Once the sun goes down, it can get pretty dark at your campsite. Luckily there are plenty of options for lighting up the darkness. Car camping, especially, lends itself to a variety of light choices. If you’ve ever forgotten your flashlight while camping, you’ll know how important it is to have at least one, preferably more than one, form of light ready.
How can you provide light while car camping? Here are some options, in order of usefulness:
- String Lights
- DIY Lantern
- Glow Sticks
For obvious reasons, some of these are more useful than others. However, sometimes different light options can come in handy in different circumstances. I’ll discuss some of the ideal situations to use one light option over another.
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Headlamps are incredibly useful. Mostly because they are hands-free, and the light shines wherever you are looking (which is usually where you want light). Headlamps are really great to have while camping because they can be used in almost any circumstance. Here are a few examples of activities they help with in the dark:
- setting up gear
- cooking and eating
- walking to the car or the bathroom
- using the bathroom
- bustling around in your tent
Probably the only time they are not useful is when you look directly at someone with the light on. People get annoyed with you pretty quick when you keep blinding them. But a lot of headlamps have a red light option, which eliminates that problem. There are also a few headlamps out there that have a motion sensor option, so you can turn the headlamp on and off with a wave of your hand (I bought my husband this model, and he loves it!)
In summary, the pros of a headlamp are that they provide focused, mobile, and hands-free light. The cons are that they only provide light for an individual and can often blind others.
A lantern is probably one of the most popular camp lighting options because one lantern can provide light for a group of people. And you can move the lantern to wherever you need light. Lanterns also provide a softer light than a headlamp or flashlight – meaning that no one gets blinded. Often lanterns also have a hook or other method of hanging them, which can really come in handy.
Lanterns can be helpful in all the activities listed above for headlamps. The pros of a lantern are that they provide soft, mobile, hands-free light for a group of people. The cons are that the light is not focused, and therefore not ideal for detail work, and that if one person needs the light elsewhere, the other members of the group lose their light.
You also have to be careful that your lantern light doesn’t extend into the neighboring campsite and bother campers who maybe don’t want light at the same time you do.
This happened to me, actually– A neighboring campsite put up their lantern and left it there all night long. I had to sleep in such a way for a tree to be exactly in front of the lantern all night long. I should have marched over there and said something but… well–… anyway, it’s nice if you turn off your lantern when you’re not using it.
The good old flashlight. This is the camping classic. Flashlights are still useful, but they pale in comparison to headlamps and lanterns.
Flashlights can be useful for all the activities mentioned with headlamps, and are even useful for the same reasons – focused, mobile light – with one major difference: they are not hands-free. How many people in the history of camping have tried to do something, requiring two hands, with a flashlight in their mouth? It’s not convenient.
If you already have a flashlight and don’t want to spend money on anything new, use your flashlight. It’s great, and will get the job done. If you are considering whether to buy a flashlight or something else, buy a headlamp. You won’t regret it.
Let’s be honest, string lights are just cool. They really set the mood of your campsite. And there are all kinds of string lights. The one big thing to remember with string lights, is that you have to hang them. So make sure you have a reliable way to do that (and that your campsite allows you to hang things).
The pros of using string lights are that they provide ambient light for a group. The cons are that they require more set up, may require electricity at your campsite (unless you get battery powered or solar), and only provide light where they are set up.
You’ve all seen that lantern hack on the internet where you strap a headlamp to a jug of water and it has the same effect as a lantern. Well, I gave it a try to see how useful it really was.
Here’s my deduction: the diy lantern does provide a fair amount of light and would be useful in place of a lantern, with a few drawbacks. It seems that it produces less light than a lantern, and the light is not equally dispersed, shining stronger in the direction the headlamp is facing. Also, you can move the diy lantern around, but it’s a jug of water, so it’s a little heavy.
In other words, this is a great option is you feel like you need lantern-type lighting, but don’t want to buy a lantern (granted you already own a headlamp).
Glow sticks provide a pretty soft light, and not quite enough light to be able to see very much detail. Glow sticks would be most useful when camping with kids. They could be used in the following ways:
- as night lights in a tent
- to mark places around the campsite to avoid (poisonous plants, a log that is easy to trip over, etc.)
- to mark important spots around the campsite (the path to the bathroom, the tent, etc.)
- to keep tabs on kids, so you can easily see where they are
Glow sticks are also just fun! But, though useful for a few things, they are not a good main source of camping light.
What to Consider When Buying a Light
Headlamps: The main things you’ll want to consider when buying a headlamp for car camping are (1) alkaline batteries or a rechargeable battery, and (2) what are the light options.
Many headlamps contain alkaline batteries. We’ve found that if we leave the batteries in the headlamp they corrode. We’ve had to get in the habit of removing the batteries when they are sitting at home, and remembering to put batteries in them when we need to use them. Some headlamps have a charging port though, so you don’t need to worry about clunky batteries, just that the lamp is charged up (and that the charge will last as long as you need it to).
Headlamps also come with various light options: varying levels of brightness, flashing light, and red light. We find the red light option to be very useful while camping (it doesn’t attract bugs, and doesn’t blind people) and so prefer to buy headlamps that offer that option.
Lanterns: The big decision with lanterns is power. There are solar powered lanterns, battery powered lanterns, wind-up lanterns, propane lanterns. So first you’ll need to decide what kind of power source you want to deal with.
The other thing you’ll want to consider is are you going to want to hang the lantern or set it on a table or other surface, or do both. If you think you’ll want to hang the lantern at some point, get one with an option to do so.
Flashlights: When buying a flashlight, consider the size, bulb type, and quality.
You can find flashlights that range from very small to very large. Consider when you will use this flashlight. Are you going to want to fit it in your pocket? Are you ever going to try and hold it in your mouth? Most likely when car camping, you won’t need a massive flashlight.
I’m not sure you can find flashlights that aren’t LED anymore, but in case you can, LED bulbs is the way to go since they last a very long time.
Lastly, consider what kind of quality you need. If these are little flashlights for your kids to carry around while camping, no need to get expensive ones. You can find very cheap flashlights that will do just fine. If you feel that you need a durable, waterproof flashlight with an adjustable focus, then get that. My personal opinion is that an inexpensive flashlight will serve you well for car camping.
String Lights: It’s really important that whatever string lights you use at your campsite are suitable for the outdoors, and specifically for getting wet. You never know when you might get rained on or have a very dewy morning.
String lights also come with many different power sources, like lanterns. So you’ll want to decided if you want solar powered, battery powered, or electric lights. Obviously with electric lights you would always need to be at a campsite with electricity.
Other than that, you get to have fun! There are so many varieties of string lights: Christmas lights (white or multi-colored, small or large bulb), rope lights, and decorative lights (which come in almost any form you can imagine). Pick what will set the right mood for your campsite.
Glow Sticks: To be honest, I always buy my glow sticks at the dollar store, but you can probably find some cheaper on Amazon or Oriental Trading Company.
I think the most important consideration here is what form of glow stick. There are two forms that I think are most useful for camping: (1) The bendy kind with connectors which are the most popular, and (2) the thicker sticks with a hook for hanging (and some with a hole for hanging, but not a hook – not as useful, make sure to get the right ones if you are expecting a hook at the end).
How much should I spend on a headlamp? An interesting thing I learned about headlamps, you can get a really great headlamp for under $30. My husband was fed up with the $15 Energizer headlamps we’d bought at Target, so he told me he wanted the nicest headlamp that $30 could buy (we aren’t big spenders). So I started looking at headlamps to get him for Christmas. I did all kinds of research and read all kinds of reviews.
I ended up buying him this $15 headlamp off Amazon. It’s rechargeable, has red light, and even has a motion sensor on-off option. I really tried to find a fancier, nicer, more expensive headlamp, and none of them really seemed worth it, or they were all about features that weren’t important for our car camping needs (like having super bright lights that shone really far).
How do I hang string lights while car camping? This can be a little tricky because the only things you have to hang lights on are your tent, trees, and maybe a small structure, if the campsite has one. Make sure the campsite allows you to hang things before you begin. If you are allowed to, then you can wrap the lights around trees and your tent (make sure you have an extension cord if you are planning to plug them in). You can also tie a rope between trees first, and then wrap the lights around the rope, or clip them to the rope using some kind of clip or clothespin.