02/12/2009
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Camping guide to ... illumination

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LIGHTING is not usually a priority when you are buying camping gear, though most of us think a torch would be handy. Think again. Tent lighting has many angles – cooking, eating, reading, relaxing, night alarms and excursions; the list goes on.

Not forgetting pitching your tent in the dark. It is an area of camping gear that is not all about function – atmosphere is also a factor. However, no matter the angle, make sure your light source has power when you need it.

With so many different needs, it is unlikely that one light will be enough. Think about it. You will need a light where you are preparing food and cooking. Then there is eating, relaxing, getting ready for bed, reading and getting up through the night. Bite the bullet and accept that you should have a variety of options rather than one torch for the whole family.

As well as where you will use your lights, there is also the question of how. A handheld torch is not a great deal of use when you are chopping an onion. Of course, you could just cook, eat and go to bed before it gets dark, but that would be odd.

Power plays

camping lamp imageA light’s power source determines how bright it is, how long it lasts, how easy it is to use and how much it costs. Power falls into three main areas:

Batteries –These are convenient, easy to find and pack. Alkaline batteries are pretty cheap and dim slowly giving you ample warning that your light source is running out of power. Longer lasting than alkaline, lithium batteries are lighter, but more expensive and pack in without warning. Rechargeable nickel-cadmium (NiCad) batteries are more expensive initially, but more cost-effective in the long run even though they lose the ability to hold a charge over time. A new type of rechargeable battery uses nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. This is more environmentally friendly and cheaper than NiCads – both can be recharged using a compact solar charger.

Liquid fuel – Coleman’s petrol lantern is a camping icon and can run on unleaded fuel. The light is sharp and powerful. The hissing sound made by burning pressurised liquid fuel lanterns adds an extra nostalgic dimension to camp life and they are easy to refuel. Ensure you fill it up during daylight hours so the light is ready to run as night falls – and you do not find yourself having to refuel it in the dark.

Gas – Not as bright as pressurised liquid fuel, but it is clean, handy and efficient. Remember to keep a spare gas cartridge handy to avoid losing light at a critical point in cooking. Replacing mantles should be easy, but represents an on-going challenge to me. Easy ignition systems avoid fumbling and fl areups with lighters and matches. I do not like any of these lights in a tent as they are easy to knock over and you cannot hang them up without setting fire to the fabric.

Picking a head torch

They are practical, versatile and, for me, a camping essential. The key to their popularity is hands-free lighting; the light beam goes where you are looking and your hands can hold a book, stir a pot or crack open a bottle of wine.
Lightweight, comfortable and with a wide range of options in terms of beam width, strength, focus and battery life, you will soon fi nd yours indispensable – at home as well as in camp.

It is not as bad as, say, mobile phones, but the world of head torches has become super technical – to understand some manufacturers’s data sheets you need a degree in physics. For such an apparently simple item, there are many elements that go into a design. If you are planning to go winter hill walking or climbing, then the detail really matters. If you just want to read in bed without disturbing your partner, the detail is not really that significant. With models costing from just a few pounds to £70-plus, what do you need to look out for?

Bulb - Traditional incandescent vacuum bulbs have been used for many years, but they turn much of their energy into heat and have a relatively short life. With no filament or glass to break, LEDs’ energy is not wasted in heat. They seem to last forever and thrive on abuse. Further, many of the new S-LEDs are equal to the brightness of many incandescent bulbs. The latest vacuum bulbs stay brighter for longer by adding a gas – halogen, krypton or xenon – that inhibits the deterioration on the filament

Reflector - This is the ‘mirror’ that concentrates the light beam

Lens - This covers the bulb, and can be clear, diffused or tinted. Some even work in conjunction with the reflector to improve and focus the beam

Focus option - enables some models to adjust the focus of the beam from tight and powerful to wide and diffused

On/off switch - This controls a variety of in-use modes, from brightness to flashing

Filter - You can sometimes get tinted covers that fit over the lens for enhanced use in certain conditions

Pivot - Allows you to angle the direction of the light source

Headband straps - usually elasticated, that can be adjusted easily and quickly to fit snugly

Battery pack - The container that holds the batteries behind the bulb or at the back of the headband. Some have a long connection that allows the power source to be tucked away in a pocket or attached to a belt. Some head torches have a charge meter that gives you a pretty good idea of how much power is left in your batteries.

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