How to Choose a Flashlight
In recent years, headlamps have seen a massive surge in popularity. But, flashlights remain a practical choice in cases where a handheld light may be preferred, such as:
- When precision lighting is important
- Needing to set down a light to work on a task
- Any time you want the strongest beam available
Thanks to advances in LED technology and battery efficiency, flashlights are now smaller, lighter, and brighter than ever before. This article will help you find the perfect LED flashlight for your needs.
Understanding Your Flashlight Options
A few key factors to consider when comparing flashlights:
- Light output
- Battery Run Time
Flashlights can be purchased for as little as $10, or for well over $200, despite looking relatively similar. So, what’s the difference? Brightness is probably the #1 factor in determining flashlight price. More expensive flashlights feature more advanced bulbs, batteries, and circuit technology. Rechargeable batteries can also add to the cost, as can impact and water resistance, heat dissipation, and the option for multiple lighting modes.
If you’re shopping in person, look out for the following:
- How does the switch work? Can it be accidentally activated in your pack? Can you switch it when wearing gloves in cold conditions?
- Is it rugged (or lightweight) enough for your application?
- Does it feel comfortable?
- Do you need tools to simply change the batteries?
Since 2009, ANSI FL1 standards have been the go-to mandates for flashlights, to ensure that all models are tested and rated in an equal way. Although compliance with FL1 standards is entirely voluntary, most manufacturers and brands do include the data on their packaging.
This is simply how far the light will shine before the brightness diminishes to the equivalent of the light from a full moon, as expressed in meters. The distance here, of course, will vary with the brightness setting that is selected on the flashlight during use.
This is how long it takes light output to drop to 10% of the rated output, when the light is equipped with brand new batteries. This is rounded to the nearest quarter-hour and is measured in hours. Depending on the flashlight, light output can gradually decrease over time or it may remain constant, and then suddenly rapidly decrease. Run time should be given for each individual light setting. If one is listed, a runtime graph is a handy way to view the flashlight’s rating.
This is measured in meters. This test is done by dropping flashlights 6 times onto concrete at the light’s rated distance. The purpose of this test is to ensure that the light is functional after accidental drops -- it does not provide a gauge for the resistance of a flashlight to being run over or struck with a heavy object.
Water-resistance is rated using the IPX system. This is important if using your flashlight around bodies of water or during the wet season.
Rated using the IPX system. Water-resistance is important if using your light in the rain or around bodies of water. Three ratings are used:
- IPX4 - Splash resistant from all angles
- IPX7 - Temporary immersion of up to 30 minutes at a 1m depth
- IPX8 - Up to 4 hours at a specified depth
Additional Features and Functions
There are a few other flashlight features that may be taken into consideration.
- Bulb type -- LED is considered the industry standard for flashlights, to the extent that any other type of bulb is seen as largely obsolete. Incandescent can be found in a few models, but LED is generally a better choice.
- Beam Type - Surrounding a bulb, the lens reflector determines how the light is dispersed. The three most common options are:
- Flood: Single beam width. Good for light use.
- Spot: A single beam condensed into a spotlight that is meant for long-distance use. These are ideal for route-finding and fast-paced activities.
- Adjustable: Beam width can range from very wide to narrowly focused. These are versatile lights that enable a climber to use the same flashlight for map reading or route-finding.
Some lights feature a regulated power supply to maintain a steady brightness throughout the battery’s use cycle. Then, the light output will abruptly and significantly drop. Unregulated lights, on the other hand, progressively grow dimmer as they are used and as they drain power from the batteries.
For many users, battery type and availability are a factor in determining which flashlight to use.
- Disposable: For disposable battery flashlights, users can expect to find AA or AAA batteries. CR123A is another option, but they are more expensive and a bit more difficult to find. However, they feature a higher output in a smaller-sized battery. If you are looking for a very large, heavy battery, D-cell flashlights may be a good option as well.
- Rechargeable: These built-in batteries can typically be charged through a computer’s USB connection, or through AC or DC outlet. Some may also be charged by solar power. While the flashlights may be more expensive upfront, they have a very low running cost and produce very little waste.
- Renewable: Many emergency kits feature flashlights that are charged by a hand crank or solar panel.
- Warning: Unless the manufacturer has specified otherwise, you cannot use lithium or lithium-ion batteries with any flashlight.
A single setting will be all you need for most general-purpose use. Some models may come with two or more different modes like low, boost, or high, but most users find that they rarely use more than one of these options. It’s important to remember, though, that the brighter the mode, the shorter the runtime will be on your flashlight. Some models might even offer SOS or strobe modes, which can be handy in emergency situations. More advanced flashlights may even have programmable modes. Even more advanced models may feature USB capability to set up user-programmed modes via computer software.
Although seemingly straightforward, the types of on/off lighting modes might be important for some users. Thumb-operated sliders and push buttons are common, but a rotating knob or bezel can also work as a switch. These bezel-style switches typically require two hands to operate. Some flashlights may also feature a safety lock, which prevents the light from being turned on inadvertently in your pack.
Other flashlights feature a silent and non-clicking insta-beam function. This allows the user to deactivate the light by slightly depressing the switch temporarily.
Materials and Shape
In general, flashlight bodies are made of plastic or some type of aluminum alloy. Some robust models may feature stainless steel in the head of the light for added impact resistance. Aluminum bodies come in a variety of thicknesses, too. Some may be heavier, and some lighter, so don’t assume all aluminum flashlights will feel the same in your hand.
Although cylindrical bodies are the most common shape, they will roll around when laid on a surface, which might not make them suitable for all users. Some models will have a knurled pattern or profiles that are specially designed to resist rolling, so consider these options as well.
Size and Weight
The ideal dimensions for a flashlight mostly come down to personal preference. While heavier flashlights may or may not be brighter, they are more likely to feature greater battery capacities and thus, long run times.
Add-ons like lanyards, belt clips, or holsters are often sold separately but can be handy for certain users, depending on their individual needs.