candles along path in the snow at night
December 30, 2022

Planning a Candlelight Event: A Friends Group Partner Primer

The winter nights are long and dark, but you can put a little light back into your life – and the lives of your neighbors – by holding a candlelight event! These popular events involve setting up candles or electric luminaries along pre-arranged pathways so that hikers or skiiers can traverse a park or trail by candlelight. Food and drink are sometimes also provided, and many Friends Groups who hold these events also take the opportunity to set up an informational booth for interested members of the public to learn more about their group.

We interviewed the Lake Louise State Park Association and Friends of Lake Maria State Park, two groups that have pulled off many successful candlelight events in the past. Their insights form the core of this primer. The major takeaway was that with some planning, some community assistance, and maybe a few bags of marshmallows, your Friends Group can make your own candlelight event a success.  

  • Make sure you have the right supplies. These are pretty simple: paper bags, candles or electric luminaries, sand to stabilize the lights in, reflective vests and flashlights for volunteers, and, if you’re feeling fancy, wood for a fire pit and some snacks, such as s’mores or apple cider. Whether you use lanterns or paper bags, take steps to ensure that they don’t catch fire – the last thing you want is for your lights to become tiny bonfires! 
  • Keep it simple. You don’t have to overthink assembly of the lanterns – just fill the containers you’re using 1/3 of the way full with sand or snow, stick the votive candles inside, and light them. 
  • Volunteers are critical. Getting enough help for your event is just as important as getting enough candles! Our interviewees recruited many of their additional volunteers from Girl and Boy Scout troops and National Honor Society students, as well as interested members of the public from nearby communities. Depending on what you have planned, you may need volunteers for: 
    • Assembly and placement of the lanterns, 
    • Directing visitors in the parking lot or on the trails, 
    • Monitoring lanterns during the walk, 
    • Manning informational booths and snack stations, and 
    • Coordinating transportation of visitors. 
  • Assign roles. Work out job descriptions for all your volunteers early on in the planning process, including for the “core group” of Friends members. Generally, student volunteers are assigned the task of filling paper bags with candles and sand and setting them along the path. You may also need a vehicle to transport these volunteers along the trail. 
  • Pick your date carefully. While it’s possible to hold a candlelight event in the autumn months, it requires additional patrolling to make sure that none of the leaf litter in the area catches fire. Holding your event after snow cover is on the ground is generally a bit safer. Our interviewees also said that, if possible, they generally chose a night with a full moon for maximum nighttime visibility. 
  • Plan ahead for any logistical issues. For outdoor events in a state famous for its temperamental weather, it is prudent to have a few backup plans. What will you do if it rains? How do you make sure that your candles don’t post a fire risk? Will you need a place for attendees to warm up after they finish their walk? Work with your group to map out any of these potential issues ahead of time so that you can pull off your event in style.  
  • Thank your volunteers. These events take time and energy, and you are more likely to get volunteers to return for your next candlelight event if you recognize their efforts. This can be as simple as ordering pizza or holding a post-event volunteer appreciation lunch. 
  • Get creative! There are many ways to put your own spin on this type of event! You can choose a short route or a long one, illuminated by real flames or the glow of electric luminaries. You can set up a warming station, an informational booth, or a fire pit to roast marshmallows over. It can be a ski-based event or an event that takes place on foot. You know best what would suit the environment of your park or trail. 

Minnesota is famous for its winters. For at least four months of the year, we endure short, chilly days and long, snowy nights. But this doesn’t have to mean the end of our outdoor adventures, and a candlelight event can be a way for your Friends Group to show even the most winter-averse resident that there is still fun to be had after the snow starts falling.  

With thanks to the Lake Louise State Park Association, the Friends of Lake Maria State Park, the Friends of Minneopa State Park, and the Friends of Maplewood State Park. Photo credit goes to the Friends of Wild River.

About Phoebe Ward