Camp lighting, classic camping style – the folding candle lantern – Part 1

Aside from the comforting red-orange flickering glow from a campfire, some sort of camp lighting is a must-have.

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My modern canvas bell tent lit by the soft glow of a folding candle lantern during a canoe trip a couple of years back.

Nowadays the options for camp lighting are many and varied – from the UCO Micro candle lantern through to the awesomely-effective inflatable, solar powered LED lanterns or the much-maligned compact but super-bright LED headlamp – why much maligned? Invariably if you’re out camping with a group and people are using these headlights, you’ll be blinded every time someone looks at you. At times I have taken to wearing sunglasses at night around the campfire when camping with larger groups and I personally won’t use a head lamp out of a pure disdain for them.

If you like the old-timey vibe, you can go for a pressure lantern such as the Coleman Powerhouse dual fuel lantern. If you’re boring, then use a gas/propane lantern. If you’re going to do that you might even go for some 12v LED strip lighting or fluoros…

For “classic” camping such as I practice, the options for camp lighting are somewhat limited, but they are definitely cool.  One of my camp lighting favourites is the candle lantern.

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A selection of some of the folding or collapsible candle lanterns I tend to use. Back row – Replica brass Stonebridge lantern, Swiss Army candle lantern, Tin-cased Excelsior Lux. Front Row – Aluminium cased Excelsior Lux lantern, 3-sided German/Austrian WWI trench lantern (copied from the French M1910 lantern), NZ-made copy of a standard UCO candle lantern

I favour the old-style folding candle lanterns. They are compact, cheap to feed and give off a light bright enough to cook, eat or even read by.  In general they are light enough to take hiking and I have one as part of my swaggin’ it kit – either a brass Stonebridge replica or a Swiss Army model. They impart a nice, dare I say it romantic, light to a classic camp, and illuminate a canvas or japara tent quite nicely with a warm, diffuse glow.  Although I own different models of modern UCO candle lanterns and clones as well, I won’t cover them here since they aren’t old-timey enough.

All of my old-style folding candle lanterns have clear mica windows.  This material is actually a transparent natural mineral with a similar feel to plastic. It is lightweight and fireproof and is far less fragile than glass. You may sometimes see clear mica referred to as “isinglass” or “talc”.

1970s SWISS ARMY FOLDING CANDLE LANTERN –

This particular incarnation of the Swiss Army folding candle lantern dates to the 1970s and is windproof, rain proof and folds completely flat.

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1970s Swiss Army Folding Candle Lantern. Shown here with a Woolworths-sourced basic household candle.

It is designed to take special stearine candles, but if you gently bend the sides of the sprung clamp inward with a pair of pliers, you’ll discover that cheap-as-chips normal household candles will fit securely.

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My old green one shown here folded flat, is from the 1920s and is a very similar design to the Excelsior Lux lantern of the 1910s, but is about a 3rd larger.

These Swiss lanterns originally came into service in the 1920s and are a larger, highly-modified version of the turn-of-the-20th-Century Italian mountaineer’s “Excelsior Lux” lantern shown further below. Used by the Swiss army as EMP-proof bivouac and camp lighting, they were also included in the Swiss combat medic kits of the 1970s and 80s.

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The lanterns were standard equipment in Swiss Army combat medic bags of the 1970s and 80s.

Whereas earlier models were made from olive drab-painted tin and had only three windows, the 1970s Swiss lantern is made with a stainless steel body and has clear mica windows on all sides. It is assembled by unfolding it completely, hooking the two end panels together on their long sides to form a rectangular box shape, and then swinging the top and bottom panels into place and securing them with attached wire rod latches. The lantern has a spring-loaded door in one panel which is used to insert the candle into its spring clamp and light it.

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The Swiss lantern disassembled and folded flat. You can see the damage to two of the mica windows on this one. Bummer, because it’s one of two I own and use regularly. Still, the damage is slight and doesn’t really affect the operation or light output from the lantern.

They’re tough, very well designed, very effective, almost completely windproof, can be lightly modded to take normal supermarket candles (cut in half) and said half-candles will last for two or three hours depending on ambient temps. I would say they are pretty much the pinnacle of folding candle lantern design. The only improvements which could be made might be an oil-burning insert (for using with kerosene, citronella, diesel, maybe even animal fat or used cooking grease), and a casing made out of hard anodised aluminium or even from titanium as a means of keeping the weight down. Until someone comes up with heat resistant, thin, transparent polymer sheeting, the weak point in these lanterns will always be the relatively fragile mica windows.

Availability of these online in places like ebay is good, but they are pricey. At time of writing there’s a few on ebay out of Austria and Germany (search on ebay.de), and you’d be looking at around A$110 (US$85-ish) posted to purchase one. Gone are those heady days of the early 2000s when these lanterns first came onto the surplus market in their tens of thousands for $5 to $10 each until they were bought up en mass by wedding planners, cafe owners and interior designers who used them once for a wedding or photoshoot and then discarded them.

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Camp lighting via Swiss Army candle lantern on a recent swag walk.

Are they worth current prices? You’ll have to be the judge. If anything ever happened to my pair of Swiss Army candle lanterns I’d happily replace them at the current high prices. I reckon they are that good, and I have gotten that much use out of them.

NEW-MANUFACTURE “REPLICA” STONEBRIDGE FOLDING CANDLE LANTERN – 

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I thought I’d show you this one before showing you the original. It’s quite different from the original, so calling it a replica is a bit of a stretch. How different you may ask? Well, it’s as if the person who designed it had a copy of Stonebridge’s earlier 1906 patent and a few photos of Stonebridge’s later 1910 vintage lantern, but no measurements, let alone a sample of the original lantern to work off.

It’s a lot smaller than an original, the proportions are all off and it’s missing a few important features of the original such as the adjustable vents and the spring-loaded windscreen, so when used in windy and rainy conditions, it’ll blow out or rain will blow in and douse the candle – this has happened to me. They are nowhere near as effective as an original (nor as the Swiss or Excelsior Lux lanterns for that matter), but they do have some advantages.

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Size difference between the replica (right) and the original

The smaller size means it’s lighter and suitable for hiking or swaggin’ it. It’s made from raw, unlacquered brass sheet so you can polish it and keep it shiny and pretty or you can let it tarnish or go all verdi-greasy (verdigris) for that well-used look.

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Replica Stonebridge Lantern all folded up with some other bits and pieces for a swag walk.

In most conditions the lantern works pretty well. It easily takes UCO lantern candles, so beeswax or citronella candles are an option, and I have used cheap discount store-bought church candles in it too, which are a little thicker than the more expensive UCO candles. The supplier also sells specific candles for this lantern but I haven’t used them so I can’t comment on how they go.

Unfortunately it is designed in such a way that the thinner-than-usual mica windows wear a bit faster from normal folding and unfolding, but the good news is that the mica windows are easy to replace, maybe even easier than those on an Original Stonebridge lantern.

Probably the best points of this lantern, apart from the solid Kephartian vibe it gives off are that these are relatively cheap (if you live in the USA), availability is good, and there are even accessories available for them.

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Replica Stonebridge lantern shown here tied to the tarp ridge line during a recent swag walk.

At time of writing the only place you’ll find them is at Garrett Wade . If you’re outside the USA, then shipping on these is overpriced. When I bought mine a few years back, the shipping cost was more than the item itself, but that appears to have changed. As of September 2017, an Australian buyer would be looking at about A$50 for the lantern itself and then about A$30 postage, for a total of about A$80 shipped. The shipping cost is high, but they are the only game in town for a new-manufactured classic camping style folding candle lantern.

Are they worth it? If you can’t find a decent Swiss army surplus lantern, sure. If treated with care your kids and grandkids will be using this lantern.

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Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 5 – Eating

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In this picture showing the contents of the nosebag you can plainly see the eating equipment usually carried.

The swagman’s eating equipment is simple and  concise. I use vintage and vintage-style eating equipment. It consists of a tin plate, a silver-plated spoon, three-tine fork, bone handled butter knife sharpened to a razor edge and the quart pot’s pannikin.

As seen in the last post, the tin plate is a multiple-use item since it doubles as a frypan and hot plate. You could also use it as a pan for gold prospecting if you wish. It’s lightweight and easily slips down the side of the nosebag. Speaking of goldpanning, I have recently started using a 9 inch spun carbon steel gold pan as a plate/frypan/gold pan while swaggin’ it. It’s a bit heavier than the tin plate, but it has multiple uses. More on these in my forthcoming book On the Wallaby Track: A Swagman’s Handbook.

The spoon is probably antique, dating to at least the 1910s. It’s made of brass which has been silver plated. The silver plating is just a non-tarnish finish applied to the spoon, but it’s possible that there are health benefits to using silver or silver-plated utensils, which may be why they used them.

The three-tine fork is a Colonial-era item which could date back as far as the 1870s. It is carbon steel so it can rust and needs to be carefully dried before being placed in the nosebag after use. It has riveted wooden grip scales and a nice patina from more than a century of use.

The bone-handled knife is made from carbon steel and using a butcher’s steel, it comes up to a razor-sharp edge. As described in a previous post, this isn’t your mum’s butter knife, but it will butter damper quite nicely. The knife is multi-purpose and is a very effective carving knife and vegetable chopper.

Like the knife, the pannikin has already been described in a previous post. It is made from tinware and has folding wire handles. Like any tin cup, it can be placed on the fire to boil water when water is at a premium. Another type of tinware cup I use is a colonial-style tin cup which dates from at least the 1910s.  Since I am not sure whether the solder in this one contained lead, I use it very rarely, and never place it on the fire.

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Colonial-style tinware cup.

Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 6 – Water

A swaggie walking his circuit out west knew where the water was, and he also knew that when water was more than a day’s walk he’d have to carry his own supply. Usually a swagman would carry a flax water bag. This would not only allow him to carry 3 or 4 litres relatively easily, but the slightly porous nature of the bag meant the water was always cool. In fact, the hotter the day, the cooler the water. Other methods of carrying water were, in a 5 pint billycan with the lid tied on, or in a canteen or glass bottle on a shoulder strap.

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Water carriage options I use. In this picture you’ll see a homemade six pint water bag, a 950ml enamel water bottle, a 1200ml MkVI water bottle in a Pattern 03 leather carrier, and the quartpot filled for hand carry.

I don’t use a billycan to carry my water, since when I do carry one, it’s usually used to carry fresh food rather than water. A billycan packed with shredded stringybark lets you carry a half a dozen fresh chook’s eggs safely, even if the billy is tied off to your swag strap and the swag thrown around and sat upon. I use a water bag and I use canteens for water carriage on traditional trips.

My waterbag is six Imperial pints (approx 3.5 litres) and it is an army issue vehicle waterbag made in 1941. I have also made an exact replica of this bag using lighter weight canvas and it works perfectly well. The army water bag originally had a porcelain spout. This was a hygienic measure since many people would share the same water bag. I stupidly knocked my bag onto concrete and broke the spout not long after I acquired it, so I made my own spout out of a section of seasoned black wattle and bored a hole through it to accept a water bottle cork. It hasn’t let me down.

To prepare a flax water bag for use it’s necessary to first soak it for up to two days before hand to swell the fibres. I soak these in hot water since that not only swells the fibres, but it shrinks the bag a little as well. Both of these things make it hold water better.

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Flax water bag soaking for 24 hours before use. The soaking swells the fibres of the bag, making it hold water better, while still allowing seepage through the flax canvas.

The water bag is hand-carried. A pair of leather straps through the grommet-holes in the bag allow you to push a stick through the straps, which provides a perfect handhold.

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Stick used as a handle. Picture stolen from my other site – League of Bushmen

Canteens are also useful. Sometimes I will carry three canteens instead of a water bag. I tend to carry canteens in three main ways – on the belt, in the nosebag or on a shoulder strap. I have a pre-WWI US M1910 canteen which I carry in a belt pouch. It has a nesting cup which is almost identical to a modern Australian Army cups, canteen but it’s made of aluminium. I also have several Australian WWI/WWII enamel water bottles. The most oft-used of these is one set up for Light Horse use in a leather shoulder carrier. The design of the carrier makes it very easy to drink while on the go. It’s almost as easy as sipping from a modern-day Camelbak or similar hydration bladder.

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WWII enamel water bottle I actually found off the side of the track during a bushwalk a couple of years back. This one has since been restored with a wool cover and a new cork. Great water bottles, but being enameled steel, they are a lot heavier than the plastic or even aluminium equivalents.

Water purification is a topic which is important. Once you delve into the source material like I have, you read the old swaggies talking about drinking creek water with animal remains in it, stagnant, algae-packed ponds or even muddy puddles. That’s how it was usually done back in the day, but coming from an outdoor industry background, I prefer to treat my water. Getting a bad case of the “hurls and squirts” two days after you’ve drunk dodgy water isn’t my idea of fun, particularly if you’re halfway through a month-long swaggin’ it expedition. There were ways to purify water available to the swagmen of yesteryear and like today, they could be classified into three main types – filtering, boiling and chemical treatment.

Filtering was usually done with multiple layers of cotton such as a neckerchief or a knotted shirtsleeve.

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Milbank filter bag in action.

To filter I use a millbank filter bag, which is a 1940s-era invention. It is a canvas bag which is first soaked and then filled with water. When the water level reaches the marked line you place your quartpot under it and start collecting the filtered water. It’s only useful for removing mud and particulate matter. You still need to otherwise treat the water before drinking. The millbank filter can be made more effective by placing a couple of handfuls of fine sand inside.

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Quartpot on the boil. Canteens are ready to fill.

Boiling is the surest way to purify water. Conventional wisdom states that rolling-boiling your water for a minute will kill most of the bugs. To be 100% sure, keep a rolling boil for 10 minutes. If you haven’t filtered the water first, there are a couple of different ways to deal with muddy water or particulate matter. The easiest is to drop a few hefty pinches of fine wood ashes into the water as it’s boiling. The ashes will settle to the bottom of the quartpot or billy, taking the mud with it. You can simply pour the clear water off the top.

Chemical treatment is probably the most convenient. Even if you can’t filter or boil the water then and there, you can make it drinkable using chemicals. The most common chemical agent carried back in the day was condy’s crystals, otherwise known as potassium permanganate. These were a multi-purpose item, so it was worth carrying a small bottle of them. The efficacy of condy’s crystals for use as a water purifying agent isn’t all that good, especially if you need your water quickly. It takes up to 24 hours for a 1g per litre solution of condy’s crystals to kill the nasties. Boiling is quicker and more effective.

One area where condy’s crystals does work well is in removing taste and smell from foul water. If you boil water from a stagnant pool, it will still taste like it’s a stagnant pool. Add three or four individual condy’s crystals to a quartpot of water and the oxidation effects of the chemical will make the water more palatable within a few minutes.

Personally, when it comes to chemical water treatment, I use a modern-day option, Aquatabs, which are Sodium Dichloroisocyanurate tablets used at the rate of one tablet to a litre of water. Contact time is 30 minutes, after which time the water is safe to drink.