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Gear talk: the UCO candle lantern

UCO Original+LED Candle Lantern and Original Candle Lantern
UCO Original+LED Candle Lantern and Original Candle Lantern

Three Points of the Compass has a lingering fondness for this piece of ‘old school’ technology. Undoubtably these lanterns still have a place today, if only as a means of embracing old technology that complements new. The UCO lantern is powered by… candle.

Lanterns hanging from the roof of Hilleberg Keron 3GT in the Lake District. Primus Micron far end and UCO Candle Lantern with reflector nearest
Lanterns hanging from roof of Hilleberg Keron 3GT in the Lake District. Primus Micron far end and UCO Candle Lantern with Pac-Flat top reflector nearest

The UCO Corporation, pronounced “you-co”, stands for Utility, Comfort, and Originality. They were founded in Redmond, Washington in 1971 and started out manufacturing metal parts, such as ski boot buckles, for K2, JanSport, and Boeing. Their first truly successful product was the ‘Original Candle Lantern’, introduced in 1981. They are US distributors for Light My Fire, Mora knives and Esbit and purchased Pedco in 2008. The UCO Corporation became Industrial Revolution in 2005.

Big Oak candle lantern
Japanese made Big Oak flip top candle lantern

Small collapsible candle lanterns have been around for a quite a while. Even Trangia produced a couple in the 1970s/80s- Trangia Candle Lantern No. 82 and No. 83. The UCO [original] candle lantern is the current incarnation of what was formerly the 144g USA made Northern Lights Alpine 2 ‘Compact Candle Lantern’, which was also rebadged for REI and other retailers. Poorer quality Alpine Candle Lanterns were also made in China. Better quality Northern Lights candle lanterns were originally made in Japan. Those in turn were a variant on the flip top Big Oak candle lanterns, possibly even based out of the same manufacturing facility in Japan. The UCO nine-hour candles also fit Northern Lights lanterns, not that you will see one often.

Japanese made Northern Lights flip top candle lantern
Japanese made Northern Lights flip top candle lantern

The design and build of the UCO candle lanterns appears to be simple but has some rather clever touches. There is a metal body with a slide down-able glass chimney that protects the candle from breezes. This chimney couldn’t slide down on earlier models and was a welcome design change that permitted easier lighting. The candle is inserted into the base of the lantern, into the bottom of a narrow metal tube from which the wick protrudes at the top. This is pushed up as it burns by a thin spring. Fumes and heat escape from the open top surrounding a metal cap (that can get very hot). There really isn’t much to go wrong with these lanterns other than breaking them through punishment or carelessness. The whole thing collapses in on itself when stored or transported and the glass chimney is protected from breakage by the metal sprung surround and body. There is a sight window in the side of the main body through which the amount of remaining candle can be seen. Lighting them is simple, slide the glass chimney down, light the candle, slide the chimney back up.

UCO candle lanterns
UCO candle lanterns
UCO Candelier three-candle lantern
UCO Candlelier three-candle lantern

UCO Candlelier lantern:

In addition to a single-candle ‘Original’ lantern, once also branded as the ‘Classic’ series, UCO have produced a three-candle Candlelier version and two small lanterns for tea lights. The Candlelier (introduced 1998) is very large, and I am simply not the market for it, though I am sure it may suit those groups car camping that want to sit around of an evening with some pleasant warm light from one or more of these. The Candlelier burn up to three of the expensive UCO candles at a time and this could prove costly over time. It is possible to boil a mug of water on top of this lantern.

Coghlans tea light lantern
Coghlans tea light lantern

There have been many little lanterns produced for tea lights over the years such as that from Coghlans. I see examples on AliExpress being sold for just a couple of pounds. But a tea light is so small, light and inherently stable that I have never felt the need to purchase a dedicated lantern for one.

UCO Micro tea light lantern
UCO Micro tea light lantern

UCO Mini and Micro lanterns:

There are (or have been) two tea light candle lanterns made by UCO, The Micro and the Mini. The Micro (introduced 2011) is the smallest candle lantern UCO have made and also collapses in on itself for storage and transport while also providing space for a second tea light candle to be stored in the base.

UCO Mini tea light lantern
UCO Mini tea light lantern

The UCO Mini candle lantern (introduced 1996) does not collapse and does not have room for a second candle to be stored underneath but up to six tea lights can be put inside the lantern for transport but have to be removed entirely during use. Both (up to) four-hour and eight-hour tea lights can be used in both of these lanterns. The Micro is now discontinued but new old stock may still be available from retailers or used examples from auction sites. One problem common to most tea light lanterns, including both Micro and Mini is that the melted wax in tea lights is very easy to spill out of the lantern if it is moved or knocked. The Original candle lantern from UCO does a much better job of preventing spills outside the lantern. You can see in the image below that I have wax from various candles splattered across the inside of my +LED lantern’s glass. It doesn’t affect performance much, but it needs a bit of a clean-up. I’ll cover maintenance of a candle lantern in another post.

UCO Candle Lantern + LED, with neoprene UCO cocoon case behind
UCO Candle Lantern+LED, with neoprene UCO cocoon case behind
UCO Original Candle Lantern

Three Points of the Compass has used a couple of Original UCO lanterns over the years. These have been the Original Candle Lantern, and the Original Candle Lantern+LED (also marketed as the UCO Duo). The weight of my Original is 132g and my Original+LED is 146g, or 163g with the optional 17g LED fitted (with two CR2032 button batteries fitted). At 213g with 50g candle this is slightly heavier than the Original without LED (186g with 50g candle). The Original lantern made of brass weighs 249g with 50g candle). Dimensions of the +LED model are 180mm x 50mm when open and 120mm x 50mm when closed, though I keep mine in a 45g neoprene cocoon for safety. The Original is a little shorter at 109mm when collapsed. There is a short chain and hook fixed to a wire bail for hanging it. Earlier models of the Original )like mine) had a wire bail handle, but no chain. When collapsed the wire bail flips round to the underside of the lantern to keep it closed. The bail on the +LED version is 12mm longer than the Original without LED. There are a couple of rather nice lantern accessories, but I’ll cover them in another post.

The performance of the little battery light clipped beneath the base of my Lantern+LED model has been left trailing by general advances in this type of technology and UCO have now abandoned this addition, instead concentrating on the basic ‘Original’ model. The plastic LED can simply be unclipped from the base of the lantern and left at home anyway.

The UCO candle lanterns have been available in various finishes- aluminum, brass, painted (red, yellow, blue, green, black) and anodised (red, green, black). The 2022 range included original aluminum and powder-coated red, yellow, green and black. UCO branding has altered over the years and now differs from my older +LED example. Almost all that UCO do is to simply update the stickers applied to the side of the lantern. The lanterns have also been rebranded for many gear retailers, as well as being illegally cloned. Most clones will not have the spring loading to the candle while OEM products for a third party, will still have the UCO name on the base. There is also a slightly heavier brass version. This is rather lovely, but more expensive and I never purchased one as it does exactly the same job as the lighter aluminum lanterns, and I wanted a lighter lantern for backpacking purposes. UCO lamps are now made in China and reviews suggest quality may be suffering as a result. Much as I would now like to buy a brass version, reviewers suggest the present ones are of poorer quality than those from a few years back.

Current UCO branding
Recent UCO branding on lanterns. No mention that the design was developed in Japan and parts are now made in China.

A candle lantern is ideally suited to emergency preparedness and campsite use. It can be used in cold conditions that will sap a battery and candles are shelf safe for decades, though they may melt if left in a hot vehicle. Candles are widely available across the world and if the bespoke nine-hour candles are not available, then the two smaller sizes of UCO lantern will accommodate tea light candles, found just about everywhere.

Detachable LED light in base of UCO candle lantern has a built in wire stand
Detachable LED light in base of UCO candle lantern has a built in wire stand
UCO LED has a very modest lumen compared to just about anything produced now
UCO LED has a very modest lumen compared to just about anything produced now

The bespoke UCO candles have always been a bit of a bugbear for users of these lanterns. Standard candles do not fit, and UCO candles are pricey. Some people have had success shaving down cheaper candles to fit while silicone moulds can also be purchased to make your own. I cannot be bothered with that and have always just bought the official UCO product at the cheapest price I can find. These come in packs of three, twelve or twenty-four. The ‘official’ UCO candles are designed especially for these lanterns, and it is possible to buy three different types. The standard white candle burns for six-nine hours depending on conditions. There are also blue candles with added citronella that also burn for up to nine hours but give off a slight scent that, in theory at least, discourage mozzies, midges and whatever. Almost all of the UCO candles need their cotton wick trimming before use. Just snip a bit off, leaving around 1/4″.

Nine-hour candles from Olicamp for both UCO and Northern Light lanterns. Image form Ebay
Older nine-hour candles from Olicamp for both UCO and Northern Light lanterns. Image: Ebay
The three types of 'official' candle for the UCO Candle Lantern
The three types of ‘official’ candle for the UCO Candle Lantern
Winter camping on the Elham Valley Way. The UCO candle lantern provides warmth as well as light
Winter camping on the Elham Valley Way in Eureka Wiki-Up SUL 3 pyramid shelter. The UCO Candle Lantern+LED above me provided a little warmth as well as light. Another factor to be considered with a candle lantern is that it actually reduces condensation in a tent as a result of the raised temperature. 

A third alternative is the 100% beeswax candle. These natural wax candles burn cleaner than the paraffin candles and for longer too- 12 to 15 hours, though the beeswax candles are the most expensive of the three. Note that many beeswax candles sold from third parties are not 100% beeswax and will have cheaper additives. UCO candles weigh around 50g each and provide around 1900 BTU and 20 lumen.

A UCO candle lantern can certainly knock out some heat in a small space. A small tent is easily warmed by five degrees or more. The amount of extra heat produced varies almost entirely by how much of a breeze there is. Sufficient ventilation is an absolute requirement with these candle lanterns. Also, the light from a candle is something to enjoy, the flickering light touches something deep inside I think, reminiscent in a small way to watching the flickers of a wood fire. If you are planning on using a candle lantern in a tent, do be aware that the melting point of DCF is far lower than nylon or polyester. Considerable care needs to be practiced.

The Original lantern works fine unless it gets knocked or bounces around a bit too much. The candles burn well, pushed up by the spring below as each is used. There is an opening at the top of the inner metal tube and the molten wax below the flame pools there. If the lantern is knocked awry however, the wax can spill, either preventing the spring pushing up the candle and resulting in it extinguishing or burning poorly, or splashes over the glass chimney.

A gentle light emitting from candle wax be splattered UCO lantern
A gentle light emitting from my candle wax splattered UCO lantern

As a demonstration on the practicality of candles, admittedly from a good few years ago. When John Merrill completed his ten-month, 7000-mile circumnavigation of the British coastline in 1978, he went through thirty Blacks’ ‘longlife’ candles for both cooking and lighting, each burned for eight hours, and Merrill believed them better than torches. Not that there was any such thing as decent LED lighting or battery powerbanks available to the lightweight backpacker back then.

UCO used to produce replacement burners for the Original and Candlelier lanterns that burned lamp oil but those have been discontinued. There are alternative oil inserts from third-party suppliers, often Chinese made. Quality will vary and while some get very poor reviews- leaking or poor burning for example, other users have been more positive. Some enterprising folk have made their own. I’ll look at one of these little web-purchased oil burning inserts in another post.

The UCO candle lantern is old-school, it is larger and heavier than miniscule LED lights, it has to be used with care and is a bit ‘clunky’, I love both of mine. Though neither venture out on trail unless the nights are long and the temperature low.

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