice, despite the name. You have to take the mantle (the mesh that produces the light when heated) and put it 0ver the fuel ports of the lantern, burning it with a lighter until the whole thing smolders. Then the mantle will glow when lit. We ruined one as we set it up for the first time, due to a clumsy hand near the uncovered lantern.
And even at its very brightest, the Easy Light is more pleasant than useful. We still had to use a headlamp when cooking dinner directly beneath it. What’s more, the fact that it burns fuel means you can’t use it inside or in small spaces like your tent. It’s a great gas lantern if you absolutely must have that cozy glow rather than the bright blue of LEDs, and we did love its clever and simple hanging system: a thin metal cable with a small hook on the end.
Black Diamond Volt
Weight: 7.9 oz. | Lumens: 250 | Run time: 4 h 46 m (on rechargeable battery alone)
For a lantern that runs on both lithium-ion and AA batteries, the Volt is thankfully easy to use. Simply push the single button and the light turns on. Push it again to turn off, and press and hold to dim or brighten the beam. Double tap to activate the strobe. And we appreciated how BD included two sets of indicator lights, one for each type of battery, making it easy to see the respective power levels at a glance. For sharing (and replenishing) that power, the Volt has USB-A and micro USB ports. What’s more, the latch for the battery compartment is a breeze to operate, if a little confusing at first; it required no frustration or fine work with our fingernails/a multitool to flip open.
The frosted plastic over the bulb diffuses the light in a soft, pleasant glow, which was still powerful enough at max brightness that it made us wince if we glanced directly at it. But like the Apollo, this limited how far the Volt could project its light. Another gripe we have is that, given the long and narrow base, the Volt lacks some stability and seems liable to tip over if placed on an uneven picnic table. Better to hang it by the hook—large enough to loop over tent poles or rope—which hinges out from the bottom. And still, this is a solid little light, surprisingly hefty for its size even without the three AAs installed.