[2020] Off-Grid Lights & Lighting Options

We’ve lived in an off-grid yurt in southern Vermont since the spring of 2016 and have used a few different lighting options. Maybe you’re looking for off-grid lights for a cabin, a hunting camp, a tiny house, a van, or whatever the next iteration of off-grid living might be. Regardless of your unique situation, this post outlines and summarizes your off-grid lighting options. In writing this, I assume that you’re not living in a full-size off grid house—meaning I assume you don’t have a large power supply (solar, wind, etc.), because in that case you’re probably already wired for traditional lighting.

string of LED lights in off-grid yurt
The string LED lights we use in our off-grid yurt.

The four basic options for off-grid lights are:

  1. Solar-powered lights
  2. Battery-powered lights
  3. Gas- or oil-powered lights
  4. Preindustrial lighting (i.e., candles)

Below, I’ll outline the specifics for each of these lighting options.

1. Solar-Powered Lights for Off-Grid

First up (unsurprisingly) are solar lights, and these can take two different forms: self-contained solar lights and lights that use a solar-charged battery to power the lights. In the course of our off-grid years, we’ve used both.

Solar Powered Lights and Lanterns

Self-contained solar powered lights are the easiest of these two options, and also are the most affordable. Basically you can buy individual lights that each have their own built-in solar charger and small battery. You can buy as many or as few as you need to light your space. Because it is one of the cheaper options, this is what we first started with when we went off-grid. Specifically, we had a handful of MPOWERD camping lanterns:

One downside is that the small batteries may not store as much power as you would like, or store for as long. But, one advantage to this approach is that you can get a few extras and cycle through them to ensure you have enough light when you need it. We lived a full year using this approach.

LED Lights

Ultimately we wanted to upgrade for brighter lights and longer battery life, especially in the winter months of long dark days. LED lights are extremely efficient, and so can be run even with a small solar panel and battery setup. For the simplest solution, we opted for a Goal Zero Yeti 400 battery paired with 180W in solar panels from PowerFilm Solar in Iowa. This is a simple option because the Goal Zero battery is self-contained and plug-and-play. There is no dealing with charge controllers and inverters, because it’s all built into the battery. From this small battery we use strings of LED lights, which are technically “outdoor” lights. Each bulb in these strings uses only 1 watt:

AND: We’ve never tried these, but it looks like if you want to do LED string lights, but don’t want to invest in a solar panel and battery, there is a self-contained string light option:

2. Battery-Powered Lights for Off-Grid

The second option, if you don’t want to rely on solar, or don’t want to invest in a solar battery setup, is battery-powered lights.

Camping Lights or Lanterns

We’ve also used battery powered lanterns, though mainly for outdoor lighting. Like all the other options, there are cheap models and more expensive models. In our experience, the more affordable lanterns work just fine.

Camping Headlamps

It’s definitely worth having a few camping headlamps in your mix of lighting. Even with our solar battery and LED lights, we still use headlamps every day. We use them when we go outside at night to head to the outhouse or as light when we need to grab more firewood in the winter. They’re also handy to have inside when you don’t want to use your main light source, whether it’s just getting up in the middle of the night or reading a book in bed. As with the lanterns above, there are cheap options and more expensive options. And as with the lanterns, we’ve been perfectly satisfied with the affordable and mid-range headlamp options. We have also had more expensive headlamps, and in our experience they have the same performance and same lifespan as the cheaper models.

3. Gas- or Oil-Powered Lights for Off-Grid

These are your more rustic options for off grid lighting and require that you keep fuel on hand. They also require that you consider safety a bit more, meaning both the flame involved and what they’re putting into the air, especially if you live in a small space.

Kerosene or Paraffin Lamps

Indoor oil lanterns are old-school, and quite aesthetically pleasing. Personally I wouldn’t use kerosene lamps in a small enclosed space because of the smell, but we do follow someone on Instagram who lives in a van and safely uses paraffin oil for their lamps.

Propane Lights

If you have an off grid cabin and can mount lights on the walls, you could opt for propane lights, which are common in some off-grid homes we’ve seen here in Vermont. It does require running lines to deliver the propane, so it just depends on your preferences and longer-term goals. Relying on propane wouldn’t be my first choice, but maybe it’s your most realistic option if you don’t get good sun exposure, or have long dark winters, or need enough light that batteries would be too expensive to constantly replace.

4. Primitive or Pre-Industrial Lights for Off-Grid (Candles)

All of the above options require industrial input, whether in the direct use of gas to power the lights or in the indirect use of fossil fuels to manufacture the involved technologies of solar and batteries. If you want to avoid this reliance on the industrial economy, or if you just want backup light in case of emergency, you can always opt for primitive lighting.

Which is all just to say, don’t forget about candles!

Whatever off-grid lighting option you decide, we do recommend keeping candles on hand. They’re quite romantic for a late night dinner, and quite useful in case of emergency or if any other systems fail.

Summary Recommendation

In the end, we recommend a mix of lighting to meet individual off-grid needs: a main source like LED lights, with supplemental light in the form of headlamps.

And if you don’t want to shop on Amazon, most of these items can be found at retailers like:

Backcountry.com
Cabela’s
L.L. Bean
Gander Outdoors
Home Depot