Outdoor lighting is a common topic for anyone who does anything outside their home once the sun starts to set. Enter outdoor string lights. These Edison-bulb style lighting options are widely used -- not only for general outdoor lighting, but also accent and mood lighting or just for decoration. You'll find them at your neighbor's home, but also at restaurants and other public venues. I'll break down the best and the worst for different use cases here, so let's get started.
There are two main categories I'm highlighting here: standard AC-powered lights and solar-battery combination units. Most solar options offer less brightness output than their AC powered counterparts. That isn't all that surprising, but definitely something you should consider if you're wanting a non-hardwired solution.
In addition, most of these units have standard "white" light output of varying color temperatures (warm versus cold or that "yellowish" light versus the bright white light) but a few offer color-changing options. Overall I can say that these types of patio or outdoor string lights have come a long way since LED integrations have become standard, and there are lots of great options, but there are major differences in the end result of the product, and it's often tough to tell what that will be until you have it home and turned on. But that's why you're here, right? Let's delay no further.
This set has the most attractive bulb of the bunch, in my opinion. The bulbs feel heavier duty than the other options because, rather than being a thin clear plastic shell of a bulb, they're partially filled in to create a visual with inset air bubbles. This adds to the look and the feel of the light set and immediately made me feel like they were of superior quality when compared to most of the other units.
Enbrighten also ended up with the third brightest light output per bulb, according to our testing. They were initially the most expensive set I picked up, but have since dropped $30 on Amazon, making them a great value for someone looking for great quality.
The Amazon page lists several models, including smart plugs and dimmers. Enbrighten says these lights have a linkable length of up to 750 feet (about 20 strands total) and a warm, soft light output at 2,700K.
Doubling down on my earlier sentiments, I didn't love any of the solar light options. But as far as the options I had to work with, this Hampton Bay set seriously outperformed the competitors. Solar performance still comes at a price, however. These lights were the most expensive per-bulb option on my list -- nearly doubling the runner up at $6 a bulb.
A single strand of these lights won't do much for you if you're looking for a light night hideaway for catching up on your most recent book adventure, but if you don't have any options for hard-wired power, these are still likely your best bet.
Generally, the solar options are outfitted with a dusk-to-dawn sensor that controls their operation, and additionally, Hampton Bay offers a manual override to turn on or off at your discretion. The lithium ion rechargeable batteries in this set are also replaceable.
If you're truly looking for "value" and not just the cheapest option, I would recommend checking out Magitec. These lights tested as the second brightest bulbs overall, and this particular offering is for a two pack of these light strands. So double the linear coverage at 96 feet versus the next longest single strand at 48 feet.
Magitec sports all the standard options -- hanging hooks, IP65 rated water resistant seals, shatterproof, dimmable, LED bulbs. We measured these bulbs with a lumen output of about 165 per bulb. Buying 30 total sockets means you're getting close to 5,000 lumens total. That is some serious light output.
These bulbs come out to $2.33 a bulb, which puts them in the lower (cheaper) half of the list overall as far as price goes. Now, based solely on the cost per bulb, Feit Electric comes through as cheapest in this category at $1.86 a bulb for this 15-bulb strand. Other than its value, this set isn't particularly impressive. The light output on this unit is about 40 lumens per bulb for a total output of approximately 600 lumens -- the second lowest for our AC powered options. These are also one of the only incandescent options we tested. That means more energy used to run these than the comparable LED options. But, if you're looking for light coverage on the cheap, this is a good option.
These lights are one of the more expensive per-bulb sets, and their performance overall is just above average. However, if you're a fan of mood lighting by way of color options, these may be the lights for you. You can control the light colors and modes via the included remote control, or there is also a control button near the plug on the power cord.
The colors look good, and these lights are pretty bright too. I measured these bulbs at about 80 lumens each, and with 18 total lights, that makes for nearly 1,500 lumens per strand, and you can link up to four sets for a total of nearly 6,000 lumens.
I personally am not a fan of colored lights peeking out from every corner, but for those who are, you'll be hard pressed to find a better option.
These lights by Coleman, which are aimed at campers, are unlike all the other lights I tested.
To start, they aren't solar powered, but they do run off a rechargeable 4.8 amp-hour lithium ion battery. Onesource is Coleman's single battery to charge a host of camping equipment -- including the likes of lights, fans and air mattress pumps. One nifty perk is that the batteries include a USB-A charging port for your portable phones and the like.
Instead of hanging downward like the traditional Edison-bulb style options, the light capsules are in-line with the nylon braided power cord, which is outfitted with the occasional plastic hook to hang from. This helps keep the intrusion into your limited tent space to a minimum.
The lights are dimmable, and aren't super bright, but there's enough light, especially in an enclosed tent space, to keep you from tripping over every single thing, or person, inside the tent with you. They'd offer some nice ambiance in an outdoor space, but again, not enough light to be super helpful for seeing much out in the open.
You can read more about my testing process below, but the main thing you need to know is that these Brightech lights are the brightest of the bunch.
These bulbs topped out at nearly 200 lumens each, about 15% and 30% more light output than the second and third place bulbs, respectively. At 15 bulbs, you're looking at close to 3,000 lumens for one strand of lights.
The included LED bulbs are made of glass -- so they feel durable with a nice weight to them, but they aren't shatterproof like some of the other models. Another aspect of these lights that will attract some people is the fact that the cord attached to these bulbs is white. Most units have a black cord, so some people specifically seek out ones that are white.
Other products we've tested
: Mentioned above as an alternative to the best value pick, Feit Electric offers the cheapest per-bulb offering in our AC powered outdoor string lights. The only incandescent product we tested, they scored in the lower half of units for brightness, but again, if you're just looking to cover areas with lights for bottom dollar, here's your pick.
: Originally listed at $14, they're currently on sale for $1.20. That's the good news. The bad news is most everything else. Since they are solar powered, they're intended to be used outdoors, but they're very small, and had by far the lowest light output of all tested units. Even taking into consideration all 15 bulbs, the total light output would be about a tenth (3 lumens) of what you'd get from the iPhone in your pocket at 30 lumens.
: Another big markdown to $2 from $20. I give these a little more value than the $1.20 set listed above, but not much. The bulbs are larger, but don't seem to be super durable. Still on solar power, so intended for outdoors, but not bright enough for much use other than decoration. They're four times as bright as that globe set, but at a total of 8 lumens, that phone in your pocket is still more than three times as bright.
: These lights are fine -- they performed at or just below the median in our light output tests. The price, however, is still on the higher side, currently tied as the most expensive AC powered set.
: As I said before, I'm not much of a fan of any of these solar options. The bulbs with this kit do feel a bit more durable than those of the solar category winner, Hampton Bay, however, the main power cable is beefier with Hampton Bay. The light output is still fairly low, and cost per bulb is still a bit more than the AC powered options, with much less light.
: Another OK set. The price is average, performance is average to below-average and the durability is so-so. There are better options.
How we test outdoor string lights
There's a lot of hands-on evaluation that goes into this product category. One of the main reasons for that is the bulbs themselves. It's difficult, if not impossible, to use a product's specs or photos to get a feel for how durable you can expect the bulbs to be. Sometimes you'll get lucky with a "shatterproof" notation in the description, but not always.
Another bulb aspect to consider is the physical connection. Some of these come preinstalled and you can't replace them yourself. Some are preinstalled and can be removed. But most bulbs, in my experience, come packaged separately for you to install yourself. Most of the time, that isn't a problem. But occasionally, since these products all attempt to have a waterproof seal, the bulbs can be difficult to install. A couple of times I found myself gripping and twisting the small bulbs hard enough that I was concerned they might shatter in my hands. None did, but it might be worthwhile to have a pair of gloves on hand if you find yourself in the same situation.
Overall, the main concern with most lights is how much light they put out. In the past, for some of our standard light bulb testing, we've used an integrating sphere. That type of equipment can get you a ton of information for a light source, including brightness in lumens, color rendering index and more. Read more about.
For this category, I was specifically interested in brightness. Unfortunately, these string lights can't be tested in our integrating sphere, but with some fancy math wizardry, I changed the calculations we needed from a sphere to a linear path and came up with a workable solution. Using a standard digital light meter, I was able to get an approximation of each bulb's light output in lumens.
Looking at the chart above, you can see the brightness of both one individual bulb from each strand, as well as the total brightness of the entire strand from the solar and battery powered options. The Real Living bulbs were dim. Hampton Bay has the brightest individual bulb, while Coleman says the brightest strand in this series overall because of a higher bulb count.
In the AC powered options shown below, Brightech carries the brightest individual bulb at about 196 lumens. Multiply that by 15 bulbs and you nearly hit 3,000 lumens. Magitec wins brightest overall with 30 bulbs at 165 lumens, for a total of almost 5,000 lumens. To be fair, Magitec offers two strands for the price of one, so one individual strand would actually be about 2,500 lumens -- about 500 less than a single Brightech strand.
Frequently asked questions about outdoor string lights
What is the best way to hang outdoor string lights?
The best way to hang outdoor string lights is by using a light suspension kit. The mistake most people make is using the main power wire to attach as the hanging points. You shouldn't do that since there will be live voltage flowing through that cable, so instead, this kit offers coated wire to attach to the buildings or trees where you want to hang the lights. The lights themselves have hanging hooks or eyes where you can thread the hanging wire through, taking all the tension off the powered wire.
Can you hang outdoor string lights indoors?
Outdoor string lights can be hung indoors, but the opposite isn't true. There's a specific distinction for outdoor string lights because they normally meet the IP65 rating, meaning they're resistant to water jets at any angle, which is helpful for rain and similar weather conditions. This rating, however, doesn't mean the lights are waterproof or submergible.
Is it safe to leave outdoor string lights on for days or weeks at a time?
Generally speaking, yes. You can think of outdoor string lights the same as the bulbs you'd use inside your house. Some will be incandescent and some will be LED. The incandescent bulbs will normally run much hotter than LED bulbs. Incandescent bulbs also have a significantly shorter lifespan, so while you can leave them on for weeks at a time, you'll need to replace the bulbs much sooner.
How often do bulbs generally need replacing?
Generally speaking, you can think of the bulbs in an outdoor string light set the same way you'd think of the bulbs you'd use inside your house. Some will be incandescent and some will be LED. The incandescent bulbs should have a significantly shorter lifespan than their LED counterparts. The included packaging for these should include an estimated lifespan, but LED bulbs are regularly rated at 20 years. In some special cases where advanced features are involved, replacing bulbs may not be an option.