After researching dozens of LED lanterns and testing 13, the UST 30-Day is the only one that’s just right. To reach this conclusion, we spent over 20 hours researching and testing LED lanterns with $60 worth of batteries. Despite going up against competition from revered brands costing twice as much or more, the 30-Day managed to outperform just about every competitor in one respect or another. The pint-sized 30-Day is bright, adjustable, and efficient. It’s much brighter than anything smaller and much smaller than anything brighter.
The 30-Day shines brightly enough that you can read text on a page from 38 feet away. It also dims to a cozy glow inside a tent, and offers a rare medium setting that’s perfect for, say, two people cooking dinner. Even though the 30-Day’s battery lid can be difficult to manipulate in the dark, the long runtimes mean that batteries rarely need to be changed. Amazon reviewers have enjoyed testing UST’s bold runtime claims only to find that the claims are actually conservative.
To cap it all off, the 30-Day comes with the typical hook and handle, a rare lifetime warranty, and an even rarer editorial commendation. Popular Mechanics magazine gave it a 2012 Editor’s Choice Award.
If our pick is sold out, you should look into its little brother, the $27 UST 10-Day. It’s only designed to last—wait for it—10 days on a single set of batteries as opposed to our pick’s 30, but it’s still very bright given its Coke-can size. It also runs on AA’s instead of D-cells, which is nice if you prefer to use rechargeable batteries.
If you want a lantern that doesn’t use (disposable) batteries at all, you might consider the $80 Goal Zero Lighthouse 250, which charges its Li-Ion battery via USB or hand crank (or solar panel, not included). However, you should be aware that this thing will only last 2.5 hours on its high setting. This isn’t really an issue if you’re pairing it with an external USB battery pack or a panel that you can use to charge it everyday (though you’ll have to buy those separately, which further adds to its high $80 price). It’s well-designed and casts a warm, soft, very pleasant glow, but most people would be better off with something cheaper that lasts longer between recharges.
When it comes to LED camping lanterns, the most important criteria is, of course, brightness, as approximated by the number of lumens put off. What are lumens? A measure of the amount of light produced. The details are complex, but the important thing to know is that a 400-lumen lantern casts roughly the same blaze as a bare 60-watt lightbulb.
The second most important criteria: An LED lantern’s light needs to be adjustable. At the very least, you want it to burn bright in a forested campsite under a new moon, and then dim to a warm glow in the confines of your shared tent.
Thirdly, a lantern should also be able to run for three evenings, roughly 20 hours, on a single charge or set of batteries. You don’t want to have to stockpile a wheelbarrow full of batteries just to go camping for a long weekend.
Lastly, according to Regenold, it should cost either $50 or (preferably) much less. “An LED lantern is such a simple thing,” he says. Features like a big hook or rechargeable batteries or extreme waterproofness or solar-power-generation or a compact design or a remote control are perks, not essentials.
With that in mind, we set out to see what we could find to meet these criteria. Thankfully, Outdoorgearlab.com has tested nine of the many models. Beyond that, however, professional reviews are limited to writeups of trendy products in Outside Online (such as this and this), trail-specific recs in Backpacker (such as this), and a scattering of A-B comparisons in places like candlepowerforums.com.
A quick survey of online superstores reveals that there is probably a whole town in Shenzhen, China, devoted to manufacturing LED camping lanterns. Our first step was to peruse the offerings at REI, Amazon, Cabela’s, Walmart, two marine supply stores, and Dick’s Sporting Goods. We eliminated those incapable of shining 250 lumens or more and those incapable of dimming to 100 lumens or less, a generally cozy amount of light. We culled most of those that cost $50 or more—too expensive for what is essentially a battery connected to a power supply circuit connected to an LED bulb or two (though we still tested a few, just to see what the extra money buys you). Lastly, just to make double sure that our rigid criteria weren’t dismissing a great outlier, we added back to our list any LED lanterns that were strongly recommended by editorial reviews.
We also skipped any that were specifically designed for backpacking because they’re not powerful enough to be useful for most situations. For example, the excellent Black Diamond Apollo is the Editor’s Choice over at Outdoorgearlab, but will only burn half as bright for 1/10th as long as a camping lantern like the $40 Coleman Classic. Plus, most backpackers can get by with a headlamp transformed into a lantern—placing a plastic bag over the headlamp or shining it into a clear-plastic water bottle or folding an oragami headlamp shade, like this. Those hacks provide ample light for two people to sip hot Tang.
This left us with 13 lanterns to test: The Coleman Twin LED, UST 10-Day, Eureka Warrior 230IR, Goal Zero Lighthouse 250, UST 30-Day, Black Diamond Titan, Streamlight The Siege, Supernova 300, Blackfire Clamplight Lantern, Coleman Special Edition Quad Lantern, Coleman CPX 6 Rugged, Rayovac Sportsman LED, and Mr. Beams.1
We then loaded each of the 13 lanterns with identical fresh batteries and stumbled into a dark field. All of them immediately proved straightforward to use. The Black Diamond Titan appeared to be made of the sturdiest materials, but all of the rest seemed to be of roughly the same quality, which was decent. The goal of the tests was to determine which shone farthest and which was coziest.
First, we hung a lantern at roughly shoulder height, switched it to high, and then measured how far away we could walk while still able to read the first line of a hardcover book. We then set the lanterns down at the point where the text ceased to be legible.
For the second test, we brought the lanterns inside a four-person tent and graded the relative coziness of the lanterns on their low settings on a scale of 1 to 10. Could they provide dim mood lighting suitable for playing cards or chatting? If so, was the light a warm color or a clinical white? This was a subjective test but critical.
Then we ran the five best lanterns in a darkened living room and photographed each when switched on high. 15 hours later, we photographed each with the same camera setting. Except for the Goal Zero, which makes no claims to run 15 hours without a recharge, all of them remained as bright as before, which was great. None of them appear to dim noticeably as they draw down the batteries.
After all the performance testing was complete, we assessed the importance of unique features, construction, water resistance, cost (including batteries), runtime, and warranties.
Better yet, that power comes with finesse. A low setting of 29 lumens, along with a frosted globe, made it one of only 5 lanterns we tested that could get dim enough to feel comfortable when lighting the inside of a tent. With the exception of the Coleman Twin LED, other lanterns capable of casting a soft low light weren’t nearly as powerful on their high setting. But unlike the gigantic, 5.5-pound Coleman, the little guy is easy to hang off of a tree branch or use far beyond a car camping site. It also has a rare-ish medium setting of 150 lumens, which would be convenient when camped close to neighbors or venturing off to the public campground toilet.
The 30-Day is also a minor miracle of efficiency. The 32 hour minimum runtime was right about average for all lanterns, allowing it to burn bright, without dimming, from 4 p.m. till midnight on a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before replacing the three D batteries. But even that doesn’t tell the full story. The Black Diamond Titan, for example, runs for 24 hours at 250 lumens on 4 D batteries, while the 30-Day runs longer (32 hours) and brighter (300 lumens) on one fewer battery. The runtime at dimmer settings is exponentially higher—84 hours on medium, and 720 hours on low. It can last all night.
It comes with a lifetime warranty, is splash-resistant like most lanterns, and has a hook on the bottom and a removable globe so it can become an area light. What’s more, its $30 price, well below the $42 average of lanterns that made the testing cut, makes it an obvious winner.
Outdoorgearlab.com didn’t test it for some reason, but Popular Mechanics magazine gave it a 2012 Editor’s Choice Award (when it was sold under the eGear label). A few folks at candlepowerforums are impressed. “Much more light than I expected, and the long runtime specs are impressive,” says Flashaholic. And 73 Amazon reviewers score it 4.8 out of 5, making it one of the most highly rated LED lanterns online.
Many of them describe how this trumps other lanterns that they own and we tested—the Black Diamond Titan, the Rayovac Sportsman, the Coleman Twin LED.
Others simply have an atypical fondness for the thing.
“Bought for my dad for Christmas. He never raves about stuff, but this lantern he gushes about,” says Jack In The Dox.
“This lantern is absolutely fantastic for camping!” says one customer. “We like to use it as an overhead light in our tent by taking the cover off and hanging it upside down. The whole tent glows and everyone is able to see into their bags to find all their stuff at the same time.”
Reviewers have also tested the 30-Day’s boastful runtime claims. And all of them, to a person, found the claims conservative.
Says Village Gal, for example: “On three separate occasions/tests, the lanterns ran for over 11 days straight (24/7) on the HIGH setting, which is advertised as lasting for less than 2 days on that setting. The lanterns set for medium ran for 17 days before exhausting the batteries, and the ones set on low are still running over 30 days later. You simply cannot beat these for cost and function.”
Unbeatable as the 30-Day is, it isn’t perfect. Screwing on the bottom battery lid can require a couple seconds of futzing. You have to line up two little red stickers with arrows, which can be difficult to see in the dark. But you’re hardly ever changing the batteries, so this is rarely a problem. And anyway, the only other cozy lantern with a more convenient battery enclosure, the Mr. Beams, is only an OK lantern.
We’ve been using the 30-Day occasionally over the last six months and we still think it’s great. It’s performing just as well as the first day we started using it.
It’s about the size of a Coke can, which made it the tiniest lantern we looked at. This makes it especially great for sailors, sea kayakers, motorcycle campers, or anyone else who places a premium on a lantern’s size. While no Amazonians have reviewed it yet, we’d be surprised if it disappointed, given its provenance.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $70.
The lightweight legs allow it to collapse to the size of a big can of tomatoes. Like the Mr. Beams, a USB port allows you to charge another device from the lantern’s battery. And a USB cord allows you to recharge the lantern from an external power source, including a USB battery or any of Goal Zero’s batteries or solar panels, like the $80 Nomad 7. A button switches on a helpful battery life indicator so you can know how long your bright night will last. It comes with a (short) one-year warranty. And when worse comes to worst, a hand crank on the top charges the battery and earns you more time.
In addition, it ranked second coziest in our tests, thanks to its warm-colored light and low low setting, and sixth in our range tests, allowing us to read at 30 feet. With a fully charged battery, it works great. 35 Amazonians rank it 4.7. 30 Reviewers on Goal Zero’s website rank it 4.8.
But it’s not the best choice for the majority of people. One: it costs $80, more than twice as much as our more powerful, slightly less cozy main pick. And two: it runs for only 2.5 hours on high. So even if you fully charge it for seven hours one night, you won’t have enough bright light to last through the next night—let alone three more nights, like our main pick.
Since dimming to a cozy level turned out to be the biggest challenge for 250-lumen lanterns, I’ll list the competition from coziest to least cozy.
The $36 Coleman Twin LED was the coziest lantern and the second most powerful, casting its beam 40 feet. It also runs an astounding 85 hours on its high setting! But bring it into the tent and you’re having a ménage à trois. The thing is over a foot tall. And its 8 D cells cost roughly $16. It’s ideal only for a hunting cabin or ice fishermen or Southerners who spend many nights camped by their cars in the Smokies. 114 Amazonians give it a 4.4.
The $30 Mr. Beams seems like a great lantern. It ranked a decent 8th in our range test, allowing us to read at a distance of 28 feet, and it ranked third, two spots ahead of our main pick, in the coziness test. Uniquely, it can charge a smartphone from empty to full four times with just its four D batteries—allowing you to make calls, listen to weather radio, and more during a power outage. But the runtime falls short. Mr. Beams claims a runtime of 30 hours on high, “more than 30 hours” on low, and 10 hours after charging that smartphone four times. Our main pick runs for 32 hours on high and 720 on low. The Mr. Beams also lacks a useful medium setting, so anyone who camps will buy a lot of batteries for a lantern that can be too bright or not bright enough. 59 Amazonians rank it 4.4.
And that—our main pick, runner up, step up, and those two competitors—are the only lanterns that dimmed to a really cozy level.
The rest of the competition is more easily dismissed.
Black Diamond has a well-earned reputation for making great gear, but the solidly built, collapsible $61 Titan didn’t measure up to the competition in brightness or efficiency. On high, it was the dimmest of all lanterns: It barely reached 16’ 9”. That’s less than half that of our pick, which reached 38’. It also only runs for a mere 15 hours on high—too short. To its credit, the infinitely adjustable dimmer switch was a nice touch, but it made an audible buzzing noise when dimmed to its (wonderfully dim) low setting.
If the $41 Streamlight The Siege commands its premium, then it’s for carrying an ipx 7 rating, meaning it’s submersible, instead of just splash-resistant like most lanterns. However, it was neither as bright nor cozy as our main pick.
The $51 Eureka Warrior 230IR comes with a handy remote but the lantern’s specs don’t stand up to our picks’. It shone only 23 and a half feet, was just sorta cozy, and costs more.
The $26 Rayovac Sportsman LED earns a ranking of 4.6 from an unprecedented 1,700 Amazon reviewers, primarily for being so inexpensive. But our main pick, costing $7 more, is a better value. The Sportsman shone far too brightly on its lowest setting, banishing all shadows from the inside of the four-person tent.
If you’ve already bought into Coleman’s CPX6 system of rechargeable devices (including lights, fans, and air bed pumps) then the $35 Coleman CPX6 Rugged is OK. If you haven’t, this isn’t the device to tempt you. It was not pleasantly dim on its low setting, is the height of your forearm, and has the third shortest runtime of all lanterns tested, just 23 hours. Meh.
The $40 Superova 300 was astoundingly bright—all the time. It had no medium setting, but its low setting was like other lanterns’ mediums, illuminating the interior of the tent till it glowed.
The $35 Blackflire Clamplight could be a great work-shed light and was lauded in a cheeky Gizmodo review, but unfortunately it doesn’t make a great camping lantern. It barely shone 17 feet, less than half the distance of our pick, and proved the second-to-least cozy lantern.
The $44, six-pound, 8-D-battery-consuming Coleman Special Edition Quad Lantern works the way it looks: like a light bomb. It was the brightest lantern, shining 41 feet, and the least cozy, with its barely frosted LEDs reminding one of the dentist’s chair. The idea that you can remove the lantern’s four panels of LEDs and use them as individual lanterns sounds ingenious, especially for families. But the UST 30-Day and a couple flashlights or headlamps allows the same versatility while taking up less space, requiring fewer batteries, and casting a pleasant light.
For camping, barbequing, or just generally letting your love light shine, the widely praised UST 30-Day is the best. It boasts a great runtime, a light that switches from very bright to muted to cozy, and a standard design. The $30 price is a bonus. We’d pay even a couple bucks more.
Not surprisingly, the 10-Day is the best choice if its big brother is unavailable. And if you have an external USB battery pack or spend a lot of time off the grid, then consider dropping $80 for the venerated Goal Zero Lighthouse 250. Aside from the woefully short 2.5-hour-minimum runtime, it outperforms our main pick and allows you to recharge in the field.
Originally published: May 7, 2014
Should we open another bottle of wine?