The only thing worse than setting up a tent in the rain is setting up a tent in the rain in the dark. That is a lesson I learned all too well while trying to set up camp in the middle of the night during a cold New England thunderstorm. Having the right camping lantern can be the difference between a camping trip you'll never forget and one you wish you could.
A good camping lantern is usually one of two styles - gas or battery - and the right one for you depends on the type of camping you'll be doing, the amount of gear you can afford to take, and what you'll be doing while you're camping.
Gas Camping Lanterns
Gas-powered lanterns typically provide the brightest light of the two types, though most are adjustable so you can conserve fuel when you don't need as much light. They usually do better in the cold than do battery-powered lanterns. There are a number of different types of fuel available, including propane, butane, dual fuel, and kerosene. If you live in an area where white gas (butane, propane, etc) is not readily available, dual fuel lanterns are probably the best option because they allow you use unleaded gas. You usually can't go wrong if you choose a lantern that uses the same fuel as your camp stove.
Though it may seem obvious to most, it is worth mentioning that all of these fuels are extremely flammable, and any time you change or refill tanks you should be far away from any open flames or flame sources. Also, because of the nature of system, gas camping lanterns can become very hot, and while in use they should be kept out of children's easy reach.
Necessary equipment besides the lantern and fuel includes spare mantels and a way to light the lantern. Most new lanterns come with electric ignitions, so you won't have to worry about including matches or a barbecue lighter in your supplies for the lantern (don't forget them if you plan on having a fire or cooking something!). You'll need to get a protective carrying case as most lanterns don't come with one included. Optional equipment includes a lantern reflector to redirect light escaping out of the back of the lantern, and a stand to hang your lantern in a central place in camp. Gas camping lanterns are not practical options if you'll be hiking to where you'll be camping, so you'll need to consider another lighting option.
Battery-Powered Camping Lanterns
Battery-powered camping lanterns make up in convenience anything they may lose in other categories. With a little bit of searching you'll be able to find lanterns that use every size and type of battery, and you will be hard pressed to find a gas station or convenient store that doesn't sell batteries. Though not as bright as their gas-powered counterparts, battery-powered lanterns put out plenty of light. On many you can adjust the brightness.
One of their biggest advantages is that they are safe to take inside tents, cars, or other enclosed space. You should never take a gas-burning lantern into a tent or car because of the risk of fire. Depending on the type of light bulb, battery-powered lanterns don't ever get very hot, so they are safer to use around children. They don't do as well in the cold as gas lanterns, so if you're planning any cold weather camping trips, you'll need to consider whether you should have a gas lantern available.
Battery-powered camping lanterns, though sometimes less bulky than gas lanterns, typically are a little larger than you would ever want to carry with you on a hike. Some flashlights feature a lantern option - you sacrifice quite a bit in the way of brightness, but you lose a lot of the bulk, which makes them good hiking options. Additional equipment you should have on hand in addition to the lantern includes extra batteries, spare light bulbs, and optionally a lantern stand that you can put in a central spot in camp.
Which Brand Should I Get?
The brand of lantern you should get depends on what you need and how much you're willing to spend. There are a lot of quality camping lanterns out there. Some have a few more bells and whistles than others. Some cost more than others. The best way to shop for a lantern is first, decide which type of lantern you'll need; and second, shop around for the best price. You'll usually find the best deals online, though retail stores and outdoors warehouses also have great prices sometimes. The most important thing to remember is to get out and enjoy the great outdoors, even if it's dark.