I am so thankful to live in an age when backpacking can be done without a kerosene lantern or even a traditional flashlight that uses heavy batteries. LEDs have made lanterns and headlamps extremely lightweight and they generate no heat, allowing for ease of use around the campsite or directly inside the tent. Flashlights are now strapped to our heads for hands-free use. Headlamps use tiny batteries and great optics to light the way. The best backpacking lamps will maximize illumination, have multiple settings, and simultaneously minimize weight.
Classification and Rating
We classify headlamps as necessary gear and lanterns as optional. But I would say that when backpacking having a reliable source of light is essential. In addition to these classifications, we also give each item a rating. Our A-F rating is to help newcomers to backpacking know where to best spend their budget. A quality source of light can last you for many years and there is usually a quality, efficiency, and weight tradeoff with cheaper gear. Check out our best backpacking gear post to see how we rank and rate all backpacking gear in one place.
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Classification: Necessary Gear
B-Rating: Prioritize weight savings and design on a quality product if you can.
There is no shortage of great and even cheap headlamps out there. Headlamps are rated in lumens (brightness) but this can be misleading because optics is almost as important. Look at illumination distance when searching headlamps. A high lumen headlamp can be bright but if the light isn’t focused it will not light your path like a headlamp with a good optical lens. The ability for a headlamp to recharge and the size of the batteries will affect the recurring cost as well as the overall weight of the headlamp. Most headlamps will have several settings. A red light setting really helps to get in and out of the tent without attracting bugs. Look for headlamps that have the ability to dim. The last thing you want is to blind your fellow campers around the campfire.
The (3.4oz) Black Diamond Revolt is not the brightest or the lightest headlamp available but I have found it to be a good balance of both. It operates with a USB rechargeable lithium-ion battery (it can also use AAA batteries), which is awesome. It has four main settings, distance (narrow), proximity (wide), red, and strobe. There are cheaper headlamps but the last thing you want happening is your headlamp dying on a long backpacking trip. The Revolt is also waterproof up to three feet deep. You cannot swim with it but it can be worn in the rain and snow with no fear of damage.
I bought my Revolt in 2013 when a cheap headlamp broke after only one season. My Revolt is well used. It has a huge crack in it, yet it keeps working. It is a true testament to the build quality of Black Diamond equipment. I have never replaced the rechargeable battery. It does not hold its charge as well as it used to, but I can still use it regularly on a five-day-long backpacking trip. We carry a portable battery supply mostly for our phones but this also gives us great peace of mind not having to worry about our headlamps’ batteries dying. I bought Jennifer the new Black Diamond Revolt model in 2017 which has a sleeker design and works just as well as the original, making it one of the best backpacking lamps available.
The only real downside to the Revolt is its single-button setup. It requires users to time button pushes to find the correct setting. Most headlamps have some variation of this. However, I really like that once you set the headlamp to your desired setting and turn it off, it returns to that setting when you power it back up. That is a nice feature that all headlamp manufacturers should adopt.
Classification: Optional Gear
D-Rating: Save some money as the difference in a name-brand product isn’t necessarily worth the cost.
Lanterns almost seem like relics. The unfocused lantern light harkens back to days before the electric light when the darkness of the night and caves were illuminated inefficiently by kerosene torches. However, the directionless lantern light also illuminates a campsite and allows for community amongst backpackers. The LED revolution in lighting has transformed the lantern from a burdensomely heavy piece of gear best left off the backpacking list to a lightweight, inflatable source of light enjoyed by all those who venture into the woods. A lantern isn’t necessary as many ultra-light backpackers survive solely on the light from their headlamps, but the draw of the LED lantern is the ability to commune together around a lit dinner table or while playing cards.
Our Solar Lantern
In late 2018 Jennifer and I were gifted an MPowered Luci Outdoor 2 (Backcountry, REI) inflatable solar lantern. Regardless of the minimal 4.4oz weight, we were reluctant to carry it on backpacking trips. However, we soon discovered the joy of having it around the campsite and have found it to be a great addition to our lighting setup. Jennifer and I have both been surprised at how much we enjoy having the inflatable lantern inside the tent as well as hanging it off a tree when eating dinner or playing cards. We do not carry it on every backpacking trip but love having it on shorter journeys when our packs are naturally lighter or when we intend to have a basecamp. It is more common to make friends when we are at the same site several nights in a row and the lantern along with a small deck of cards helps facilitate those friendships.
The Luci Outdoor 2 has three brightness settings that work very well, plus a pulse setting which I find annoying. The LEDs use almost no power and the light is recharged via the small solar panel built-in. We just hang the deflated lantern off the back of our backpack and it recharges while we hike. There is even a version that has a USB charger (Backcountry, REI) to charge your devices, but I find this model dubious as the solar panel and internal battery are too small to be of much use recharging something like a phone. My suggestion is to get the cheaper one without that feature.
The Best Backpacking Lamps
The best backpacking lamps are reliable because they are designed and constructed well. They illuminate the darkness and allow for the mountain landscapes to be explored and enjoyed at night. The best backpacking lamps bring like-minded adventurous people together, illuminating a shared passion for the love of wilderness.
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