A selection of lighting suitable for the Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -

Working in outdoor encampments over the years, I have witnessed two main approaches to lighting. One approach is to try and banish the darkness with powerful lights  that illuminate your full field of vision. The other approach seeks to provide sufficient light to to provide orientation and safety but to allow our eyes to adapt somewhat to the darkness.

There are pros and cons to each approach but unfortunately, they do not tend to work well together.

Pressurised lanterns provide clear, bright and relatively white light. They represent the technological pinnacle of liquid or gas fuelled lighting and if I was receiving surgery in a remote field hospital I would be very grateful for that technology.


Lighting for the tent line. The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -

A ring of lower powered lighting, such as traditional hurricane lanterns, placed around the edge of the fire circle extends that pool of light considerably without significantly disturbing that dark adaptation. A  few lamps extending further into the camp, nearer to people's tents,  provides orientation and normally enough light to navigate trip hazards such as guy lines. They also add wonderfully to the atmosphere.

People that require a bit more illumination can always carry a hurricane lantern or similar with them but because it is nowhere near as bright as a pressure lamp it won't dazzle everyone else in the camp.

So it is clear that a simple choice has to be made between bright and low lighting. Either we flood the whole area with light and people have to carry lanterns or torches with them as they move around or we adopt the lower light approach.

Shining bright lights around in amongst low light camp illumination disrupts everyone's dark eye adaptation to the point that the less powerful lamps cease to be of much use.

If, as I hope, we adopt the low light approach, we can always resort to torches or head lamps for brighter lighting in an emergency and a small torch can easily be used discretely for rooting through a bag or box without disturbing the whole camp when needed. Low powered red torches can even do it without wrecking your own night vision.

Internal  tent lighting, well away from the canvas.  The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -
A Hurricane Lantern is ideal for personal and communal use. © Gary Waidson -

An LED. Head torch is also a terrific innovation when you have your head under the bonnet of a vehicle trying to determine why it has refused to move any further down a dark lane.

Under such circumstances I would fully embrace these marvels and sing praise to their inventors.     However, in a communal situation, where people have differing priorities, they can also be a curse.

Night vision is a complex subject but in overly simple terms, a few seconds of bright light causes a dramatic reduction in the eyes ability to see in low light for up to thirty minutes. That means that although that wonderfully bright  lantern or head torch allows you to see where you are going, carrying it into an area where other people are working with dark adapted eyes will blind everybody else for almost half an hour. Not generally popular and not very thoughtful.

Given that many people in the communal area at night will be socialising around a fire, they will obviously not be relying on full night vision but they will usually be at a halfway stage, adapted to relatively low light.

They can usually see well enough for most tasks around the fire and as they step away from the pool of light around the fire circle they can often see vague shapes around the camp because they are partially adapted to the dark.

According to the book of Genesis, it was on the first day of creation that God said "Let there be light." Apparently, light must have been considered a rather important thing when creating a new world then so I think it is worth discussing as a topic on it's own.

Lighting does much to add to the atmosphere of a camp in the evening.  The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -
A Fire Bucket placed near the entrance of a tent.  The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -

One additional point does need to be made though, Naked flames in tents present a clear and present danger to life, limb and property. That does not mean they should be banned, as they have been used successfully in such situations for thousands of years.

It does however mean that caution is needed. A lantern is much safer than an open candle but all lights need to be situated in places where they are well away from canvas or other combustibles. Attention needs to be given to what may happen if a draft or gust of wind moves either the light or combustibles nearer to the light. Things get bumped or knocked over all the time in camping environments. Put some serious thought into what the consequences of that could be and place your lights accordingly.

For fire safety, I would go so far as to recommend a two metre gap between tents and it would be very wise if all tents had a fire bucket or extinguisher of some kind near their pitch.

In many years of re-enactment camping, the only time I have seen a tent fire in a living history camp was due to parents leaving their children unattended in a tent with open candles. I will let you draw your own conclusions about what may have happened in that incident.     Fortunately, no one was hurt on that occasion.

Illumination throughout the camp.  The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -
Notice the clever use of LED fairy lights in the background.  The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -
A selection of brass lanterns.  The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -
Trench Candles made from pipe fittings. The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -

There are of course many types of lantern to choose from both old and new. Paraffin, naptha or candle.



Lanterns designed for candles can easily be adapted for paraffin with simple “Trench Candles

Pedestal Lanterns designed for indoor use. The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -
Although all lanterns are delicate, glass basses demand extra care. The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -

Standing or pedestal lamps like these are best suited to indoor use. Remember to consider their placement in a tent with great care. The area above the top of the glass chimney gets extremely hot and they need to be a good distance from your canvas or anything else that could ignite or melt.

A modern reproduction of a Cargo Lantern. The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -
EcclesType 6 Protector Lamp. The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -

Cargo Lanterns were designed for use on sailing ships and are somewhat safer.

The safest of all flame type lanterns is the Miners “Davy” lamp by their very design.

Folding Lanterns with Trench Candles. The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -

Folding lanterns are an option where packing space is a factor. Designed to work with candles, a trench candle insert made from copper pipe fittings offers a practical and economic alternative.

Baker Tent Pole Lantern Hanger. The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -

Of course, having somewhere to put your lantern is useful too.

We’ve already talked about safe placement but some times you want a light somewhere that there is nothing to stand it on.

A simple Lantern Stick. The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -

Here you can see some simple ideas, one for a tent pole and one for a free standing lantern stick.

Lantern sticks are very useful as they can be used almost anywhere, inside a tent or out. Mine are made from broom sticks with a hiking stick point on one end and a bent piece of wire, about the thickness of a metal tent peg, at the other.  For a finishing touch, a short section of copper piping makes a nice ferrule and stops the end from splitting. They are particularly useful for setting lights up around the peripheries of the camp and could just as well be a forked stick with a cut point on the end. If everyone could bring a couple of spares it would be very helpful.

The tent pole hanger was salvaged from a broken coat rail with a hook from an old curtain tie back. The wooden part pins through the pole with a bit of old wire tent peg. It is removable for ease of packing.

The leather and  brass hanger on the pole below is an addition based on tent pole hangers from the turn of the last  century. They usually used hooks but as it is in an area where people frequently walk past I thought the cleats might prove less bothersome. It’s always useful to have places to hang things.

An LED Candle Lantern. The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -

As a post script, there are now some very effective LED lanterns with flickering flame effects.

These work quite well in amongst the other lights.

The video above and the shot to the left here both show examples of these which certainly blend in to the effect we are creating very well and have the added benefit of being completely safe in tents.

In the right situation, even strings of fairy lights can be quite effective.

Creativity is always the key.

Baker Tent. The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -
The Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson - www.Steamtent.ukThe Steam Tent Co-operative. © Gary Waidson -