How Do Lanterns Work?

Lanterns are essential camping gear, and also useful portable lighting in almost any outdoor or emergency situation.

In almost all instances, a “lantern” is a portable light source (traditionally a wax-burning candle or oil-burning wick) surrounded by panes of glass, plastic, or other protective material.

Surrounding a lantern with glass served two important roles; it protected the candle or oil flame from being blown out in the wind or gust of air, and it helped to contain and reduce the risk of fire should a candle be dropped or spilled.

Modern lanterns still abide by this basic premise, and are a light source surrounded by a protective, but transparent, shield. However, today we have a wide range of potential light sources and different ways to power our lanterns.

Candle and Wick Lanterns

Today, candle and wick lanterns are still widely available, although they do not emit a lot of light and are usually regarded as decorative. An oil lantern works by filling the reservoir at the base with oil, adjusting the length of the wick, and lighting the wick. The flame slowly consumes the oil as fuel, and the wick occasionally needs to be trimmed as it burns. Both candle and oil lanterns periodically need to have their chimneys cleaned of soot, as the flame does not burn cleanly, and the soot obscures the light.

Propane and Kerosene Lanterns

Propane and kerosene are gases, and gas lanterns have been used for centuries to emit light. Burning the gas emits heat, which rises toward the mantle. The mantle is a ceramic mesh, impregnated with light-emitting oxides.

The open weave of the mesh has a lot of surface area, so the oxides are exposed to as much heat as possible, producing a very efficient, bright light from the heat of the fuel. Coleman brand gas lanterns are arguably the most famous of these types of lanterns, and have been sold for more than 100 years.

These lanterns emit both light and heat, and are useful and powerful. However, they should never be used indoors, in a house or inside a tent when camping. The gas of the lantern emits fumes that are harmful to inhale, and they pose a hazard when used inside.

LED lanterns

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are semiconductors that convert electrons into light. They are extremely power-efficient, and create bright light with little electricity and low heat, so they are extremely popular in battery-powered lanterns. LED lights are extremely long-lived, compared to other lightbulbs, and do not burn out all at once; instead, they get dimmer over time.

LED lanterns

LED lights are expected to produce at least 70% as much light at 25,000 hours as they did when they were new, or to burn continuously for three years and still produce 70% or more light. Many LED bulbs are now rated to last for 50,000 hours or burn continuously for up to 6 years, but most lanterns haven’t yet been tested to that extent.

Solar Lanterns

Solar lanterns are extremely popular for outdoor and emergency use, because they require no external fuel except exposure to bright light. A solar lantern works by means of a photovoltaic solar cell. The cell is made of layers of crystalline silicone with negatively and positively charged layers.

When light strikes the solar panel, it excites the negatively charged electrons, which then move into the positively charged areas, creating a stream of electrons. These electrons become a stream of electricity, that is fed to the embedded battery and stored as energy. The battery is then used to power a light, usually LED bulbs, because they are so energy efficient.

Lantern Materials

Like the lights themselves, lanterns can be shielded with a variety of different materials. Decorative lanterns can have shades made of paper, or of pierced and patterned metal. Glass lanterns are common, but often not preferred for outdoor use, because they are breakable. Modern lanterns often use plastics to protect, direct, and disperse the light.

Lantern Features

Modern lanterns typically have adjustable brightness, so you can optimize your light level and power consumption for your needs. Many camping lanterns have multiple power sources, such as a battery lantern with a solar backup. And some outdoor lanterns can even be used to charge rechargeable devices.

Lanterns are a reliable way to create light, whether it’s needed outdoors or in the case of a power outage or emergency. Humans have been relying on lanterns to create light for hundreds of years, and they remain an important part of outdoor living.