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I admit to having a fondness for the old fashioned. I’m sure a lot of other preppers do too, and it certainly makes it easier to plan for emergencies when you are willing to dial your level of technology back several generations in a pinch.
In some cases, old fashioned technology is still perfectly viable, and in others, it is woefully inadequate. While it is true that our ancestors laid the foundation for our modern world with so-called primitive technology, I have long held that there is no reason to burden yourself with needlessly obsolete technology if you can help it.
Of course obsolete is somewhat subjective, and some people take pride in clinging to methods and tools that have long been superseded by more reliable, efficient ways. Regardless, there is still a practical or romantic place for a lot of old technology, which brings us around to lighting.
As my friends will tell you, I have a fondness for the history of early electrification that borders on the weird, but before electric lights gave us a powerful, and reliable way to banish darkness there were other methods, all of which involved some form of open flame and combustible material.
Among these methods which would be of interest to the modern prepper are candles and oil lamps. While they certainly are nice to use, are they something worth putting aside for your prepping and off-grid lifestyle, or are there better alternatives?
An Intro to Candles
Candles are very, very old technology. Dating back to at least 500 BCE, candles are made of some sort of stable fat around a wick of various substances. There are many ways to make them, ranging from tallow and string to modern petroleum wax and specially fabricated wicks.
The burn time and light output of a candle depends on a number of factors, including what they are made out of, the wick quality and size of the candle. Modern candles are almost all made of petroleum wax (paraffin) which has been in wide use since the mid 19th century. Beeswax is a popular premium candle material, but they can also be made of things like tallow, or plant waxes like soy or bayberry.
So what role do they play for the modern prepper or homesteader, and is it worth keeping some around?
For starters, we have to look at how you choose to live your personal life. Some people eschew petroleum products for various reasons, so the most efficient and cheapest candles might not be an option. In other cases, religious ceremonies often call for candles, so you may have some around already. They also have ornamental use, or when scented therapeutic or are simply nice to burn.
Which brings us to emergency lighting. I’ll tell you right now, that paraffin will always be your best bet. It burns cleanly and brightly and lasts longer than other waxes. There is no real reason to avoid it, and there are a great many survival candles on the market made with paraffin. But let’s look a bit closer at the pros and cons of candles for preppers.
Used in a candle lantern, candles can be a safe, off the grid lighting source. Some downsides include highly localized lighting, low light output, and some heat generation. However, the heat might be a small bonus, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Used outside of a lantern, candles can be more unstable, but there are plenty of candlestick holders and other various devices that make candles safer to use, but the fact you are using an open flame for lighting must always be a concern.
Used as a localized lighting source, candles offer enough light to read or cook by. Carried in a lantern, they are better than nothing, but won’t break the darkness like an oil lamp, or better still, a battery powered lantern.
Some candles are engineered to burn for a long time – up to 36 hours in some cases, which makes them an attractive source of light. Plus you can melt and reuse the wax from a candle to make another (smaller) candle. But you keep coming back to the problem of a weak light source.
You can use multiple candles, along with reflective surfaces like polished metal or mirrors to improve the quality of light, but multiple candles to light a room can be a rapid drain on resources. If you use candles, you should use the bare minimum.
Be aware of safety risks. Never use an open flame where there is the risk of a gas leak, and be sure of keeping your candles from tipping over. For that reason, they really shouldn’t be used in a tent.
Are Candles Worth Using?
The heat candles give off can be used as a residual source of heat in some cases. I’ve read of people keeping a tent somewhat warmer with a candle, but that carries a lot of other risks. They can also be used in a pinch to warm water (slowly) or for similar purposes. They also fit neatly into a bugout bag or other emergency gear. But should preppers invest in candles?
I’d say no. There are better choices for emergency lighting that take up the same place. Candles offer no real advantage over compact battery powered devices or even fueled lanterns. While the heat they produce can be useful, again, there are better choices there. Long term emergency candles might be nice, but we come back to the same choice. I’d rather pack an emergency flashlight than an emergency candle.
While I’m sure some will disagree, but given other alternatives, there is no real reason to use candles in your prepping. If there was no other choice, I’d ask why you were reduced to using candles in the first place, and why you failed to have other options. Short of some wild post-apocalyptic scenario, you should never be using candles in an emergency.
Some minimalist emergency kits include a tiny candle or two and sell it as an emergency light and cooking source. Such minimalist kits should be used only to demonstrate how not to build an emergency kit, and serve only as a triumph of marketing over common sense.
In other words, candles for prepping and off gridders belong firmly in the past with such other quaint things as dysentery, open wire telephones, and Lysol as a feminine hygiene product.
Now we wander into a more useful ancient technology. Oil lamps have been used for about as long as it took caveman Thag to figure out that melted fat in a small container could give off some sort of light. Once Ogg came along and invented a primitive wick, not only did he become more attractive to cavewomen, but the true oil lamp was born.
Today, oil lamps have been highly “refined” and usually burn some form of kerosene or liquid paraffin. This puts off a bright, white light and they can be very effective lighting tools. They also come with some drawbacks and have some benefits.
Where candles are marginal for most things, oil lamps offer real utility. One or two old fashioned oil lamps can light most rooms, and provide plenty of lighting for reading or other work. A so-called hurricane lantern can be a useful tool and also serves to light a room.
You can also get lanterns with a small cooker on top, making them somewhat useful for heating small amounts of liquid, while also serving as a light.
Traditional oil lamps are available in many different forms and can be very inexpensive, making them a tempting choice for the off gridder. They also have a timeless air of tradition about them and are popular decorator objects.
But again, are they something that should be included in your survival preps?
Should You Use An Oil Lamp?
While more stable than candles, oil lamps are still an open flame that can cause all sorts of problem. Many a barn or homestead has burned to the ground because of open flame lighting, and they are still destroying buildings and ruining lives in the present day. Safe handling and common sense can eliminate these problems, but there is a real safety risk that comes with an oil lamp.
Like candles, oil lamps use consumable fuel. In this case lamp oil of some sort, and wicks. Now you are storing jugs or cans of flammable fuel in your home, which is again, usually pretty safe, but it’s one more thing to worry about.
More importantly, for space and expense, there are still better choices. A battery powered lantern takes up about the same space as an oil lamp, and won’t start a fire if you tip it over. Sure, batteries are a concern, but you can also get dynamo rechargeable lanterns, store spare batteries, or get a solar charged lantern.
If you are investing in alternative light sources for your prepping, the main advantage of an oil lamp is that fuel and wicks have an almost indefinite shelf life when stored properly. You may decide that having a couple of oil lamps as a backup to your backups makes sense, or you may enjoy using them from time to time.
Candles And Oil Lamps In Your Prepping
Candles and oil lamps are decidedly obsolete technology. Reliable, affordable oil lamps made candles obsolete among those who could afford them, and both products exist now in a weird limbo of ritual, romanticism, tradition, culture and vague practicality. Neither are going anywhere, but neither is especially useful as primary or secondary items for a prepper or off gridder to store.
I’ll say it again, the march of technology and progress has given us better emergency lighting choices. Batteries, candles, and oil are all consumable goods. Even rechargeable batteries will wear out over time but offer safer and more efficient lighting than candles or oil lamps.
If you are storing emergency lighting tools, then you should store the best. That said, you probably already have candles or oil lamps laying around for any number of reasons. If you have them, you might as well use them, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to acquire more as part of your prepper planning.
The use of candles and oil lamps are buried deep within our cultural memory. They form an important part of how we view aspects of the past, and until relatively recently were viable emergency supplies. Right up until the advent of LED battery lanterns, an argument could be made for oil lanterns and even candles in some cases.
Growing up in an area that suffered frequent winter power outages, I recall my parents in the early 1990s using candles and oil lamps. Compared to many camping battery lanterns they seemed as good or even better.
Compared to a recent power outage where I simply grabbed an LED lantern and turned it on, I would be hard pressed to want to go back to those candles and oil lamps, no matter how pleasant they were. It is always possible to regress backward in the technology we use, and sometimes it is needful, or just as practical as using current technology. In other cases, there is a decided detriment to it.
Many may disagree, but I firmly believe the time to retire oil lamps and candles from most prepper and off-grid supplies is now. There will always be odd cases where they are useful, and some folks worry about an EMP wiping out electrical items. My own thoughts on that matter are probably not suitable to print on a family-friendly website, and since this is the second article I’ve submitted this week that has gotten a bit preachy and negative about popular preps, I’ll call it a day here.
Obsolete technology is a marvelous thing to study and enjoy as a hobby and way of understanding the past. Sometimes it is a comfort to those who grew up in a given era, or who remember it being used by family members. In other cases, it holds us back when we don’t want to give it up. When prepping, I favor efficiency over tradition, but still, have a couple of candles and an oil lamp laying around just for old times sake.
Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.