Feature: Lights out!

Torches, lanterns and other campsite illumination

Feature: Lights out!
Feature: Lights out!

When I first began camping in our garden aged five, one of the most exciting aspects was that I got to play with my dad’s shiny tin torch. I became quite good at make-believe Morse code and adept at changing torch batteries.

(It was also exciting to have a dad who could look at the sky and tell me whether it was going to rain. What a man! But I digress.)

In the 50 years since, I’ve learned that a good torch is essential when camping and that it’s best to have a few. I carry a Mini Maglite 2AAA in my toiletry bag and a 2AA in my toolkit, a Maglite Solitaire on my key ring, a small Chinese LED torch in the glovebox for roadside emergencies, and a big baton torch for general use around the campsite and on walks. I also have a rechargeable lantern for the camping table, and a gas lantern that puts out the best light of all.


Good old gas lanterns! If you’ve ever used them, you probably have fond memories of their cosy hissing but less so of their need for refills and the way they can chew through delicate mantles. But I’ve found them to be a lot cheaper to run than lanterns with non-rechargeable batteries; and if you take the trouble to store the lamp upright in a plastic screw-top canister with polyethylene padding top and bottom, the mantle usually stays intact – but yes, always carry a couple spare.

I also played with a kerosene pressure lantern for a while but found it too messy and smelly, and with a kerosene wick lamp during my sailing days that was no good for reading but worked fine as an anchor lamp in the mast.

My rechargeable camping lantern (twin-fluoro type) throws less light than the gas lantern, but at least it doesn’t run out of fuel if I remember to plug it into the cigarette lighter by day and use it for less than three hours at night (by which time it’s depleted and stops without warning). It also has one of those gimmicky remote-control units that never seem to work unless you aim them perfectly (in the dark?).


My baton torch for many years was a cheap Maglite copy with three D batteries that did the job – or so I thought until I got a 3D LED Lenser P17 and saw the light, so to speak. Boy, does it throw a beam!

LED Lenser torches are designed by Zweibrüder Optoelectronics in Solingen, Germany, a company that bills itself as Europe’s answer to Maglite in America.

The top-end P17 sells for around $150 on special or online which is a serious amount of money, but the joy it provides is priceless. Once you get used to quality it’s hard to go back to mediocrity. Kitchen knives are a good example of this (Solingen also happens to be the German knife capital), and as they say, a good knife is for life.

But so is a good torch. My three Maglites, for instance, have served me well in over 20 years of frequent use, and I have no doubt the P17 will do the same.

It uses a high-end Cree LED power chip with a claimed output of 190 lumens (that’s a lot!), harnessed by Zweibrüder’s patented double-shell reflector lens. This combines the focusing attributes of both a reflector and lens, and the effect is immediately obvious when you shine it next to another LED torch and see the seamless adjustment from an impressively strong long-distance beam to a crystal-clear, uniform floodlight with no dark centre circle (an annoying characteristic of reflectors on wide-beam/floodlight settings).


One type of light that I hadn’t tried until recently was a head lamp. I used to think they were for nerds and show-offs, until I snapped up a $5 item from a caravan show bargain bin and had a go. I discovered it made perfect sense when setting up camp after dark, or reading when everyone else had gone to bed, or going to the toilet block after the roadhouse had turned off the generator. I imagine it would also be useful during a power outage at home.

Many people swear by head lamps when fishing at night or even cycling, in which case they need something with a bit more oomph than my $5 special. I also found the light too diffuse for comfortable reading over longer periods.

So, given my eye-popping experience with LED Lenser’s baton torch, I investigated the company’s top-of-the-range head lamp, the H7. Many camping stores sell it for $100-$120 including the three AAA batteries and a belt carry pouch, but I tracked mine down for $77 from a warehouse that supplies police forces and fire brigades.

Again, that’s a lot of money for a lamp, but seeing is believing and I don’t think I’ll regret the purchase. It’s perfect for night-time reading or working and you can even spot possums with it.

A little lever at the bottom of the lamp housing focuses the lens (the on/off button is at the top) while a dimmer lever on the battery case at the back adjusts the output. Both functions are easy to use and you can tailor the beam infinitely as required. The lamp unit also swivels 90º from straight ahead to straight down in four steps.

In the end, however, I suppose it’s all about boys’ toys. Do I really need so many different lights, and such expensive ones at that, to simply find my way around a campsite at night? Maybe not, but having the best lights on the block is rather cool and rekindles my fantasies as a five year old in the garden – Rob van Driesum.