Wecome To RVs and OHVs

This blog is all about RVs (recreational vehicles) and OHVs (Off Highway Vehicles), camping, and survival
and how they work together to provide wholesome family fun and great learning opportunities.
Many posts are intended to familiarize novice campers and RVers with RV systems and basic camping and survival
skills. But even experienced RVers and campers will enjoy the anecdotes and may even benefit from a new
perspective. Comments, questions, and suggestions are encouraged.

Monday, September 5, 2011

General Camp Site Lighting

It can get REALLY dark in camp.  Most of us live in urban or suburban environments with lots of street lights and light pollution from office buildings, shopping malls, parking lots, traffic, and neighbor's homes and have no idea how dark it can be on a moonless night in a remote area.   Even if you aren't within the glow of streetlights etc, the reflection off clouds or even air pollution creates a glow from remote cities etc. that usually illuminates the darkness to some extent in urban and suburban areas.  It can be surprising -- even frightening for some people -- how dark it gets when you get away from the city!  Moonless nights in the desert or forest are extremely dark.   Deep woods often filter enough moonlight to make it almost like there is no moon at ground level in some forests, even when there is a full moon.   If you are an RVer, you will usually have some built-in indoor lighting (as long as your batteries hold up).  Most RVs have one or more outside "porch" lights that illuminate the area next to the RV entrance.  For more distant activities or for tent camping you'll need portable light sources.  Some older travel trailers and truck campers had propane powered lights but you aren't likely to see them very often these days.  Even units that did have them have often been converted entirely to 12-volt lighting long ago.  One feature of propane lights was that they gave off quite a bit of heat, helping to warm a camper on chilly evenings, but during warmer times that was a distinct disadvantage.

Flashlights are one of the least expensive and most convenient and versatile sources of portable illumination.  You can often even find them at "dollar" stores.  These plastic bargains are usually not very durable but they can provide many hours of illumination at a very low cost.  They are also an attractive option if you have people (like children) who tend to break or lose track of things easily. The loss or destruction of a $1.00 flashlight is no big deal.  Dollar stores often  have fairly nice little aluminum pocket LED flashlights that are fairly durable, efficient, and quite attractive.  There are also high-end flashlights made of aircraft grade aluminum that are far more durable and often even waterproof, but they can be quite expensive -- upwards of $25-$50.  Cheap flashlights are usually not adjustable; better units can often be adjusted so the beam casts a spot light or flood light pattern. Flashlights are ideal for individual use in moving around in the dark and for many camp tasks. Traditional flashlights use a small incandescent bulb but today you can also buy flashlights with multiple LEDs that use far less power and both batteries and the LEDs last a lot longer than when using ordinary bulbs.  My wife and I both carry small, LED flashlights powered by AA or AAA batteries in our fanny packs and/or tool kits when we go dirt biking.  They will provide much needed illumination for any after-dark repairs on the trail and for signaling if needed.  We used to use regular "mini-mag" lights.  They are sturdy and effective but the little LED lights don't weigh as much and don't take up as much room and the batteries in the LED lights will last a lot longer and LEDs are much more durable than incandescent bulbs.   In addition to a standard on-off switch, most flashlights have a push-button that can be used to turn the light on momentarily to aid in signaling.  You should at least know the Morse Code signal for S.O.S. -- three dots, three dashes, three dots.  When signalling with a light that means three quick flashes, three slow flashes, and three quick flashes.  Urban myths equate S.O.S. to Save Our Souls or Save Our Ship, but it reality it was simply the ease of signally S.O.S. in Morse code that led to the use of S.O.S. for an emergency signal.  The cute, if historically inaccurate, phrases now associated with it do serve as useful memory aids.

Multi-purpose lights.  As with just about any camping gadget, multi-purpose lights are attractive since they can serve many uses without the weight and space requirements of separate items.  One I've found particularly convenient came from Harbor Freight. It is an LED light with a focused LED spot light on one end and a bank of LEDs in a flood light configuration on one flat side. It cost under $3.00 with a coupon. It measures about 2"x3"x3/4", is light weight, and takes up little space in pocket, purse or pack, yet provides a lot of light. It has a built in plastic hook so you can hang it in your tent on or a convenient branch. It also has a magnet if you need to attach it to your vehicle -- or your camp stove.  Some larger camp lanterns also feature both spot and flood light options. Keep your eye out for potentially useful items everywhere you go.  I recently picked up a pair of LED lanterns shaped like old-fashioned kerosene lanterns at a discount store for $10 each and small solar camping lanterns for just $2.00 each.  The kerosene style lanterns have 17 LEDs, a dimmer for controlling brightness, and run on 3 "D" cell batteries.  I once left one on in my barn overnight and it was still bright the next day when I discovered it and turned it off and was still functional for months afterwards.  Leave an ordinary incandescent battery light on overnight and you'll have dead batteries by morning.   I've even seen a single incandescent bulb left on in an RV drain the big 12-volt deep cycle house battery in an afternoon!

Wide area lighting may be needed for some activities, such as preparing, serving, and eating meals and for many games, chopping wood, or repairing equipment.  Some RVs are or can be equipped with wide-angle lighting but the traditional camp standard is the gas lantern.   The long-time standard camping lantern is the Coleman gas lantern, but today's lanterns come in many sizes, shapes, and fuel choices.  Some of my favorite exterior lights came off of an old ambulance.  They provide excellent flood lighting for night time repairs and other activities, but the bulbs are difficult to find and quite expensive.  Fortunately, they are quite durable.

Awning lights are popular for use on RV awnings.   Some folks string 120-volt patio lanterns along the accessory rail on the awning.   Smaller strings, similar to Christmas lights are also frequently used.  You can find these in various camping themes like mini Coleman lanterns, American flags, and chili peppers.  You could even use ordinary Christmas lights.  Awning lights provide festive illumination for activities under or near your RV awning.  The latest additions include programmable, multi-colored LED rope lights that can put on quite a show.  LED lights will use less power than incandescent versions and won't heat up and possibly damage the awning fabric.  One word of caution when using awning lights:  be considerate of your neighbors.  Excessive lighting might intrude into their space.

White-gas or propane powered lanterns provide a bright white light almost like an electric light bulb.   They also produce quite a bit of heat.  A friend of mine used one as the only heat source for his Class B motorhome on cool evenings.  They might be enough to take the chill off in your motorhome or tent, but always make sure you have adequate ventilation or you could succumb to fumes or suffocate due to lack of oxygen.  One other significant feature of these lanterns is that the mantles are quite fragile. They are made of silk ash.  When they are new they are little silk mesh socks you tie onto the gas outlets of the lanterns.  They are then burned to turn them into ash, which glows brightly when the gas is lit, giving off the characteristic bright white light.  Always bring plenty of spare mantles.  It doesn't take much to break them once they've been burned.  Anytime you use a gas lantern inside an RV or tent or other confined space make sure you have adequate ventilation to prevent suffocation (yes, it is worth repeating -- repeating and repeating!).

Kerosene lanterns lend an old-fashioned touch to camping.  They are a little less fragile than gas lanterns because they use a standard, sturdy cotton wick instead of the delicate silk ash mantle.  The wick also makes them a little more flexible in the level of light than gas lanterns. They are not nearly as bright and the light is not as white as a gas lantern, but they are economical to purchase and to operate and lend a nice ambiance.  They are usually less expensive to buy than gas lanterns, often under $10. At one time the fuel was commonly used in many homes for lanterns and heaters so everyone already had fuel.  It is seldom used in our urban and suburban homes today but it is still readily available.  One potential downside is that kerosene gives off a distinctive odor similar to jet fuel (which is actually kerosene).   If you don't like the smell of burning kerosene you can burn fragrant lamp oils or odorless "liquid paraffin".   Use citronella oil to help keep the bugs away.   You can usually find kerosene lanterns at farm and ranch stores, at some sporting goods stores and I've even seen them at Walmart.

There are many battery powered lanterns available where ever camping goods are sold.  Some use square 6-volt batteries, some use multiple "D" or "C" cells, some are rechargeable.  Some even have built-in solar chargers to recharge them during the day.  You can even get lanterns with remote controls so you can turn them off after you've already snuggled into your sleeping bag.  One of my favorite tent lights is very small and runs on "AAA" batteries.   It has a florescent tube for area lighting and a focused bulb on one end so it can be used as a directed flashlight.  It is small enough to fit easily into a shirt pocket or fanny pack (about the size of  three ball point pens) and runs on two "AAA" batteries.  These days I'd look for an LED model.   LEDs are much cooler and significantly more efficient than incandescent bubls.   I recently acquired a couple of LED lanterns designed to look like kerosene lanterns.  They have 17 LEDs on a dimmer switch, powered by 3 D cell batteries. The LEDs have a projected life of over 100,000 hours and the way LEDs sip energy, the 3 D cells will last a long time. I've already used them at home for several hours and they show no signs of degradation.  I even left one on overnight in my barn and it was still burning bright the next morning when I went out.  Try that with ordinary incandescent lights and the batteries would be dead dead dead by morning.

Candles are another old-fashioned and inexpensive lighting solution.  Citronella candles on your picnic table also help keep bugs away.  Exercise caution when using candles inside of an RV and be especially careful or avoid using them altogether in your tent.  Candles are very susceptible to breezes.   There are lantern-like candle holders that protect the flame from the breeze and to some extent, provide extra safety if the candle gets knocked over. Candles give off some dangerous fumes and do consume oxygen, so always use them with adequate ventilation.  You can make your own decorative candle "lanterns" from discarded tin or aluminum cans by punching a design into them using an awl or ordinary nails.  Some folks like to paint them flat black so they look more like lanterns.

Tiki torches are often used for back yard and patio illumination and, if you have room to bring them camping, they would provide a nice touch to an evening's activities.  Use some citronella oil in the them and they double as insect repellant.  Do not use tiki torches inside a tent or RV or under an awning or canopy.  If space is at a premium, look for torches that can be broken down into small components you can tuck them in cabinets or camping tubs more easily.  I've seen large candles on a stick that are designed for similar backyard or camping use.

Solar lights provide a safe and energy efficient way to have modest illumination in camp.   They aren't going to light up the campground like a baseball stadium, but they are sufficient to light the pathways, mark tent pegs, and even illuminate your camp stove and dinner table.  And they aren't expensive.   I've even seen them at Dollar Tree on several occasions.  Some were stake-style yard lights and some were designed to look like little rocks (except for the solar panel on top and the lens on one side).  You can probably add a bail or handle and remove the stakes on the yard or pathway lights so you can hang them in your tent or from your RV awning.  I even found a couple of solar powered tent lights at a discount store for $2.00 each.  They are each about the size of a soup can but are sufficient for comfortable tent lighting -- unless you're doing something that requires more intense light, like needle work or surgery!

Custom camp lights can be as creative as you feel like being.  Some of the innovations I've seen and used include bright white flood lights salvaged from a wrecked ambulance and mounted to the wall of my RV and trailer to light up the work area around my motorcycle trailer and a 500-watt 120 volt Halogen yard light I mounted on a staff that fastens to the ladder of my motorhome when we want to light up the whole campsite for group activities.  Many RVers attach strings of festive lights to their awnings. These are usually more for decoration than illumination, yet can still provide a nice glow for your "patio party" and are available in a variety of shapes and colors.  One of my favorites for general camping is a Christmas light like string of tiny lights shaped like Coleman lanterns.  You might choose lighted chilis for a Mexican themed party or American flags for the 4th of July. The possibilities are endless.   Ordinary Christmas lights could also be used. I suggest going for the new LED lights.  They have bright colors, use little power, and don't get hot like incandescent bulbs, reducing the risk of scorching your awning or canopy -- or your fingers should you happen to touch one.   Rope lights are also popular as awning lights.   Plain white provides comfortable illumination and there are some fancy (but somewhat pricey) multi-colored version with multiple flash patterns and remote controls.

Work lights of various sorts may be needed.   If you have a generator you might use an ordinary drop light, but there are LED,  florescent and incandescent 12-volt work lights you can buy for use on battery power in and around your RV or other vehicle. Some use flashlight batteries and are completely portable; some plug into your 12 volt socket.   A camping lantern can also be used for illuminating a general work area and an ordinary flashlight can be used in close quarters.

Chemical light sticks are good for markers to highlight obstacles or people and to provide some light for moving around.   They usually aren't bright enough for reading or any serious activities, such as cooking, repairing equipment, or playing board or card games.   I did find they were a good substitute for the burning sticks the kids liked to drag out of the fire and wave around.   They lasted longer and eliminated the danger of someone or something getting accidentally set on fire!  I tried attaching them to our "Desert Rat" signs at night to help guide latecomers to camp, but kids from a neighboring camp kept stealing them.  I keep one in my fanny pack (safely stored in a short piece of PVC pipe capped on both ends (but not glued).  It may not provide a lot of light for emergency night time repairs, but it would be better than nothing and any kind of light can provide comfort if you're stuck out for very long.   They can be used for signaling and may even help keep wild animals away.  A light stick is usually adequate to light your way to the latrine at night too.

Strobe lights are sometimes used as markers to aid late arrivals in locating our OHV camps in the desert.  The ones I've used for years are dome-shaped units with suction cups on the bottom and are wired to plug into a cigarette lighter style 12-volt receptacle on the outside of my motorcycle trailer.   I've seen really fancy LED "starburst" lights designed for the top of a flagpole that would be even more visible from a distance.  Of course you wouldn't want to use something that bright in a developed campground where it would annoy your fellow campers but it works well in the open desert where we usually have plenty of space between camps.

Natural light.  Moonlight is often adequate for many camp activities when the moon is near full. I've seen it light enough during a full moon in the desert to even ride OHVs (cautiously) without needing headlights.  During a new moon you'll need supplemental light sources, unless you and your companions have the eyes of a cat!   For best results, avoid wiping out your night vision by exposing your eyes to bright lights inside your RV.  When you first step out of a brightly lit RV into a moonlit night, you'll be nearly blind for several minutes until your eyes adapt to the darkness.  If you do need temporary auxiliary light, try using a red filter on your flashlight.   That will usually let you see what you need to see with minimal affect on night vision.   A red flashlight would be useful for illuminating the firewood pile so you don't mess up your night vision.    I find using red filters especially helpful when working with telescopes for star gazing.  They provide sufficient light to assemble and adjust the optics and read star charts and don't trigger the restriction of the pupils like bright white does.

Firelight retains the ambiance of camping.  For large gatherings, a big bonfire might be appropriate.  For more intimate occasions, keep the fire small and add a few Tiki torches if you need more light.  You can fuel the Tiki torches with citronella lamp oil to help keep the bugs away so they're especially good around the picnic table or other eating or sitting areas.  Sometimes having several small fires is more effective and efficient than one big one.

Tent lighting.   I strongly favor battery powered lights for use in tents and other small enclosed spaces.  Any kind of flame-powered light includes the risk of setting the tent on fire and suffocation as the flame consumes available oxygen.  If you MUST use your Coleman or kerosene lantern in a tent, exercise extreme caution and keep a couple of windows open an inch or two for cross ventilation.  Just touching the hot glass globe to a tent wall or sleeping bag can melt it beyond repair, so be VERY careful using any kind of flame device inside a tent.  The close quarters in most tents means you have to be careful not to touch the lantern globe.   It becomes VERY hot and will blister your skin instantly.   My favorite tent light is powered by a couple of AA batteries and includes a spot light and a general illumination flood light.  An LED version would be ideal since the batteries will last longer.

Searchlights and spotlights can be helpful in locating a remote camp when boondocking and for searching for errant campers who may have wandered away from camp in the dark.   Remote control searchlights mount on the roof of RVs and usually have both "spot" and "flood" settings so they can be used for general camp site lighting in "flood" mode or as a beacon or search light in "spot" mode  (helpful finding signs).  Though not as popular as they once were, spotlights that can be mounted on the windshield post of many vehicles can help locating signs and landmarks when searching for a remote camp at night.  In a pinch you might use them to light up an area for after-dark equipment maintenance.   Portable spotlights can also come in handy.  I've seen them with ratings in the range of 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 candle power, having range up to a mile!  I've seen some that used ordinary flashlight batteries, some that are 12-volt powered (connect to a 12-volt cigarette light style receptacle) and even some that are rechargeable.

Trail lighting.  Many ATVs are equipped with headlights so night time operation is often viable. Dirt bikes (especially those designed for motocross), on the other hand, usually don't have headlights unless they are Enduro style bikes or have been modified.  The magnetos on many dirt bikes are not designed to handle the demands of lighting so you may have to upgrade the electrical system if you plan to add lights.  Baja Designs provides light kits for most off-road bikes.  A friend of mine upgraded the electrics on his dirt bike and added a 55 watt halogen driving light as a headlight.  Man, did that light up the trail! We called it the "bush burner".  In an emergency I've seen guys tape flashlights to their handlebars, front fenders, or helmets, but the light pattern is very limited and most flashlights won't last long,  especially given the constant bouncing and vibration to say nothing of the quick battery drain by incandescent bulbs. Unless they are LED flashlights they will drain the batteries pretty quickly, leaving you in the dark again. I picked up a specially designed helmet mounted light but I haven't had a chance to try it out yet. Chemical light sticks might be used to make the vehicle more visible but they won't provide enough light to see where you're going. Flashlights are very good options for night time hiking. You should have at least one on your person on any hike, just in case you are out after dark. In an emergency you might use duct tape or cable ties to secure a flashlight to the handlebars or front fender of your OHV for at least some lighting.

Emergency signaling.  If you get lost or your OHV breaks down and you're stuck out on the trails after dark, it may be a good idea to just stay put if you can't see where you're going unless you are in immediate danger if you stay where you are.  A flashlight or light stick can make you and your vehicle more visible to searchers or any other riders who may come along and you may be able to use them to flash an "S O S" (three short, three long, three short flashes).  If you think you'll be stuck out for any length of time or all night, you may want to try to get a fire going.   Fire will keep you warm, provide a visible signal for potential rescuers, and keep animals away.  If you use fuel from your OHV to start the fire, make sure your OHV is far enough away from the fire to avoid lighting it up -- and make sure the fuel is shut off before moving your OHV!   For a couple of examples of the consequences of failing to follow this advice, check out the movies "On Any Sunday" and On Any Sunday II".   In "On Any Sunday" the rider manages to set his bike on fire because it is too close to his signal fire.  In "On Any Sunday II" he carefully moves the bike a safe distance away before lighting his fire -- but he had disconnected the fuel line to soak the wood to make getting his fire going easier and forgot to shut it off, leaving a trail of fuel from the fire pit to his bike.  He lights his fire, it snakes a long the trail and "Poof!" his bike once again goes up in flames. On the one hand, a burning bike, will probably make a very good signal, especially once the magnesium parts start burning.   On the other hand, that's a pretty expensive signal fire!   It may be kind of amusing to watch in the movie, but I doubt if any of us would be laughing if it happened to us.  And once those magnesium parts start to burn you're going to have a heck of time putting out the fire without a Class D fire extinguisher.

Light it up!


  1. See also more and compare for best prices deals for Job Site Lighting here!

  2. For more distant activities or for tent camping you'll need portable light sources. Some older travel trailers and truck campers had propane ... camperawninglights.blogspot.com