Whether you are camping, hillwalking, climbing or just taking the dog out for a stroll, once the sun goes down you’ll be in need of a light source. Torches and lanterns come in many different forms and this guide aims to help you make an informed buying decision.
The brightness and run time of a torch are affected by the type of battery used.
Most torches and lanterns will be powered by regular alkaline batteries. The type of alkaline battery will largely depend on the size of the torch or lantern. Large spotlight torches for example will often use D batteries, whilst smaller torches or head torches are likely to use AA or AAA batteries. More advanced torches might use CR123A batteries whilst some head torches will be powered by flat CR2016 batteries.
In most cases it is possible to replace alkaline batteries with lithium batteries. Lithium batteries will hold their charge longer than alkaline batteries and are not affected by cold weather. Alkaline batteries will perform poorly (reduced power and runtime) in the cold. If you plan to go hiking or camping somewhere that is likely to be very cold, a torch powered by lithium batteries might be the better choice (always check with the manufacturer if the torch or lantern is compatible with lithium batteries).
If you’re going on an extended trip, it is advisable to fit new batteries before you go and always take spares.
Rechargeable torches are increasingly popular. A rechargeable torch will be powered by lithium-ion batteries that can be recharged through the mains or in a car with the right adapter. As a rechargeable torch requires a power source to recharge, and they have a reduced runtime when compared to battery powered types, they might not be suitable if you intend to use them for long periods of time.
There are many different kinds of bulbs used in lanterns and torches, with each offering differences to light output, projection length, battery consumption or colour.
The power output of a torch will be measured in lumens and will often be found on the packaging of the torch. A lumen is the measurement of the total amount of visible light, in other words the ‘brightness’. The higher the number of lumens the brighter the light. An average torch will output around 50 lumens, with torches capable of 1,000 lumens plus available. In most cases a luminosity of around 100-150 lumens will be more than adequate.
Incandescent bulbs are the most familiar type of traditional bulb. They work by passing an electric current across a tungsten filament in the presence of argon and/or nitrogen gas. The drawbacks of incandescent bulbs are that they can be fragile, inefficient and they produce heat. They will only last around 750 to 1000 hours before the filament is worn down.
Very similar to incandescent bulbs, but instead of using argon and/or nitrogen they use halogen gas. Put simply, the halogen gas reacts with the tungsten filament and recycles the tungsten atoms back onto the filament, making the bulb last a lot longer. The filament also runs hotter, meaning that they will give off more light but they will also generate a lot more heat.
LEDs are low energy bulbs; they are more efficient than standard bulbs which equates to a longer burn time. They are also brighter than halogen bulbs, producing a ‘whiter’ light. CREE LEDs are more efficient still, last longer and are brighter, but produce more heat. Power LEDs are similar to CREE LEDs, a more powerful version of regular LEDs. LED bulbs can also be coloured, for example red is useful for maintaining your night vision.
Xenon bulbs are more efficient and produce more light than halogen bulbs and have an unusual ‘blueness’ to the light due to the presence of the gas Xenon.
The main housing of a torch should be strong, light, durable and if needed weather-proof. Torches are generally made of metal, plastic or rubber.
Many modern metal torches are made from aluminium alloy which, although not as strong as steel, is much lighter. More expensive models might be made from titanium which is both strong and light.
Plastic torches are generally light and cheaper than their metal counterparts, but are more prone to damage. If you do choose a plastic torch, then it’s advisable to pick one made of a tough shock resistant plastic, not a brittle plastic which will break if dropped or accidentally stepped on.
Torches are excellent for when you need your light directed, but when you need to illuminate a larger area a lantern is better suited. Lanterns project a 360 degree area of light, with the light being less focused and warmer than a torch.
The projection window of a lantern can be glass or plastic, so if your lantern is likely to be roughly treated then a plastic one will be more robust.
Camping lanterns can be battery powered or fuelled by gas/liquid fuel. Battery powered lanterns are safer than fuel powered lanterns, especially in a tent where flammable objects are often in close proximity and space is minimal. If you do choose a fuel powered lantern then due care should be taken, remember that even when turned off the lantern could stay hot for some time.
If using a fuel stove and fuel lantern whilst camping, then using the same fuel for both is a good idea; if one runs out fuel from the other can be used. Always check however that you are using the correct fuel for your equipment.
Increasingly, lanterns are being fitted with extra functions, such as different brightness settings, timers and even a remote control. Most lanterns will also come with some sort of hanging functionality so they can be easily hung, say inside a tent, or placed on a flat surface whilst cooking for example.
Hand Held Torches
When wishing to see in a certain direction, a torch is the first choice. Thanks to technological advancements, such as power LEDs and xenon bulbs, torches can be powerful, pocket-sized and efficient.
Torches do however still come in all sizes from tiny key-ring torches and pocket torches to large spotlight type models. When buying a torch, you should consider what you need most, weighing up options such as size, weight, battery consumption and brightness.
As with most things, there is often a trade-off with larger, brighter torches guzzling battery power faster than their smaller counterparts. Remember, that even though LED bulbs are efficient, generally a more powerful torch will use more power.
If very accurate illumination is required, check the focus function of the torch, as some torches can focus their beams to a very narrow point, increasing projection range.
Many torches that are designed for outdoor use will be weatherproof, typically with a series of rubber seals. These are suited for use in the snow or rain, but are not to be confused with torches designed for underwater use.
Head torches are especially popular with hikers, anglers and climbers not least because they leave your hands free whilst providing pinpointed illumination. As with other torches they are available in different sizes with varying light outputs, catering for most needs.
A head torch will typically consist of a head strap system which is adjustable to fit everyone (or over a helmet/hat) and the torch unit itself, which will often allow focus and direction adjustment.
Head torches with different bulb settings are also available, allowing for different levels of light. It’s common to find differing amounts of bulbs/LEDs that you can turn on or off and even different coloured bulbs. Red light for example will not degrade your night vision like white light would.
As head torches point where the wearer turns their head it can be a little disorienting at first so always try on and practice with your torch first.
Take a look at our head torch buying guide for more information on head torches.
Wind-up Torches and Lanterns
Wind-up torches and lanterns do not require batteries and rely instead on a hand crank to charge the internal battery and generate power.
The advantage of this kind of torch or lantern is that you can still provide yourself with light even if there are no power sources available. You don’t have to rely on the batteries having enough power or remembering to take spares. You will also save money as you won’t have to fork out for batteries.
It is worth bearing in mind that you have to put a little effort in to generate the power. Some wind up torches will require a considerable amount of winding, still only achieving a fraction of the output of a conventionally powered torch. A wind up torch is also not advisable if you are likely to be facing any danger. For example if you are trekking somewhere particularly treacherous, you will not be able to regenerate light quickly.
Hybrid models that use batteries or mains power with the wind up function as a back-up are also available. These will give you the best of both worlds.
Whether you need a hands free option to navigate your way off a summit, a light source to illuminate your campsite or a torch for dog walking, whatever end use you have in mind, there will almost certainly be a torch out there for you.