Ahhh lighting. Nothing says mood like good lighting. And don't forget about safety and looking good both at your camp and out on the open Playa. The little suckers can also have a nasty appetite for power though - but they don't need to suck.
Types of Lighting
The Basic Pear-Shaped Incandescent
These should be your last choice when planning your camp's lighting. While they are cheap, you get what you pay for. They can have very short life spans, as little as 750 hours. They have a tendency to fail very easily and they are very fragile. If broken, they create a nasty mess to clean up. They often show up in the classic "Clip Light", stay away from them both. There are much more exciting ways to add some color to your camp or tent than the old "Party Bulbs" of yester-year.
Halogen light bulbs and their fixtures come in many different shapes, sizes, wattages and beam spreads. They are typically VERY bright and can be relatively efficient, the average halogen light bulb lasts over 2500 hours and certain types of MR16's can last as long as 10,000 hours. They produce a very nice quality light and can be dimmed. Unfortunately they all burn very hot and any fixture using them will need to be secured in case of windstorms. They also have a tendency to fail frequently due in part to the high temperature they generate and as they are tossed about by the wind or bumped into repeatedly by your best friends, on their way to their tent each night (bless their little souls...)
Tubular Fluorescent Lights - aka Shop Lights
These can be a good choice for general camp lighting, if you have a generator and you don't care about good lighting. They are highly efficient in electrical consumption terms and light output. They last much longer than ordinary and halogen incandescent light bulbs. You can add color gels to make them look better since they don't produce much heat, you don't have to worry about melting the gels. Be careful when handling CFL's, you don't want to break them. They contain mercury and must be disposed of at an authorized hazardous waste drop-off location. See the California Integrated Waste Management Board website for more info. Look for similar programs in your community.
Compact Flourescent Lamps - aka CFLs
These are also a good choice when you have a generator for power. They have the efficiency benefits of a fluorescent, but they fit into traditional incandescent lamp sockets. There are many different shapes, sizes, wattages and color temperatures to choose from these days so be sure to check out your options. While they do have the same hazardous mercury in them, as in the tubular version, relatively speaking it is a much lower amount. They also need to be disposed of properly at a hazardous waste drop off location in your community.
PAR (Parabolic Reflector), CFL and Halogen Work LIghts - aka Flood Lights
These can be useful in short intervals for setup, construction, etc. Though they require a great deal of power (especially the halogen ones) and the lighting can be rather harsh. Your neighbors will probably not be too happy with you if you go this route.
Your Car's Headlights
Bad, BAD idea, friend! Do you really want to be stuck on the playa, unable to start your car and leave for home? Sitting around waiting for 'some guy' you were told would drop by 'sometime' to give you a jumpstart? While there are people out there, like Camp Jumpstart for instance, that are willing & happy to help out, you'll likely be waiting quite a while for them. If you can find them.
Candles, Tiki Torches, open flames:
Charming, but not ideal at Burning Man. These are discouraged because of the obvious fire danger should they be knocked or blown over. Tiki torches are especially discouraged, as they seem to blow over quite easily in the playa winds and can be rather difficult to get anchored well in the soft playa. They cannot be left unattended. You should avoid having any open fire in your camp unless you can make sure that it will be watched over by someone responsible at all times. A burning tent in high winds could become a real disaster instantly. Our page on Playa Protection and Burn Scar Prevention has additional information on open fire at Burning Man and additional fire safety information can be found on our Creating Dangerous Art Safely page.
Efficient and bright, these lighting sources provide a good amount of light from a 'green-er' fuel source, propane. Unfortunately, the very popular small propane canisters are not reusable, and thus create waste. A solution to the waste issue is to get a refillable tank and lantern to work with it. Either way, these can be good in short spurts, while being monitored. Make sure they are secured well, as they burn hot, and a windstorm can cause them to come loose and knock them over, setting things on fire. Also, the glass used in them is generally very easy to break when hot, and this can leave you with a mess that is both not-green and dangerous to unprotected feet.
New versions of these generally use LEDs or fluorescent bulbs, and can last a long time (but they never seem to last QUITE long enough). Use rechargeable batteries so as not to generate waste. Add a solar recharging kit and go for a complete green solution.
Solar Lights (Garden/Path lights)
Available for as little as $4 each from your local hardware/garden store, these are a cheap efficient way to light your path around your campsite at night. They take up little cargo space, generate no waste (leave the packaging at home), and can be reused year after year.
Available for as little as $4 each from your local hardware/garden store, these are a cheap efficient way to light your path around your campsite at night. They take up little cargo space, generate no MOOP (as long as you remember to deal with the packaging before you leave home), and can be reused year after year.
Glow Toys & other mood & accent lighting
Manufactured glow toys can add ambiance to your campsite or tent. These will require batteries, but rechargeable ones can be used to minimize the waste. Look for things that will stand up to life on the Playa and whose batteries can be replaced - cheap glow junk already has one foot in the landfill when you buy it.
LEDs - string lights, rope, neon, etc
Also excellent, if you have a generator or a solar system with batteries for running lighting at night. The LED variety is the better choice for lower energy use, but traditional Christmas lights can also be very effective. They give a nice, warm, evenly distributed lighting to your camp and also decorate the place nicely.
Very popular for creating art and signage. EL works really well in the darkness of the Playa and is a great tool for creativity. Perfect for decorating roving objects like bicycles & costumes. The down side is that EL wire does not provide much light for camp activities such as cooking, reading or repairing bicycles, but it is very effective for nighttime safety applications.
Stay away from glow sticks. Yes they are simple and easy to use, but they simply generate 100% waste... and not much light. They are really only useful as part of a ‘costume’, lighting a bike, marking obstacles or bad mood lighting, and really, there are much more efficient and practical choices for all of these situations. Glow sticks are very hard to read or navigate by...on a moonless night...far from civilization...with the coyotes howling in the distance...they were developed for emergency applications, but they seem to be ubiquitous for nighttime, despite their status as a "use once, then throw away" loser. Just say no.
These are a great choice for mobile/safety lighting, something to take to the port-a-potties. Now you will never be stuck with dead batteries out in the middle of nowhere. Plus, the LEDs used in these are both bright and efficient.
Tips & Hints
- When choosing lights to make your camp or art project dazzle at night, choose LED's & EL wire. They'll suck less juice from your generator or solar system and last year after year. Look for lots of LED light ropes and other LED lighting products on the internet.
- A solar-powered rechargeable battery charger is an excellent way to keep things powered up and ready for nightfall. It beats the cigarette lighter in your car, and the cost is relatively cheap.
- Always keep a small flashlight or head-strapped-light with you, as even the best lit camp will still have dark spots and can be dangerous when stumbling to your tent late at night. Even those small book lights can be amazingly bright and useful.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why should I always have a light with me? At night, a person sitting on the Playa or even walking or riding can be completely invisible to the driver of an art car. And your indignant shout may be completely inaudible to them as well. All you need is a light on the back of your costume & bicycle so that you don't have to constantly be jumping out of the way, or cursing the pirate ship that turned your playa bike into a speed bump.
How dark is it out there, really? Out on the playa, it can get so dark that you can barely make out the sillhouette of your own hand. Near the camps, though, there is usually enough light to see your way around.
How well do those solar powered lights work? Some work better than others. They all work great when the sun first goes down, but they do get dimmer throughout the night and may be dark by morning.
Isn't the generator going to use the same amount of gas whether I have efficient or non-efficient lights plugged into it? Yes, this might be technically correct under the right circumstances. However, efficient lighting can allow you to increase the NUMBER of lights you can power simultaneously on the same size generator or you might be able to use a smaller generator which will probably cost you less and use less fuel. You might even be able to kick the generator habit and go solar.
What if I want a dark camp? Please consider others who may be stumbling through your camp, trying to find their own. Obstacles should be easy to avoid for strangers as well as yourself and campmates.
What about lasers? Lasers are fun and expensive but not that helpful for drawing attention to yourself. Try navigating by laser - I dare you.
Sources for LED String Lights, Rope, Neon, etc.
- Holiday LEDs
Sources for solar lighting
Sources for EL-wire, glow-toys, mood lighting and such
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