Anyone can benefit from owning a quality flashlight, especially you. Here's how to find the right one without breaking the bank.
Why LED? On my keychain I carry a Maratac AAA Rev 3. As the name suggests, it's powered by a single AAA battery and, in high mode it produces 138 Lumens. Compare that to a traditional, incandescent bulb Maglite; the ubiquitous 3 D-Cell battery model puts out just 76.8 Lumens.
The battery life on my little keychain light? Up to 55 hours. The Maglite? About two hours. The bulb life on the Maratac: 50,000 hours. I dunno the Maglite's, but I remember replacing them pretty often when I was a kid. Their prices are both in the $20 range.
Really, the only thing the traditional flashlight does better than the LED is beat up innocent people. But I'm not a cop.
So, if LED lights are so miraculous, why do you need a buyer's guide? Well, innovation in the space has moved so fast that it's out-paced many of the traditional players — both manufacturers and retail — in the space and many of the actual benefits of the technology are lost in the race to produce ever-brighter lights and confused by bullshit marketing, needless features and other nonsense.
Who's This Guide For? The everyman. If you're already a flashaholic (a real thing!), then this guide's going to be over-simplified. But, literally anyone else should be able to benefit and should carry a flashlight. At the very least, they'll help you find a keyhole, walk down a dark path or find something you dropped on the ground at night. They'll do that with much more light for much longer than your phone will ever deliver, all without running down its battery.
Battery Types — The Most Important Feature You know traditional batteries — AAs and AAAs — but the profusion of chemical compounds within them has gotten a little confusing. While any AA or AAA-powered light will run on traditional NiMH cells, you're a lot better off opting for Lithiums. They're going to be a little pricier, but more than exceed the additional cost with longer run times and brighter light outputs. More importantly, Lithium batteries have a 10-year shelf life. That means that if you're buying a flashlight to leave in your glovebox in case of breakdown (or any similar long-term storage use), it'll work when you need it, even if that ends up being years and years down the road. It also means you can buy batteries in bulk, without fear of them going bad and wasting your money.
AA and AAAs: The vast majority of you will be best served by sticking with these traditional battery types. While their performance is a little lower than more exotic varieties, you'll be able to find the batteries you need in virtually every retail establishment in the world. And the performance of good LED flashlights is such that you really don't need the additional output or run times of more expensive, harder-to-find cells.
CR2: Originally developed for digital cameras, garage door openers, security devices and such CR2 batteries pack a ton of performance into an incredibly tiny package. Lights powered by these batteries are tiny, yet very bright.
CR123: The most common very-high performance lithium battery option can kick out an extraordinarily powerful beam and these batteries are again very compact. But, they are expensive and like CR2s, can sometimes be hard to find, especially outside of large population centers.
18650, 14500 and other super high performance, rechargeable batteries: The muscle cars of the battery world, these things pack so much punch that they'll destroy lights not designed to use them and may, in some cases, even be dangerous. Lights powered by these can be insanely bright, but to the point where practicality is actually reduced. Yes, you can actually have a light too bright for most uses, having to squint to shield your eyes from its beam at night is a little pointless unless you belong to a search and rescue team. Avoid, unless you have some specific, speciality need to turn the night into day.
Button Cells: Don't bother, they're a pain. Other battery types can deliver greater performance with a size increase so small as to render it irrelevant.
If you intend to buy several flashlights to distribute to family members, store in various locations or use other electronics frequently, it can be a great idea to use common batteries across all of them. Doing so will make buying and storing batteries that much easier and allow you to swap batteries between devices if and when necessary. Going all-AA or all-AAA just makes using all this stuff so much easier.
How Will You Carry It? Like multitools, the best flashlight is the flashlight you'll have on you when you need it. So, before buying one, consider how it'll fit into your life.
Keychain Lights: You always, always, always take your keys with you, don't you? That's why attaching some small tools to them is incredibly useful, despite the necessary diminishment in their outright abilities due to their diminutive size.
In a keychain light, consider both the size and connection method. Not only does it need to be small (typically a single AAA or smaller), but it should be able to connect securely to your keychain.
That Maratac may be bright, but it falls down with a weak keychain loop held on only by friction. It's also sold by a company that probably has the most outrageous shipping prices are worst customer service in the country. For those reasons, I recommend the ITP A3 EOS Rev 2; its slightly lower performance is more than made up for by being able to purchase it through Amazon Prime and its totally secure keychain loop, which is part of the metal body.
Pen Lights: The size and shape of a pen, these lights are designed to ride in your breast pocket or external pen pocket on a bag, jacket or anywhere else designed to take a writing implement. Longer than a keychain light, they're typically powered by two AAA batteries, giving you a little more power and runtime.
The 4Sevens Preon range is excellent, complete with a convenient tail-click button and strong pocket clip.
Pocket Lights: Typically powered by one or two AAs, these lights are larger in diameter than pen lights and their larger batteries again give you even more light and longer run times. Many users prefer this larger size as it's harder to lose and fits more securely in your hand, toolbox or whatever.
I love this generic, Chinese-made thing, which is bright, small and surprisingly well made, for just $4 with shipping. Allow three weeks for delivery.
Headlamps: These end up getting highly specialized with all sorts of features like different color bulbs and external battery packs and what have you. They make working on stuff at night hands-free and are great for camping and emergency auto repair.
They also get completely and unnecessarily expensive. If you're buying a dedicated headlamp, just buy the cheapest LED one you can find that takes the kind of batteries you want to use. If you need something nicer, get the Fenix Headlamp Band and add any keychain, pen or pocket light of your choice (pad out very narrow lights with duct tape to make them fit) or, if you're a 4Sevens type, their new 360 Headlamp Kit looks, like the rest of their products, to be clever and well made.
Pack/Toolbox/Shelf/Trunk Lights: The big daddies. These can put out an extraordinary amount of power and, good news for cops: they're large enough to put a decent-size dent in someone's skull. That also makes them excellent for home security, where their hefty size and blinding outputs can make them both reassuring and intimidating to ghosts, bogeymen and mice.
The 4Sevens Maelstrom range remains reasonably compact while putting out sun-like brightnesses of up to 1,600 Lumens.
These lights may seem impressive and even relatively affordable, but are not the tool for general illumination. Their lenses are biased towards throw and the extreme light outputs can make trying to light up something close to you a blinding experience. The also tend to require specialty batteries and prioritize max output over run times.
Switch Types: How you turn it on and off is a huge factor in how a light is carried and its outright convenience.
Tail Click: Convenient for one-handed operation and for quick on/off, but may eliminate the possibility of tail-standing the light and is prone to accidental activation.
Twist Top: Common on keychain lights, this type of switch requires you to twist the head separately from the body to turn the light on and switch through modes. That requires two hands, but largely eliminates accidental switching.
Side Click: Makes it easy to activate the light while carried in a thumb-forward grip. Just a matter of preference.
Flood Vs Throw: A flashlight can deliver its beam in a big, wide spread or with sharp, narrow precision. The vast majority of lights are a good compromise between the two, so if you're looking at a light and it doesn't specify either, it's that compromise. Otherwise, err towards flood, that's going to be vastly more useful for lighting up close-by stuff like a dark path, building interior or campsite. Throw is really for specialty use in searching for stuff at long distance and can be a pain for more common tasks.
Modes: Because they contain tiny computers, LED flashlights can operate in a bewildering array of modes. They may sound neat in marketing literature, but you won't end up using a light that can blink S.OS. in morse code terribly often, unless you're a particularly accident-prone ship captain or something. More important is just being able to easily access high, low and medium modes without having to memorize some specialty click sequence or cycle through six useless blink patterns first.
Because LED flashlights are so extraordinarily bright, those high/low/medium modes are genuinely useful though. Some even have an extra-low "moonlight" mode which is good for reading under your covers at night, retaining night vision while outdoors or being sneaky. Bonus points to any light that turns on in medium, that'll be your most-used setting. The ability to remember which mode you used last, and fire up in that, can also be useful but also approaches the realm of frippery.
Brightness: All anyone markets, but honestly the least important factor here. 150 honest Lumens is all the max brightness anyone really needs to brightly illuminate far away things. More useful is a nice, comfortable medium of around 75 Lumens which is a versatile amount of light, providing good illumination and run times, without blinding you. Brighter outputs are more applicable to specialty use, spotlighting deer (please don't do this), search and rescue or simply for bragging rights.
Brands and Quality: Flashlight makers you might recognize from your time in Cub Scouts or see on the shelves of Home Depot no longer make competitive lights. Don't bother with Mag-Lite, Surefire or Rayovac, instead order a light online from brands like Fenix, 4Sevens, Nitecore, O-Light or Streamlight. Or, any of the dozens of specialty, custom or high-end flashlight brands that have cropped up in the last few years.
Cheap LED flashlight (left) vs quality LED flashlight (right).
A quick rule of thumb though is if any light wears an array of multiple LEDs, it's junk, while a single LED in a nice reflector bespeaks quality. Such lights will generally be brighter, longer running, and more waterproof (look for an IPX8 standard symbol). That's obviously not universal, but it is broadly applicable.
Want to learn more about lights? CandlePowerForums is a great resource.
Top Photo: Guy Sie
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.