Design Holidays & Celebrations

12 Pro Tips for Hanging Holiday Lights Outdoors

How many holiday lights do you need in order to illuminate your home’s exterior, and how can you hang them safely? Here’s how to put together a light display that’s the envy of the neighborhood.
Gretchen Heber Avatar
A row of houses decorated with bright colored christmas lights.


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Whether you’re battling with the neighbors for the best holiday lighting display or want to hang outdoor lights for the first time, it’s best to have a plan when it comes time to adorn your house and property with holiday illuminations. Review, assess, organize, make safety a top priority, and you’ll be set to light up the block. Get the specifics below for a can’t-fail display.

1. Assess the Lights You Have on Hand

A close up of a cluster of christmas lights gathered together in storage

Climb into the attic, or dust off those plastic tubs in the garage. Dig around to find the lights you’ve used in years past, and see what condition they’re in. Make sure you pay attention to whether particular lights are rated for outdoor use. Read manufacturer recommendations to determine the number of lights you can safely string together. Plug them in to make sure they work; replace spent bulbs. Consider the quantity of incandescent strings vs. LED strings you have. Do you want to switch all of your lights to LED since the color quality is different?

RELATED: Buyer’s Guide: The Best Outdoor Christmas Lights 

2. Measure The Lengths You’ll Cover

A woman in a grey winter hat holds string lights up to the exterior wall and windows to hang them.

Measure the lengths or perimeters of the features of your home you plan to decorate, such as windows, door frames, fences, and railings, and make note of the location of the power source or extension cord. Remember, you will need more (or longer) strands if you plan on winding them around posts or plants. Consider using net lights for bushes and shrubs, which takes the guesswork out of how many strands are needed to cover the branches.

3. Create a Master Plan

Night view of a Luxury Home with Christmas Lights

Take a photograph of your house, or stand in the street, to evaluate which elements would benefit most from lighting. Consider accentuating your home’s unique architectural features by stringing lights along eaves, pillars, posts, windows, and doors. Also decide which bushes, trees, lamp posts, window boxes, and planters you might illuminate to add to your overall display. Finally, think about appropriate lighting for paths and stand-alone figures.

4. Go 3-D

Front yard of small house with Christmas decorations in front yard at twlight, with reindder and tree lights.

String lights are certainly versatile and beautiful, but a walk down store aisles reveals a wide variety of holiday lighting types: Icicles, globes, snowflakes, waterfalls, starbursts—a wonderland of shapes and styles awaits clever decorators who are looking for something a little bit different. Some of these styles look particularly stunning hanging in trees.

RELATED: Buyer’s Guide: The Best Christmas Light Projectors We Tested This Year

5. Think Beyond the Roofline

A stately brick house is decorated with bright white Christmas lights hanging around the porch and lining the roof and trees.

“Everyone gravitates toward the roofline, and they forget to balance it with something below,” says Mike Marlow of Holiday Bright Lights, a national chain that provides professional holiday lighting for homes and businesses. “It’s like interior design. You might have something on your room’s walls, but you need something on the shelves and the end tables, too.”

6. Don’t Forget the Backyard

A man in a Christmas sweater hangs Christmas lights in his backyard.

Why should the front yard have all the fun? “We’re seeing people decorate behind the house,” Marlow says. “It makes sense, because they see the backyard more than the front.” Consider stringing lights along deck railings, decorating a tree—any tree—with lights, or covering yard structures like sheds and greenhouses.

RELATED: Buyer’s Guide: The Best Outdoor String Lights We Tested This Year

7. Shop With Intention

A close view of Christmas light garlands in the supermarket.

After assessing your existing inventory, and with measurements that show how you might need to supplement, it’s time to buy Christmas lights. Also pay attention to the bulb count on the box. The brighter you want your house to be, the more bulbs per strand you’ll want. For consistency, you’ll probably also need to decide whether you’ll go with incandescent or LED lights. The former are typically less expensive, but the latter will last longer.

8. Check the Weather

A man in an orange coat hangs Christmas lights on his house on a cloudy day.

Before you make plans to begin hanging your lights, consult the forecast. The last thing you would want to do is get all the lights unpacked, strung all over the garage, only to look outside and see pouring rain. Think ahead and pick a day or two when the weather is expected to be clear—and relatively warm, if you live somewhere where it gets chilly. Get started early enough in the day that you aren’t scrambling to finish up as night falls.

RELATED: Buyer’s Guide: The Best Solar Christmas Lights

9. Plant Power Stakes

Close view of a green power stake planted in foliage near a side walk.

Outdoor lights should always be plugged into circuits protected by ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), which will reduce the risk of electrocution. To avoid having dozens of cords running back to the house, try using power stakes, which are portable devices that bring power where you need it with just a single cable to the house.

10. Nix the Nails

Close-up of Christmas lights on the roofline of a home, held in place with plastic clips.

Trade hammer and nails for plastic holiday light clips that safely secure lighting to everything from shingles and gutters to posts, window frames, and railings. Consider using light stakes to line walkways, driveways, and garden edges with bulbs. These plastic accessories can be removed after the holidays and reused next season.

RELATED: How to Hang Christmas Lights Outside

11. Plug in Timers

A white brick house decorated with white christmas lights and a large lawn covered in snow.

Unless you want to trudge through the snow to plug and unplug your lights twice a day, you’ll want to use lighting timers to automatically turn on and off your display. Depending on how your lights are strung together and just how illuminated your house is, you may need multiple timers. Take care to sync them carefully, and be sure you’re only using timers that are rated for outdoor use.

12. Stay Safe

A man stands on a ladder hanging Christmas lights in the doorway with two family members watching and a view through sliding doors into the living room full of people.

Electricity, branches, extension cords, ladders: What could go wrong as you’re hanging lights outdoors? Plenty. Heed this safety advice before you flip any switches.

  • When possible, keep your feet firmly on the ground. Use an extension pole to attach lights instead of standing on a ladder.
  • If you do have to climb a ladder, use an S-hook to hang a bucket to the ladder to hold supplies, or work with a partner who can hand them up to you.
  • Never connect different types of lights on the same circuit or outlet.
  • Don’t decorate trees that touch power lines.

The original version of this article was published in December 2020.