At some stage many of us will choose to transition from day hiking to overnight hiking and apart from considerations such as weather, food and site selection, we also need to consider equipment aspects including some form of lighting otherwise we are going to be travelling in the dark….literally.
Those of you new to hiking will soon realise that the major outdoor stores tend to congregate in close proximity to each other so it is oh so easy to visit 3-5 stores all located within a 100 metre radius. So armed with a list of new gear we need to obtain, either by borrowing or purchasing, some sort of light, so we head off to the stores in search of something that will shed light on our nighttime foray. This is where it becomes difficult.
Each person should have their own source of light. And depending on the type of camping you are doing, you may also want a communal light. The options for lighting on the trail are mind boggling and apart from colour they seem at first glance to be very similar.
So what to choose? Handheld, head torch or lantern?
This article looks at the three main types of lighting available and hopefully we will shed some light (pun intended) on the topic.
This article is also available as a podcast here
Those of you with a touch of grey hair will be familiar with hand held torches that were really our only option when camping as kids all those years ago. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using a hand held torch if that is all you have and if funds are limited, spend your money on a better quality sleeping mat or sleeping bag instead. If you are going to go down the handheld route, ensure your torch is waterproof so that in the event of heavy rain you won’t be left in the dark.
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If purchasing a torch they are not necessarily a cheap option either and in researching this article the most expensive handheld torch I could find in a specialty outdoor store was around the AUD$1,000 mark. Having said that, the beam length was 620 metres which is overkill for most hikers.
In our recent poll only 9.5% of hikers used handheld torches as their main light. This is not surprising and once hikers start camping regularly they will usually purchase a head torch.
Princeton Tec League 100 Waterproof Dive Torch. Dive torches make great hiking lights as they tend to be robust and fully waterproof
Lanterns are probably the least common type of light type for hikers and tend to fall into the realm of car camping where space and weight aren’t so much of an issue. I do own a compact lantern but I’m unlikely to ever hike with just a lantern. Lanterns have come a long way from the big bulky items they used to be and these days lanterns can be compact, reasonably lightweight (compared to what they used to be) and provide a large concentrated ball of light (compared to other forms of lights which often tend to have focused beams). However, a number of modern lanterns also have the ability to be used as a torch providing a beam of light.
I tend to use my lantern on single overnight trips, when I’m car camping, or when I’m travelling in a group to create better communal lighting.
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Pricing is starts around the AUD$40 mark and ranges to around the AUD $200 mark for models that can be controlled with a smartphone app via bluetooth.
In our recent poll 0% of hikers used lanterns as their main source of light. This is really a secondary light source and most often used by car campers or for larger groups as a communal light.
A Black Diamond lantern (superseded model) hanging in a tree with the built in clip. The small versions of this type of light will hang well inside the roof of a tent
A lantern throwing a ball of light which makes them great for group communal areas or for reading in tents
Lantern being used as a handheld torch. Not all models have this function but its worth considering if you only want to buy one light
Headlamps are the light of choice for most hikers as shown in a recent survey we conducted where over 90% of hikers used this type of light as their main light source. This is backed up on the trail where just about everyone you see is using a head torch and for very good reasons.
They are usually small, compact, lightweight and will go with you anywhere making it easy to see. Headlamps mean you have both hands free for whatever activity your are undertaking making them the best choice for a personal light. If you are into night hiking, which I do from time to time, this is really the best option for you.
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Prices start around the AUD $40 and top out around the $400 AUD mark for all but the most specialised activities. Most of these lights sit well under this mark.
In our recent poll, 90.5% of hikers used head lamps as their main light which makes the headlamp the choice for the vast majority of hikers.
Petzl Elite+ ultralight head torch weights in at just 27 grams compared to an Australian 20 cent piece. This is my ‘go to’ light when I’m not doing serious night hiking
Petzl Elite+ in use. This image shows the ‘high beam’ setting which is bright but reduces the battery life
Petzl E lite on infra red mode. Used in this mode it will preserve your night vision and last for approximately 30 hours on a new set of coin cell batteries
Black Diamond Revolt rechargeable headlight. This light is much more powerful than the Petal Elite but the batteries won’t last as long and it is heavier. This is my current light choice for when I’m hiking at night. having said that if I’m hiking in terrain that is very hard going that I am unfamiliar with I will grab my wife’s Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
The type of battery you use is really one of personal choice but be aware of the advantages and disadvantages.
Whichever type of battery you use, ensure they are fully charged if using rechargeable batteries or fairly new if using disposables. Remember to take them home with you and don’t throw them away on the trail.
In a poll that we conducted on nighttime lighting it showed a fairly even split with the type of battery used:
Which batteries do you use? Lithium batteries are far more expensive but last longer, weigh slightly less and perform better in cold conditions than other types of batteries
When purchasing a light for hiking use you need to make a decision about what type of light you want and why. Questions to consider include:
The thing we never talk about when it comes to lights is how to use them. This goes a bit beyond etiquette but here is our list of things to ensure you don’t upset your fellow hikers:
The type of torch you use is a surprisingly personal choice. If you focus on the main type of nighttime activity you’ll need a torch for including wide beam (for group gatherings) or narrow beam (for personal use), you can’t go wrong. If you then focus on what fits your grip in the case of a handheld or what is comfortable sitting on your head if you’re looking at a headlamp, you’ll make another step towards the right light for you. Then you should consider whether you’ll use disposable or rechargeable batteries. The last thing to focus on is cost – this is because there are plenty of cost options within each light category.
One final thought is that a single light may not meet all your needs. Between Gill and I we own 8 lights and each has its own particular use.
Further information about transitioning to overnight hiking go to the following link Transitioning from Day Hiking to Overnight Hiking