The soft glow of the California coast
May 10, 2017 2:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm having a small summer gathering on a primitive campsite. How can we make the space more welcoming/communal without a fire?

I'm taking a small group of friends up to MontaƱa de Oro State Park for a weekend getaway in about a month's time. Because we're booked in one of their "Environmental" (primitive) campsites, we're not allowed to build a fire, but it is relatively secluded and private compared to the traditional sites. I'd like your ideas on how to make our site festive and welcoming after dark, without the benefit of a traditional campfire. (And any ideas on generating communal warmth would be welcome as well!)

We are Burning Man types, so colorful LED outdoor furniture is definitely within our aesthetic. Items should run either off of solar, batteries, or any source of power that can be converted to USB (like these Ankers).

(And, yes, as an outdoorsy group of hikers and campers, we certainly plan to appreciate the environmental site on its own merits - there will be a "lights out" curfew so we can enjoy the stars and the evening sky - but earlier on we'd like to make some food and have a festive little shindig.)
posted by mykescipark to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
We have a bunch of these inflatable and solar-powered LED lanterns for camping, and they're quite splendid.
posted by rtha at 3:20 PM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

We have one of these LED lanterns to light up the inside of our tent after dark if necessary, and it works wonderfully. I don't know if the weight of your gear is a concern or not (backpacking vs. car camping) but it's quite light and folds up to occupy very little space. We love it.

Keep in mind that in a month's time, you'll be very close to the longest day of the year and it will be noticeably light out until nearly 9:00 pm, the hour affectionately known as "hiker's midnight." Maybe you won't need as much artificial light as you think?

How close will the nearest campsite to you be? I'm sure your immediate neighbors would be very appreciative if you were wrapping up your evening festivities not terribly much later than full dark, given how late it happens in mid-June. Lots of artificial light could easily spoil the stargazing opportunities of the folks at campsites near you.
posted by jesourie at 3:43 PM on May 10, 2017

Get a portable outdoor battery pack and bring along strings of white or colored LED lights that you can hang from tents and trees. If an outdoor battery seems expensive just for ambience, it has a lot of other more practical applications (including keeping it in your car for jumping a battery that has unexpectedly gone dead).
posted by tully_monster at 3:43 PM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

A lot of campsites will allow propane fireplaces. Campfire in a Can can work, as well as any propane fire pit from a hardware store. I fulltime RV and having one has been surprisingly awesome. Check with the park. Usually if you are allowed to BBQ, you are allowed to have a propane fire. They give off heat as well.
posted by Vaike at 3:45 PM on May 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Get yourself a faux campfire! Yes, it's plug-in, but you could run it off a jump box.
posted by erst at 4:03 PM on May 10, 2017

We use those inflatable lanterns rtha linked in and near our pool (which has a crap light), and they're really good - I prefer the frosted ones because I haaaaate looking directly into a bright LED bulb, or of course you could make your own housing.

We also have these teensy wire solar lights in our non-functional firepit. They don't throw much light, but that also means they don't show their wires either, so it's kind of a mystical effect when you have them in 3D configurations.

I also have these sturdy USB lights, which are magnetic and can be tied to things and also stuffed inside their bag (or a new better bag) to be a lantern. They are very bright and cool-white, which I hate, but it comes in real handy near the grill or cooler when you're trying to find something.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:37 PM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am a little obsessed with our campsite lighting.

Do you have trees? If you have trees I'd get a couple solar string lights. And while I love my fancy lights they are really pricey. I think I would get a case of the dollar store solar lights to surround your camping chairs. They don't last year after year but they will be good for our event.
If you'd like to do string lights You could task everyone with bringing a long sharpened stick to use as posts for the string lights. Small wire ties might help put in setting up.
Also campfires are not allowed but you could do candles in mason jars on the picnic table. Also a small table for the center of your seating for drinks, snacks, and a few of those mason jars.

And for warmth? I'd do awesome warm drinks. Hot Whiskey, cocoa and Kahlua, etc.
posted by ReluctantViking at 4:39 PM on May 10, 2017

I have used a 5 gallon drinking water carboy as a candle lantern by fashioning a hole in the bottom that fit a danish taper from TJs that self extinguish , was a hit because the soft glow from a single candle wasn't fazed by the pernicious winds we experienced that evening .
posted by hortense at 5:01 PM on May 10, 2017

Costco also generally has good deals on LED candles, complete with flicker.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:05 PM on May 10, 2017

At a campout last fall during a fire ban, some friends of mine tossed a couple strands of solar-rechargeable tiny-LEDs-on-wires (similar to what Lyn Never linked to up above) into the campfire pit. They created a nice pit of glow for people to gather around (with extra jackets to substitute for the warmth of a fire), and cast enough light to make out who you were talking to without lighting up the whole area too much. Having so many tiny point sources makes things almost twinkle, and helps give it a more diffuse overall look.
posted by JiBB at 12:50 AM on May 11, 2017

Candle lanterns made for camping are pretty nice.
posted by colfax at 1:30 AM on May 11, 2017

Like colfax recommends, there are also three candle versions (like this one). We're avid VW campers and have two single candle and one three candle camp lantern. They're a much softer light (and lower heat) than liquid fuel lanterns, and we've been using our for years along the CA coast. They don't give a hoot about the wind.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:02 AM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've been wondering about this kind of thing myself.

The candle lanterns people have suggested seem like a nice touch. We usually set up a big candle table at a festival we attend every year - maybe you could rig a smaller-scale-and-safer variation on that with a collection of lanterns. Cover your surface in foil and you get extra shiny. (A mylar emergency blanket artfully arranged might also make for a neat effect.)

Re: warmth, you could distribute some hand warmers, although I suppose that's not terribly communal. Large, share-able blankets?
posted by brennen at 11:17 AM on May 11, 2017

LED solar string lights are festive. When I go camping I take both solar and battery LED string lights in case I forget to charge the solar ones. For warmth, I'd have a camp stove and kettle or a great thermos with hot water, and decaf/ herbal teas, as well as my personal favorite, lemonade powder, so I can make hot lemonade with bourbon. Mulled wine is nice, too. I use an old scout canteen as a hot water bottle, at home or camping, and it's a very effective personal warming device. Suggest campers bring a camp blanket and a camp chair. Establish a campfire ring, even if there is no fire, because sitting around telling stories is a big part of the fun. I have conflicted feelings about recommending a tablet with a video of a flickering fire. Some string lights and some red/ orange/ yellow cellophane would help set the tone. Make sure you have some good sky /star map apps. Sounds like a great trip. Have fun.
posted by theora55 at 11:47 AM on May 12, 2017

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