Unlike a flashlight, a lantern throws out light a short distance but in a large 360 degree circle. This makes it suitable for lighting up a table, a room, a tent, or a campsite. Eating supper by the light of a flashlight isn’t going to be much fun, whereas eating supper by the light of a lantern can be quite cosy. You can also use the lantern to light the way when walking in the dark.
There are two main uses for LED lanterns – camping and emergency preparation (blackouts, hurricanes). However they also have everyday uses – patio light, closet light – anywhere running a power cord is difficult.
LED technology is now good enough to challenge traditional propane and kerosene lanterns. While a two-mantel propane lantern is still brighter than most LED lanterns, the LED advantages of safety (no fire risk), minimal heat and low maintenance (no need to change mantels, long run times of tens of hours) are overwhelming.
Sizes range from a can of soda (suitable for backpacking) to a six-pack (suitable for car camping and hurricane preparedness). Prices range from under $20 to over $50. Brands include Brunton (Orion), Coast, Coleman (Exponent, Micro Packer), Rayovac (Sportman), Energizer, Emerson (Innovage), K2, Smartlite, Portugal and Dorcy.
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Brightness, Runtimes and Batteries
A two-mantel propane lantern gives off about 1000 lumens of light, the same as an 85 watt incandescent (tungsten filament) electric bulb. Current LED lanterns give off 200 (equivalent to 15 watt incandescent) to 600 lumens (equivalent to 50 watt incandescent) on their highest setting.
Runtime ranges from a few hours to tens of hours, depending on:
- LED efficiency (lumens per watt).
- Brightness. The published runtime is usually the runtime at the lowest brightness setting.
- Type of battery. Popular batteries are AA and D-cell. AAA and C-cell lanterns are less common.
- Number of batteries.
AA and AAA lanterns are small, making them suitable for backpacking and for children. The UCO Clarus, Coleman MicroPacker and Black Diamond Orbit are examples of this type. However runtimes are limited.
For all other uses, D-cell lanterns offer the best combination of size/weight and runtime. They are also cheaper per unit of energy. Lanterns use anywhere from 2 to 8 D-cells, with 2 to 4 being the most convenient. D-cell runtimes are so long that having 8 batteries isn’t necessary, and only makes the lantern heavier.
For example, the Rayovac SE3DLN Sportsman runs on 3 D-cell batteries and is rated for 40 hours at 270 lumens. While the CREE 40450 runs on 3 AAA batteries and is rated for 25 hours at 185 lumens.
Official runtimes, including those above, should be viewed with caution. Manufacturers can use different methods for measuring runtimes. For example, the ANSI standard specifies that the runtime is measured until the brightness falls to 10 percent of the initial value. Which isn’t the value most people would expect.
While it is natural to emphasize the maximum brightness, the lowest brightness of a lantern will affect its runtime. A long runtime is especially important for emergency use as you can’t be sure when your power will be restored.
A lantern with 2 brightness levels might have a low brightness that is too high (too close to maximum) or too low (to dim to be useful). Get a lantern with at least 3 or 4 brightness levels. Some LED lanterns have a dimmer switch, giving you a continuously variable brightness control.
A rough guide to brightness levels:
- 10 to 25 lumens is useful for a long-duration nightlight or a beacon to help you find your way back to your camp.
- 50 to 100 lumens is bright enough to light up an area of about 5 x 5 feet, enough for reading or eating a meal.
- 200 to 400 lumens is bright enough to light up a small 10 x 10 foot room.
The Brightest LED Lantern
The most popular models (Streamlight Siege, Rayovac Sporstman, Coleman) all have roughly the same brightness of about 200 to 300 lumens. 300 lumens is about the brightness of a 25 watt incandescent (tungsten filament) bulb.
It’s hard to know which lantern is the brightest, but the Weatherrite 5949 at 610 lumens is certainly one of them. But brightness isn’t everything. The Weatherrite’s lowest brightness is 270 lumens – the high brightness on some lamps. This means that the runtime of the Weatherrite, even on low, is limited – 50 hours with 6 D-cell batteries. Other lanterns can run on low for 50 hours using only 3 D-cell batteries.
Instead of using one super bright lantern, it makes more sense to get two or three medium brightness lanterns (200 to 300 lumens). The light is more evenly distributed, and you have a backup in case one lantern fails.
LED Lantern Features
Lanterns are all about brightness, runtimes and reliability. However there are a few small features that can make a difference in their usability:
- Battery level indicator.
- Upside-down hook. While a lantern does shine out light 360 degrees, there is a dark spot underneath the lantern itself. This isn’t a problem if you place the lantern on the table, but then the lantern shines right into your eyes. Hanging the lantern up makes the dark spot noticeable. The solution is to turn the lantern upside down and hang it from its base. Some lanterns have a built-in hook for this purpose.
- Removable diffuser. The diffuser does cut down on the brightness. If the lantern is hung upside down above your head, the diffuser isn’t necessary. A removable diffuser makes the lantern seem brighter. This is also called “bare bulb mode.”
- Strong diffuser. A frosted plastic body spreads out the light from the LED, making it possible to look at the lantern without hurting your eyes. If the diffuser isn’t strong enough (is clear plastic) you can fix this with tracing paper.
- Red LED. A red LED preserves your night vision. This will be a lot dimmer than the main LED.
- Friction handle. A handle that stays in place, or a fixed handle, makes it easy to pick up the lantern from the ground – you don’t need to bend over and fumble around as much.
- Rubber base. A non-slip rubber base makes it easy to place the lantern on a car hood or other slippery surface.
- Emergency strobe. A strobe mode flashes the light, making the lantern more noticeable – for rescuers to find you if you are in trouble.
- Hood. To keep the size down, most LED lanterns don’t have a hood. Which makes it hard to see your surroundings when you are carrying the lantern because the light shines into your eyes. You’ll probably need to make your own hood, or carry the lantern upside-down.
- Flashlight conversion. Smaller lanterns can sometimes be converted to flashlights. By sliding or turning something, the light shines out from the top of the lantern instead of the sides.
- Mini locater beacon. Some lanterns will automatically flash a small LED when turned off, like a smoke detector. This helps you to find the lantern in a dark room. This is a controversial feature as some people are afraid that it will drain the batteries, and the light is sometimes bright enough to keep you awake at night. The power drawn is actually minimal and the batteries should last for years.
- Waterproofing, rainproofing. Some lanterns are rainproof, meaning that they can take a light dousing. You can waterproof any lantern by placing it inside a large plastic freezer bag, but this is obviously less convenient.
- Carabiner or hook on the handle to make it easy to hang the lantern. You can always add your own.
Some tips to help you get the most out of your lantern:
- Remove the batteries before storage. Batteries can leak and damage the lantern.
- Practice inserting the batteries. Don’t wait until a blackout. Some lanterns have peculiar designs that makes it hard to change the batteries, especially in the dark.
- Keep lots of spare batteries.
- Keep some plastic freezer bags handy for waterproofing the lantern.
- Customize the lantern to suit your needs. Add tracing paper to increase diffusion, glue on a hood, add a hook or carabiner to the handle.
- Use disposable lithium batteries for minimum weight, maximum battery life and long shelf life (10 years).
- Test the lantern’s battery life before you actually use it. Leave the lantern on for a few hours each night to see what the actual battery life is.
- Test out the lantern for one night. Try eating a meal, reading a book, taking a shower with it. This will highlight any defects that you might need to fix by modifying the lantern, or buying a different one.
- Don’t depend on one lantern. Buy two or more in case one fails. Also buy lanterns that use different types of batteries, in case the shops run out of one type you can still get the other.
- Get a solar battery charger and rechargeable NiMH batteries for maximum off-grid endurance.