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Why Are Camping Lights Red?

Man shining red flashlight

You’ve got a headlamp or a flashlight, and you notice that there’s a red light mode. In fact, red lights are a pretty common camping gear item. But what is their use? Why would you need dim, red lights while camping?

Why are camping lights red? Red camping lights don’t ruin your night vision the way that white or yellow lights do. If you use the red light setting, you’ll be better able to see in the dark and are less likely to blind your companions momentarily. 

It turns out that those red camping lights aren’t just for mood-setting around the campfire. If you can learn the right situation to switch over to the red lights, then you’ll find that they’re actually quite useful. You might never want to head into the woods without them. Read on for a more detailed breakdown of the situations where red lights are most helpful.

Why Use Red Camping Lights

You know what it’s like to turn off your headlamp or flashlight when it’s dark outside. You can’t see at all, and it can take 20–30 minutes for your natural night vision to fully return. Your eyes are less sensitive to red light than to other colors of light. Therefore red light will allow you to see in the dark without frying your natural night vision.

Be Considerate of Others

There’s nothing worse than getting blasted in the face by someone else’s headlamp in the complete darkness of the outdoors. Traditional white lamps require you to constantly switch them off or down as you turn to face others. An easier way to be kind towards the retinas of others is to switch to the red light.

Something that might be easier said than done, you will have to convince your entire group to switch to the red lights. If even one person insists on using the brighter lamps, then it will essentially defeat the purpose for the whole group. However, if you can make the switch, things will be a lot easier and less painful for everyone.

Go Stargazing

To go stargazing, either with the naked eye or through a telescope, you’ll need your night vision at 100% to get the best view of the stars. With your eyes adjusted to the dark, you’ll be better able to make out the grandeur of the sky above you. You’re also more likely to see the shape and colors of stars and planets through a telescope if your night vision is fully operational.

Switch to red lights at least an hour before you plan to take in the night sky. If you can manage to go without any lights for some amount of time, your vision will be all the better for it. A view of the night sky unhindered by the light pollution of modern society is one of the major draws for camping in the first place. Don’t bring light pollution with you; switch to red light.

Make a Late-Night Bathroom Trip

We’ve all had it happen. You wake up halfway through the night to nature’s call. You have to choose between fumbling around in the dark to find your shoes and jacket or momentarily blinding yourself and waking up everyone sharing a tent with you by turning on a light.

Red camping lights give you a third, softer option. They’ll provide enough light so that you can see what you’re doing but won’t give you that searing pain of suddenly flipping on the switch. You’re also much less likely to wake anyone up who’s sleeping next to you.

Signal For Help

This one is only going to be useful in some situations. However, if you’re out in the woods and get into a bad situation, setting your headlamp to red and flash could send the signal that you’re in trouble. If you saw a flashing red light in the woods late at night, you might assume that someone needed help. Well, someone else might do the same for you.

There are certainly other, more effective ways to prepare for an emergency. You’re also likely to invest in red camping lights more for the other reasons we’ve mentioned. However, if you’ve got red, flashing lights and things go south, it’s worth considering that you could use them in this way.

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The Science Behind Red Lights

So, why exactly is it that red light affects night vision less than white light? To understand this, we’ll need to learn a little about how the eye works in low-light conditions. There are two methods your eye uses to adapt to darkness. These are the iris and the cones of the eye.

The Iris

The iris is the aperture of the eye. It works similarly to the f-stop on a camera. In conditions with lots of light, the iris shrinks—limiting the amount of light into the eye and preventing overexposure or blinding from the light. In low light, the iris widens—allowing in as much light as possible in order to make things out in the darkness.

Remember when you go to the doctor, and they shine a light into your eyes? They are looking to see if your pupils are equal, round, and if they are reactive to light, know as PERRL. When they shine that light into your eye, your pupil contracts, and when they take it away, it expands.

The iris can respond to changes in light level in a second or two at most. If this were the only factor, you wouldn’t have to worry about compromising your night vision; it would immediately snap back when you turned the light off.

The Cone

There are two structures in the eye that help process information. Rods work best in well-lit scenarios and help distinguish colors. Cones take over in low-light and allow you to perceive shapes and depth. This way, when it gets dark, it can be difficult to tell colors apart. Everything takes on a single flat, dark hue.

Inside the cones is a pigment called rhodopsin. This protein is what allows for night vision. When rhodopsin is exposed to large amounts of light, it photobleaches, making it inert. Your eye will immediately begin producing more, but it could take up to thirty minutes before you’re full up again.

Why is Red Light Different?

Red light has the highest wavelength of all visible light. This means that the waves of light are spaced farther apart, and the light is much lower energy than yellow or white light. Because the light contains less energy, it doesn’t have as harsh an effect on rhodopsin in the cone. The rhodopsin doesn’t get bleached, pain receptors in the eye don’t activate, and you’re able to see.

Downsides of Using Red Lights

Red camping lights are beloved by some; others refuse to use the feature and will even seek out equipment that doesn’t offer the red light capability. Are there reasons you wouldn’t want red camping lights?

They’re Dimmer

If you need just enough light to manage and get around in the dark, red lights are perfect. They simply are not as bright as traditional lightbulbs. So, depending on what you’re trying to do, they may or may not be sufficient. Most lights that have red light usually gives you the option to go either way, so if you get into a circumstance where the red isn’t cutting it, then simply turn on the white.

They’re Heavier

Some campers actually avoid headlamps and other lights with red options because they can add weight. Now, we’re talking a few ounces at most, but if you’re a big-time backpacker—every ounce counts. If you’re trying to save on weight, maybe steer clear of red.

Summing It Up

As you can see, having red camping lights have a variety of beneficial purposes. Being able to navigate at night with a red light won’t wake your camping companions when you need to get up, allows you to enjoy the night skies, and isn’t as annoying to fellow campers.

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The western part of the country draws me with its mountains, deserts, and red rock vistas. Still, there are numerous other wonders I'm ready to explore., from Maine's rugged coast to California's Big Sur cliffs and everywhere between.