Lighting Your Way With Chemical Lighting

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lightbeamChemical lighting is always recommended as a mainstay for survival kits but the reasons, at least to me, have never been 100% clear.  Yes, I knew they were inexpensive but also, they were for one-time use.  Wasn’t my trusty tactical LED or Maglite a better solution?  Yes and no.

Today I would like to explore the ins and outs of chemical lighting.  Or, more specifically, light sticks.

A light stick – also called a glow stick – is a mix of chemicals housed in a plastic sheath or tube.  Basically, the way it works is that you bend the sheath then shake it up to mix the contents, creating a chemical reaction that emits energy with only a teeny emission of heat (chemoluminescence).


The diagram to the left provides some detail (source Wikipedia).

1. Plastic casing covers the inner fluid.
2. A glass capsule covers the solution.
3. Phenyl Oxalate and fluorescent dye solution.
4. Hydrogen Peroxide solution.
5. After the glass capsule is broken and the solutions mix, the glow stick glows.

The result is a brightly colored, diffused light that is good for short term illumination, typically 6 to 12 hours depending on the length, chemical composition in the sheath and ambient temperature.

So why should you have some light sticks in your home, your vehicle and your survival backpack?  Well for one, they are safe in all environments, including those where questionable or even undetectable gases may exist.  They are weatherproof, windproof, non-flammable, non-sparking have a great shelf life and are very inexpensive.  Plus, most light sticks can be seen from a mile away – great in rescue situations.

They come in various lengths and durations, with 6 or 10 inches being quite popular, with a duration of 30 minutes up to 12 hours.  Whereas duration is determined by the chemistry of the formulation, brightness is affected by temperature: the warmer the temperature, the brighter the light will appear.

There are also small and compact mini 4” light sticks which are great for handbags, medical kits, and glove boxes in vehicles.  They can provide up to 4 hours of illumination in a compact package.

The shelf life is at least four years especially when packaged in foil packaging.  Plus one popular brand, the Cyalume Snaplight, is manufactured in the United States.

What’s not to like?  There are just a few bug-a-boos.

Depending on your needs in the moment, the standard 360 degree illumination may be an annoyance.  Also, the longer rated 8 to 12 hours light sticks will definitely start to dim after a few hours and dim considerably towards the end of their rated life.  The same thing will happen at each end of the heat spectrum, with overall brightness starting to dim in cooler temperatures below 40 degrees and temperatures over 80 degrees.  Also, once activated by breaking the internal glass vial and combining the chemicals, they cannot be turned off.minichemlight

Alternatives to chemical lighting are candles and flashlights.  While both have their place in the survival kit, there are some downsides.


  • Candles can be dangerous if extreme care is not taken in their use.  For example, candles caused 23,600 fires, 200 deaths, 1,600 injuries in the U.S. last year.  Furthermore, the Red Cross warns against any emergency use of candles in the home due to severe risk of fire.
  • Candles are not wind and water proof and cannot be used outdoors.
  • Candles should not be left unattended and cannot and should not be used as all-night lights or buy children or the elderly.
  • Candles consume oxygen and should not be used in confined spaces.
  • Candles go out when dropped and are not a mobile light source.
  • Candles are risky to use when natural gas or other fuels are present


  • Batteries lose power and may leak of corrode when stored for an extended time.
  • Flashlights are great searchlights but give poor room illumination.
  • Light bulbs and lenses are breakable. When broken, they are useless.
  • Only very high cost flashlights are truly waterproof.
  • Flashlight internal circuits are subject to corrosion.

Military Grade?  Industrial Grade?  What is the difference?

There is no discernable difference in either light output or duration between these two grades. It seems that the only difference between the two is that the U.S. military, for reasons best known to it, requires a slightly different formulation for their light sticks.  This formulation has a four year shelf life while the the Industrial Grade formulation has a five-year shelf life.

Go figure.  The bottom line is this: the Military Grade version is a good light stick but not worth the 25% extra you pay over the Industrial Grade light stick which produces the same amount of light and lasts just as long.

The Final Word

Light sticks, or glow sticks, are a safe and inexpensive addition to your home, your vehicle and your gear kit.  The have a myriad of uses a pack of 10 will cost between $10 and $15 and even less on a per unit basis if you purchase a larger supply of 50 or more.  They will last for 4 years at a minimum and if stored properly, even longer.

Chemical light sticks are readily available at Lowes, Amazon and many outdoor stores.  The only caveat is to avoid those sold as a consumer item (read “toy” and party) since they are not the same quality as an industrial grade or military grade light stick.

Here are some selections to get you started:

Cyalume SnapLight Industrial Grade Chemical Light Sticks, 6″, 12 Hour Duration

Cyalume SnapLight Industrial Grade Chemical Light Sticks, 6″, 8 Hour Duration

Cyalume Mini ChemLight Military Grade Chemical Light Sticks, Green, 1.5″, 4 Hour Duration

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!


From the Bargain Bin: Survival is all about learning to fend for yourself. Growing your own food, cooking and building stuff are all essential. Here are some of the top sellers for 2011.

Lodge Logic 12-Inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet: Cast iron items were at the top of the list. My readers love cast iron and so do I. Also at the top were Lodge Set of 2 Pan Scrapers and the Lodge Max Temp Handle Mitt.

All New Square Foot Gardening: I put in a Square Foot Garden last year and was pleased with the results. It is not too early to start planning for spring planting.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking: At an average cost of 50 cents a loaf, this bread is easy, delicious and inexpensive to make.

Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day: 100 New Recipes Featuring Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Gluten-Free Ingredients: Ditto.

How to Live on Wheat: Everything you need to know about wheat.

Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets (Pack of 10): For less than $8, this pack of 10 is a great deal. Free shipping too.

Fiskars 7855 8-Inch Hatchet: The Fiskars products are easily sharpened and will last a lifetime. For less than $25, what is not to like? Oh, and while you are at it, you might also like the Fiskars Axe & Knife Sharpener for an additional $10.

Kaito Voyager KA500 Solar/Crank Emergency AM/FM/SW NOAA Weather Radio: A lot of different hand crank radios were sold but this was by far, the most popular.

MAGLITE XL50-S3016 LED Flashlight: I own a number of these. Small, sturdy, and easy to handle.

Sabre Compact Pepper Spray with Quick Release Key Ring: The portability of this pepper spray adds to its appeal since it can be easily carried on a key ring or in a handbag or backpack.

The Dukan Diet: 2 Steps to Lose the Weight, 2 Steps to Keep It Off Forever: Survival Husband lost over 10 pounds in two weeks on this diet.

The Prepper’s Pocket Guide: 101 Easy Things You Can Do to Ready Your Home for a Disaster: Written by Bernie Carr at the Apartment Prepper blog, this is highly readable guide to all things preparedness.

50 – 1 Gallon (10″x14″) Mylar Bags & 50 – 300cc Oxygen Absorbers: A staple for long term food storage.

Rothco 550lb. Type III Nylon Paracord: As far as I am concerned, paracord ranks up there with duct tape and zip ties. I wish I had know about this stuff years ago.

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Lighting Your Way With Chemical Lighting — 9 Comments

  1. Light sticks are great to have and are inexpensive. I think the main problem with the “toy” type light sticks that get sold every Halloween are they have a very short shelf life and therefore unreliable for emergency use. Thanks for the reminder about the dangers of relying only on candles as a back up light source.

  2. We use candle lanterns when we camp. the lanterns are based on Welsh mining lanterns and are protected from wind and rain. Also, oil/kerosene lanterns are another alternative to light sticks. We have all of the above because redundancy is a good thing.

  3. I collect kerosene lanterns so I too have a variety of light sources to use if and when we have an emergency. I keep a supply of commercial lantern fuel for my kerosene lanterns. A bit pricey, but I prefer that to kerosene. I am not sure about the shelf life of this fuel, but it seems to be longer than kerosene….will have to check on that. I keep a supply of long burning emergency candles so that I have several sources of light along with flashlights. You don’t mention the old Coleman fuel lanterns. I haven’t used one of those in years and I would not want to use them indoors, but outdoors they were useful. I like the idea of the light sticks and will get a supply of them. I used to use them night scuba diving and they were great to keep track of other divers in the dark. Nothing worse, well maybe, than no light and total darkness in an emergency. I went through hurricane Andrew and I can tell you about not being prepared. We were not prepared…. I am a firm believer in being prepared because I learned the hard way.

  4. Take a two foot length of broomstick handle and screw a spring clip (like the kind used to hold papers together) to the end. When you use the light stick place it in the clip and hold the stick so the light is slightly in front of you about a foot off the ground. This lights up the path and suprisingly in a dark forest it provides incredible visability. It also puts the light about 5 feet from your eyes and thus preserves most of your night vision. With this setup you can actually hike a trail all night safely. Be aware it does not help with low branches and other obstacles that are head high. When I hike at night I wear wrap around safety glasses and a hat for protection from branches. Why hike at night you ask? I did it when I wanted to see the sunrise from a mountain top but didn’t want to camp up there. I have also done this with boy scouts and interestingly the light being so low and so dim does not carry far and you can walk within 10 feet or so of someone without being seen providing there is normal brush to difuse the light.

  5. I stock “chem lights” (what we called glow sticks in the Marines) keeping them in m get home bag, first aid kits and every room of the house next to the flashlights.

    They are great for immediate lighting, weigh next to nothing, avoid the risk of fires that candles or fuel lanterns create (I use pie tins with candles at home), with children they take the fear away from power outages by offering them a safety blanket of security and if they drop it on their foot it won’t hurt like a flashlight. If you need to signal for help tie a string to the end and twirl it r60 degrees and you have a glowing circle that can be seen at a good distance.

    If you by cheap you get cheap. Buy the ones the military uses, keep them in cool or moderate temp rooms to extend or keep their shelf life. As you get close to experation dates, give them to the kids to play with, toss and replace.

  6. Just received my Tooblites from They can be used over and over. Just expose them to some form of light and they start to glow immediately. Check them out.

  7. If you are hiking and don’t want to be seen by others far away—just those in your hiking team think about those light sticks with hooks on them. Slip them in a short piece of 1/2″ drip hose used in gardening. Punch a hole in it at one end run some wire or string through the drip hose around the hook end of the chem light and on to your belt. Leave the tip end barely exposed so others can follow you. Use certain colors so others can know who’s who. Use it to aim it like a flashlight when talking/waving to others following you and not alert the unwanted a mile away in every direction. Use these strategically aimed as you walk along to allow slackers/followers to eventually catch-up.

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