Guide to flashlights
You are searching for a flashlight but you're not sure which one to choose? This guide tries to shed some light on the different styles. (Pun intended).
TL;DR a.k.a. "I just want a frackin' flashlight, dammit!"
You don't care about lumen, battery chemistry or striking bezels? What a pity. But ok, here's your solution if you're searching for a flashlight "just in case". You can always come back and dig into the gory details when you start craving for more.
Go for a LED flashlight, aluminium body, IPX certified. You might want one with a small or indistinguishable head. As for batteries go for AA, best for two AA batteries. If you plan on using it on a regular basis and you have a charging device, get rechargeable Ni-MH AA batteries. They are a bit pricier but they won't lose power when you store them. It's always a good idea to have an extra set of fresh non-rechargeable Alkalines nearby just in case you run out of power in a bad situation.
Don't let yourself get confused by different modes and extras. The only thing that's really helpful for everyone are different brightness levels.
The Fenix LD20 is a perfect fit that just combines everything mentioned above. If you don't fancy the Fenix, you will find similar models from many manufacturers. Don't go for the looks but compare the specifications and check if the aforementioned features are listed. Alternatives are the Nitecore MT2A or the Streamlight Protac 2AA. A minimalistic option with a single AA and lower IP certification is the Ledlenser P5.
If that worked as a teaser and you want to dive into the glorious world of flashlights, just read on.
Use cases of flashlights
The first thing you should consider is the intended use of your favorite source of light to be. If it's "I want to make dark places brighter" then you should definitely have a look on the following examples.
- Small and simple light source you can carry on your key chain so you have it around whenever you might need it
- Powerful searchlight you can use when you're in the great outdoors and have to search for something or someone
- Reliable gadget you can use to light up your tent while on a camping trip
- Backup tool that enables you to see even when there's a blackout
- Tactical flashlight that can not only blind a potential attacker but confuse them with strobe and eventually serve as a Kubotan or a rescue tool
- Life saving equipment you can use to send distress signals and show your position to search and rescue crews.
- Specialized tool to check IDs and banknotes for authenticity
Now, again, what are you planning to use your flashlight for? You'll find a list of models that cater to the different scenarios but before we can look into that we have to cover some distinctive features of flashlights.
How to differentiate flashlights
There's different ways you can discern flashlights. The right combination will make up the perfect match for you so stay tuned.
One of the most obvious differences is the actual lamp that emits the light. That one's easy to choose because you don't have much choice. While there are different kinds of lamps available in flashlights, there's not much reason for getting anything other than a LED (light emitting diod). You want a LED because they generally have the best balance of brightness, long life cycle and low power consumption.
If you're really into flashlights and not afraid to spend some extra money, there actually is an alternative to LED available: LEP (laser excited phosphor). These lamps produce highly focused light that reach a lot longer than the flashlights you're used to. Since they work totally different, they reach a lot more candela with less lumen (see below) and mostly not really useful for close distances. For this reason we assume that all flashlights we're talking about will be equipped with LEDS. If you're still interested in details about LEP, there's a good review about the Fenix TK30 LEP over at tacticalreviews.co.uk".
There are differences in which make and model of LED are used but as long as you are not a collector it's more what the flashlight makes of it than what's actually inside. There are more factors that have an influence on the brightness, shape, color and color temperature that's produced and the most of you will be more interested in the result than in the details. So read on for more details that sum up to what we see as the beam of the flashlight.
All flashlights run on battery because you want to be able to carry them around. Some models have cranks or solar cells but even they use batteries to hold the generated power.
You basically have to choose between three types of battery when you're searching for the perfect match: Consumer or standard batteries, high power batteries and built-in batteries.
Standard batteries, AA (Mignon) or AAA (Micro) can be bought more or less everywhere all over the world. So whenever you run out of power you can easily get refills. On the other hand these "consumer class" batteries are not known for high power output. So either you have to settle for lower brightness or have to get a model that can hold lot's of batteries at once which makes the flashlight quite big and heavy. A big benefit of consumer class batteries is that in a real emergency you should be able to salvage a set from other devices like remote controls, clocks, pepper mills, whatever.
Specialized batteries like CR123a, 18650 and others can not be easily replaced. Only a few stores (usually shops for photo equipment or vaping devices) carry them at all. These batteries were not intended for end users in the first place and hold lots of power (and can output a lot of it). So you will get long running flashlights with relatively small and few batteries. Just make sure to pack extra ones for longer trips.
One specialty of Lithium CR123a batteries, not to be confused with rechargeable Lithium-Ion batteries, is worth mentioning: They almost never lose power in storage over time. Unlike common AA or AAA batteries which discharge within a few years when they don't get used, Lithium CR123a keep their power for at least 10 years. They might need some running time to get up to full force after long storage but eventually they'll rise up again. They will also work in a very wide range of temperatures. Both characteristics make them perfect for a backup flashlight in your car or remote cabin.
While there are other formats of high power batteries, CR123a, 18650 and 21700 are virtually the only types being used in flashlights. Chargers and storage boxes for other types are hard to find.
Rechargeable flashlights offer built in batteries with charging slots. They come in all shapes and sizes and are sometimes even smaller than an AAA battery. Just make sure you keep them charged for when you need them. A problem with this kind of batteries is that you can't replace them when the battery dies which it will eventually. So these lights are not made for eternity.
An important thing to know is that you can go for hybrids of the aforementioned categories. There are "multi-feed" lights that can run on different types of batteries. Of course there are rechargeable versions of all kinds of batteries (safe for coin cells) and some flashlights even offer charging slots so you can charge batteries while they stay in the body.
If possible, have a look into the specs or manual before buying a flashlight. Some only work with a certain type of battery like only non rechargeable CR123a or unprotected 18650. That doesn't mean they won't work at all with other batteries of the same size but some features, e.g. the highest brightness level, might not work. This is very rare but it is annoying enough to be worth mentioning.
Forget what you heard about ancient rechargeable batteries like letting them run dry before recharging. Modern rechargeable batteries with technologies like Li-Ion or NiMH won't suffer from problems like memory effect. Just recharge them after some time of usage and you'll be fine.
Speaking of battery chemistry, there are some clear winners in the race for the most useful builds of batteries. Non-rechargeable AA and AAA cells are mostly Alkaline models. Rechargeables were mostly Nickel-Cadmium (Ni-Cad or NiCd) which are more and more replaced by the superior Nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH). The latter stay charged for a longer time when not in use. High power batteries usually are Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) models.
There are stories about exploding high power batteries which should be taken with a grain of salt. It's true that mistreated Li-Ion batteries can burst into flames or even explode but safety measures have improved and if you're careful you should be good. Just don't forget that these batteries are not as harmless as your average AA cells and make very sure not to break them and under now circumstances allow for short circuits. Like with all safety related information don't just trust me but do your own research. I just wanted to make sure you don't miss great flashlights because of some stories where someone was really unlucky (or dumb).
A thing worth mentioning about batteries is their capacity. While the voltage is more or less defined for the size, the capacity varies. Defined voltage means there is a range in which batteries have to stay over their lifetime so they won't damage the device they're powering but still provide enough power to run it. (Very) simply speaking, capacity means how much "electricity" a cell can hold. So higher capacity equals longer running time for your flashlight. You should compare battery models because there can be significant differences. It's hard to say what's "normal" for a certain battery type because available capacity changed a lot over the last years.
There are several ways to measure the "power" and "quality" of a light source. But just as cars are often reduced to horsepower and computers are reduced to GHz, lamps are often reduced to "lumen".
Lumen is a measuring unit showing how much visible light is emitted from a light source over time. For a more detailed explanation and the relation between lumen and other units please refer to the link above. For the comparison of flashlights it's only important to know that lumen refers to the light emitted directly from a light source, taking into account how much of the light most human beings can see. Lumen only refers to the total light a light source is emitting in every direction, totally ignoring factors like the reflector (see below) the lamp is sitting in.
There has been an unofficial race about who can produce more lumen in a lamp of a specific size and customers seem to only care about that sometimes. For a general purpose light you should aim for about 1000 lumen minimum (800 is still ok) and you don't need a lot more than that. Why? Because the brighter the lamp the higher is the chance that you blind yourself with reflecting light from nearby objects or fog or rain. And you might have a hard time telling 1000 and 3000 lumen apart if you don't have them in direct comparison. That's even more true when you take the thrower and flooder (see below under "reflector") characteristics into equation. A more focused beam looks a lot brighter than a diffused beam. Humans are bad in measuring brightness with their bare eyes.
Most lamps have several brightness levels so you don't have to worry if your lamp is very, very bright. You just might not use the highest output in day to day use but only to impress other people.
If you care about a certain Lumen level you should make sure that the manufacturer lists so called "ANSI-lumen". In fact, there are no different kinds of lumen, but ANSI-Lumen is the colloquial term for "Lumen, measured by a standardized method developed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)". Unfortunately there are some other methods of measuring that show very different values for the same flashlight, some manufacturers even come up with their own.
The aforementioned lumen tell how much visible light the lamp is emitting at all and in every direction. Considering the focusing effect of the reflector you get candela and lux. Both refer to how much visible light is sent in a certain direction in other words "brightness". Candela shows how much light is emitted in a certain direction where lux refers to how much light reaches an object the flashlight points to. Therefore lumen is about the LED, the circuit and the battery. Candela refers to the whole flashlight including reflector and lens, where lux needs a target to shed the light onto. There are ways to calculate candela from lux and lux from candela if you know the distance between the lamp and the target. If you allow for some simplification you can see candela as a measure of brightness and focus in one. So higher candela are a good indication for a "throwier" flashlight. But because it's never that easy you should still refer to beamshots. A more thorough explanation of lumen, lux and candela can be found in this post.
Within the head of almost every flashlight there's a reflecting part resembling the shape of a parabola in whichs focus point the lamp is placed. This part is called reflector. When the lamp lights up it's beams are collected and sent out front in a more or less parallel direction. The more this effect is achieved, the more focused the light looks and the more far away objects can be illuminated.
Depending on the intended use manufactures try to get more or less close to a perfect parabola shape. The less extreme the focus effect is the smoother the light looks (most of the times). So you have to chose: Do you want a Thrower, meaning a light that throws over a long range (big head, smooth reflector) or a Flooder, a light that helps with illuminating a wider space close to you (smaller head, "orange peel" reflector) or something in between?. And finally there are some flashlights that don't have a reflector at all. They are mainly used for extrem close range or for filling a whole room or tent with at least some light.
Like with all properties of flashlights it's hard to sum them up with a few characteristics. The size and the shape of the reflector gives a rough indication what the beam will look like, but you should double check the technical details to find out the intended use before buying one.
One last thing about reflectors: Together with the lens the reflector has the most impact on how smooth the illuminated area looks. To collectors the resulting beam is a very important factor. There are manufacturers that are especially proud that you can't find any dark "rings" within the "beamshot". You have to decide for your own if that's something you care about. As a user you might not even notice that there are some small dark areas if nobody tells you about them.
When you face the flashlight against a smooth wall and turn it on you can tell that the light is not evenly distributed. You'll see the aforementioned dark spots and you'll notice that the center is brighter than the rest. The center is called spot while the surrounding area is called spill. You can't tell the exact look just by describing the factors mentioned above. If you're really interested how the light of a flashlight looks before you buy it, there is a very good chance you'll find some pictures when you search the web for the name of the flashlight and the term beamshot. You will realize there are models (flooders) with almost indiscernible spot and spill, other (throwers) have a very bright and small spot with close to no spill.
Most flashlights for users are made of durable aluminium, coated and shaped so that they can be securely held. What you should look for is "IP" certifications because it tells you what kind of challenging environment the lamp can withstand. There are tests for falling, submerging, exposing to dust and so on. Refer to the standard definition to see what minimum certification you expect.
Mostly for collectors there are bodies made from other materials available. Very popular are titanium, copper and brass. If you like the look and feel and don't mind the extra cost, go for it.
The form of the body can be made for ergonomics, aesthetics or usefulness. Just make sure you get what you want. Ergonomic bodies can have grooves for your fingers, rubberized segments and other features that help with holding them securely over prolonged times. Some manufacturers just build flashlights that look really good (or tacticool) but lack features you'd wish for - that's totally ok if you want a lamp just as an EDC and don't expect to have to rely on it. Of course you should like what you use and some people make an art of combining great looking items to an EDC set that could fit into an art magazine. Useful features of bodies are tails that let the flashlight stand upright like a candle if you want to light up your base camp (or room during a blackout) or shapes that keep the flashlight from rolling when you lay it down on a flat surface.
Some models are so much specialized that their body doesn't fit into the usual pattern of cylindrical middle segment, lamp with reflector at one end, switch at the other end or at the side. The most prominent of those are headlamps which are either optimized for their only use case or shaped in a way so they can be used stand alone as well as on a headband. The latter most often have a tilted head so they can be mounted across your forehead with the reflector facing in an angle of 90°. Aside from the different shape headlamps share most of the characteristics with other flashlights, even their brightness.
Every lamp needs a way to turn it on and off. Some have extra modes like different brightness levels, strobe for self defense, SOS morse code blinking mode, beacon mode, different colors and so on. Again, it depends on what you want and need.
Several brightness levels are handy but there shouldn't be too many of them. In fact, many different settings can be a bit overwhelming and most of the time you want a light that just lights up something.
Flashlights are made with different kinds of switches which help to identify the intended use. There are models that can be turned on and off be turning the head of the lamp or a ring on the body. Others have switches on the side of the head and then there's the most "tactical" variant: The tail switch. Of course there are models with a combination like a side- and a tail switch. Some switches only work as "on" and "off" others have additional "light press" and "hard press" options.
There are even lamps with a programmable "user interface" which means you can set which modes are accessible by which click combination. That's fun and may be useful but it's nothing you really need. If you want a collectors toy you can play with then go for it but skip it if you just want to use the lamp. By that I don't mean that these features are useless but the time you have to invest to learn how it works is something some people are willing to invest and others don't. It depends on what you need and want.
What you want to find out before buying a flashlight is whether it has "momentary light" by just slightly pressing the switch. With this kind of switch it's easy to just light up dark places and get back to "dark mode" again. I find this feature especially useful. Good to know is what the "default mode" is, like is it always extremely bright and you have to dim it or does it remember the last setting. Same goes for strobe, if the flashlight has this feature. It's more or less useless if you can't activate it instantly. Some lights have direct access to strobe, others need a combination of clicks.
Some lamps come with more than just "light on, light off". There are flashlights available that emit a special kind of light like infrared or ultraviolet. While infrared only makes sense in connection with a special kind of night vision device, ultraviolet can be used to check ids and bank notes.
Other features refer to body parts. While there are obvious ones like lanyards or shapes that keep the lamp from rolling there are others I want to shine a light on.
With a ring in close to the end of the body you can use the "cigar hold" where you keep the lamp between index finger and middle finger. Initially intended to be used together with a firearm it can be useful in a lot of situations to be able to hold something while you're still using your flashlight.
Some bodies have glass breakers on the edge of the bezel. With these nifty little helpers you can shatter car class in case of an emergency by just hitting it with your lamp. Since they are normally attached to lamps with a high IP rating you won't risk to end up in the dark after such a move. The nastier version of extensions to the bezel help with leaving an impression on an attacker when you hit them with the front of the lamp. There are even "strike bezels" made of rather sharp points that can inflict quite some damage. While a flashlight is always useful as an option to blind someone for some seconds you have to ask yourself if you're fine with the idea of using it as a weapon. There might be an issue with local law (e.g. when boarding a plane) with more aggressive bezels, but you will have to check that for yourself.
More special features are charging options like USB ports or proprietary charging devices or even power outlets so you can use the flashlight as a power bank.
There are even more "special special" features available like bodies that are airtight - meaning gas tight. You can use those lamps even in areas where explosive gases can be found in the air. On the other hand there are bodies that are sealed way beyond IPX standards and can be used during deep sea diving trips. These special lights are way beyond the scope of this guide. If you need one of these, you should see a specialized store for e.g. scuba diving.
You can go into very close detail about the circuit of a flashlight. If you're not interested in technical specifications but just want to know what fits your needs it usually comes to the choice between regulated and not regulated.
A regulated circuit tries to keep the brightness on the same level for as long as possible and then, when the batteries run out drops within a short period of time. Not regulated ones get dimmer and dimmer over time. What you choose is up to your personal preference. In short: A regulated one might make your light more useful but will dry the batteries faster.
Believe it or not, there are accessories you can use to enhance the usability of your flashlight.
How to carry your flashlight
Of course how you carry your flashlight depends on the model you bought. A key chain light goes on your key chain. A headlamp goes on your head. You get the idea.
But what about your EDC, tactical, rescue lights? With most of these models you get a simple Nylon holster you can attach to your pants belt. Some manufacturers build good ones others don't. If you do end up with a great flashlight but a crappy carrying solution, there are several options you can chose from to fix that. Most medium sized models with a single 18650 or two CR123a batteries fit great into a single pistol magazine pouch. With that knowledge the range of gear you can choose from seems to be endless.
If you're still not satisfied with your options you can get a Kydex holster for your flashlight. You might have to make them for yourself or have someone make them for you since there are not many ready made Kydex holsters for flashlights around. There are a lot of people who provide custom Kydex work not only professionals. If you know other people from the tactical community you might be lucky and find someone to help you with that. Just remember that you can perfectly build a multi sheath that not only holds a flashlight but other EDC items like a knife as well.
Whatever you get as a carrying device, think of the following:
- Every item you carry is useless when you can't reach it when you need it
- Find balance between ease of access and secure hold
- If you can't (or don't) lock your flashlight it can be turned on accidentally. Really bright flashlights get really hot in confined spaces
In short, find a way that securely holds what's inside, can be carried where you can reach it and leaves enough space so you can see whether the lamp is on or not.
There are two ways to have different colors and so called temperature. Temperature means the specific mixture of light of different wavelengths that sum up to what we see as white light. More from the red spectrum gives warm light, more blue gives cold. Some manufacturers offer the same model in warm and cold white versions. The temperature of a light source is measured in Kelvin (actually a unit of temperature). Light below 3300 Kelvin is called warm, above 5300 it's cold. Between 3300 and 5300 there's neutral white.
To have a specific color you can either use colored LEDs or use a filter.
There are several color filters available for flashlights. Remember, that filters remove or "absorb" light of every wavelength that doesn't match the color the filter should get. This is important because that means filters make white light darker and can't be used with extremely high powered flashlights because they tend to get hot.
The other option, colored LEDs, give brighter light with less power consumption but make your flashlight less flexible if there's only one color option or they make it more complex when you have different colored LEDs in one flashlight. You can only have one LED in the focus of your reflector, too. So multi color flashlights are mostly usable at close range. As usual, there are exceptions to this rule as well: Flashlights with complex mechanisms to move different LEDs into focus exist but are very rare.
If you don't know what colored light might be good for, just read the following hints.
- Red is the most common color for filters. It helps with keeping your eyes adapted to the dark so you can turn on your flashlight and still be able to see in low (read "moon") light when you turn it off. It also helps if you don't want to be seen over a long range.
- Blue has some similarities to red in uses but should help with seeing organic substances better. Blue light is more or less close to ultraviolet which make some fish and body fluids (read "blood") glow. So if hunting or fishing is your thing, this might be right for you. A blue flashlight feels a bit like a video game that highlights important items in your surrounding. Some things light up in strangest colors and others almost disappear. So depending on the exact wavelength blue might be the best choice for finding certain stuff but it also can have the effect of hiding something from you. Blue is said to cut through fog, too.
- Green seems to be helpful with reading maps and having better contrast with things that are similarly colored, like dark animals in a dark space. Navigating in the woods or on rocks is much easier with green light than with others. You might not tell what color things are but you can definitely tell their shape.
There's one special kind of filter that's especially useful in confined spaces like tents or caves: diffusors. This filter doesn't change the color of the light, it just spreads the focused beam in every direction. So your light won't carry over long distances but just light up your close surrounding. With focused light you normally end up with a small, very bright, sometimes blinding, spot and lots of very dark shadows. Diffusors help with shedding the light very evenly over the whole space so it works like you had a regular light bulb with you.
Filters are usually specific to certain model of flashlight. Check what filters are available if you need them before you buy your flashlight.
There are two colorways that can't be seen by a human and only have very specific use cases. Mostly they are not available as filters but only as colored lamps.
UV, short for utraviolet, light is helpful when checking IDs or bank notes or very special uses like forensics or searching for wounded animals when hunting. They do give a good show because things look very different in UV. And you can use them to give your glow in the dark items a real kick.
IR, short for infrared light is mostly useless if you don't have a special night vision device that can make IR visible.
In some situations you just don't want to hold your flashlight in your hands all the time. This is where mounts come in handy. There are different kinds of mounts depending on the usecase.
- Headstraps allow to convert a regular handheld flashlight into a headlamp. You can use a full blown, feature rich, extra bright flashlight and still have your hands free for work or during long night hikes. Some helmets offer specialized mounting options that work with some flashlights but that's beyond the scope of this guide
- If you want to use your flashlight as a headlight for your bike, there are specialized bike mounts to mount them onto your handlebar. Just remember to take the flashlight with you when you leave your bike and check if you're allowed to use an unmountable lightsource
- If you're into that and you're allowed to use them, there are weapon mounts to fix your flashlight under the barrel of a gun. There are specialized weapon lights available, too
Just get creative when enhancing your flashlight to help you with your daily life or in an emergency.
Most modifications will just consist of stuff that get's wrapped around the handle. You can do this to enhance your grip, have a place to store the "wrapping" or both. Common things you could put on your flashlight are ranger bands (heavy duty rubber bands you can cut from old bicycle tires), duct tape, skateboard tape and of course paracord. If you go for paracord, you can add a loop to use as lanyard.
There are even some manufacturers that build replacement parts for common flashlights. Some even go so far they don't offer regular models but leave it to you to chose from a wide variety of bodies, heads reflectors and so on. This can be a very satisfying hobby similar to tuning cars but it's definitely beyond the scope of this guide. If you're looking for a flashlight just because you need to shed light on something there are tons of great models out there and you don't have accept the extra work and build your own.
Now you learned a lot about different specifications and characteristics of flashlights and to be honest, there's a lot more to tell. But since this should be an introductional guide for those interested in finding the right light for the job it's now high time to sum it all up.
What you should have taken away from our introduction is, as long as you're not a collector, you should first decide on a type of flashlight and then compare different manufacturers. While there are flashlight companies who are so convinced of a certain detail that they only use that in all their products (like CR123a as a power source), most of them have a wide range of different lights. Some of them cover the basics which you will find from almost every manufacturer, like the basic 2 AA model we talked about already. Others are more exotic and might be available from just a handful if not even a single one.
There's no better fit for a blog about tactical gear than a flashlight that makes a good addition to your Every Day Carry (EDC) gear. There's gonna be an extra post about EDC but for now let's set some specs that fit most of our readers idea of EDC:
- Light and small enough to be carried on a daily basis
- Useful enough to be a real asset in your daily life and during an emergency even when that means to stretch "light and small" a bit
- Preferably extra "tacticool", beautiful or fun to deal with even when that's not a must
With all the knowledge from above this normally comes down to:
- Balanced beam between throw and flood. You never know what you'll use it for
- If small and light is of a priority you might go for a model with a single AA battery. This has the extra bonus that you can find replacement batteries almost everywhere in the world
- If you prefer a bit more brightness and you are ok with carrying a spare battery or recharging it often, then a model with a single CR123a battery might be a better choice. Consider using a non-rechargeable Lithium battery if you don't plan on using it on a regular basis
- Bigger gear is not a problem for you? You might even go for a model with a 18650 battery. Just keep in mind that your "every day carry" flashlight is of no use when you leave it at home because it's heavier than you thought.
- A tailswitch with "momentary light" option is a very good choice for an EDC model. You might just have to take a short peek and this kind of switch helps with that
- Depending on where you're going to carry the light a pocket clip might be a good choice. Remember, this is the one you'll want to have as readily available as possible
- Since this will be a constant companion you should chose one that's really appealing to you. If you're into that consider getting one with a body made from special material like copper or titanium.
Since you might be carrying this flashlight around on a regular basis it's worth to invest more time investigating the pros and cons of a model before buying it. While you can just tick off items on your "nice to have" list, you could be able to find the perfect fit if you take good care. There are relatively bright models with just AA batteries and relatively tiny ones with 18650 batteries. Just because most models with certain properties are alike it doesn't mean you can't find the exception that fulfills your needs if you look carefully. If you started the hunt for the perfect EDC flashlight already, I've got bad news for you: You're hooked and you will be assimilated into the EDC community sooner or later. Resistance is futile.
If you have an EDC flashlight and take it serious you might not need a key chain light. Nevertheless you can see it as a backup or you're more a "Most Day Carry" person but don't want to end up without any source of light. Given, most smartphones have a "flashlight" feature nowadays but a sophisticated key chain light is just that: sophisticated. And it won't set you back a big amount of money. So here's the breakdown:
- Don't go for a real pricey model. You will throw it around between your keys all the time and even the most robust materials will suffer scratches over time. If you like that "used" look, fine. If not, stay away from a model that makes you sad when it shows wear and tear
- You'll want a really, really small body on your key chain. Remember, you'll put it in your pockets most of the time or let it hang from a keyhole which might wear out when there's too much weight on it
- Don't expect a very bright beam from a lamp that small. It will be enough to search a keyhole or something you dropped, read a map or a sign, not much more.
So what you're searching for is this:
- A very small and lightweight model
- Usually a rechargeable built in battery. If you really want one with a replaceable battery, AAA might be the biggest that should work. Coin cells like CR2023 are expensive and won't last very long
- There are models with a bare LED without any reflector. That might be enough for extremely close range but if you have the choice go for one that actually has a reflector
- Momentary light is not a feature very common on these flashlights because it might lead to lighting up your pants and depleting the battery before you need it. Some have a button that's shielded by the body, others need their head to be turned
If searching for something or someone or keeping an eye on a wide area is something you have to do on a regular basis you should definitely go for a big searchlight. There's actually two kinds of flashlights in this category: Close range and long range (I made up the names but the difference is real). So what are these two:
- Close range search lights or flooders have a very smooth and very bright beam. You can use them to light up an area and see every tiny bit. These are useful if you're searching for small things or things that try to hide from you. Real bright ones will resemble daylight. They are usually quite heavy (compared to others), get hot when in brightest mode and might have an "orange peel" reflector and/or several LEDs in a relatively small head
- Long range searchlights or throwers have big heads with smooth reflectors, usually with a single LED. The have dark spots in their beam but they are perfect to strafe a very wide area so you can find things that are not well hidden but just too dark to see in the night
- Both kinds of searchlight come in very different ranges. From those not much bigger than a big EDC flashlight to those that come with a shoulder strap and replaceable magazines full of batteries
So how to chose a searchlight?
- Make sure to read the technical details. Is it a model that's bright but doesn't throw far or one that does throw far but might not be as bright? If you're unsure which to choose either go for a flooder because it works acceptably well for longer ranges too or choose a thrower with lots of spill
- The power and the size totally depends on your use case. Do you want to have it just in case? Will you store it in your car? Do you need to carry it around all night? Do you want to light up your garden or a big clearing in the woods?If you're unsure, a middle sized one might be the best choice.
- If you have to rely on this flashlight, don't be cheap when it comes to batteries. An extra set could safe the day (or night). Most of the time you don't know how long you'll be searching for whatever you're after
Believe it or not, there are quite different builds of headlamps despite the fact that they all follow a rather strict list of requirements. Which is right for you depends, like with all other flashlights, on what you're planning to use it for. Common use cases are:
- A small source of light in situations where you need both hands free. e.g. setting up camp or providing first aid
- Your main lamp for a trip where you expect to be in darkness for a prolonged time. e.g. cave exploration, casually wandering during a night in the woods
- Headlight for a bicycle trip (doesn't legally replace built-in lights in some countries)
The usecase dictates the specs which dictate the form. Remember, there are headstraps and even helmet mounts that can convert a regular handheld flashlight into a headlamp.
- If you expect the flashlight to be switched on just for a relatively short period of time and only need to light up the areas right in front of you you can go for a rather small model with AAA or AA batteries
- Models that are expected to go for several hours and throw their beam over a long range need significantly more powerful (meaning bigger) batteries. These models often have a battery pack to be worn on the back of the head. So they can be a counterweight to the relatively heavy flashlight itself. If that's on option, an extra strap running alongside the top of your head further helps with spreading the weight to bear
- Some headlamps can be removed from the headstrap and still be used as a regular flashlight. They often have a 90° tilted head so you can fix them hanging down from your gear and still have them throw their beam in front of you. They can be very useful because they cover so many situations but keep in mind they'll always be some sort of compromise
- The other way round of handhelds being converted into headlamps is useful when you will be carrying a handheld nonetheless. Straps are lighter and take less room than an extra headlamp. Depending on the features you want you might want to safe the extra costs for a headlamp when you already have a great handheld. Some features or specifications might be easier found in handhelds, too
Even the best product can fail and no one is immune to losing their beloved gear. So what to do when you positively don't want to end up in the dark without source of light? Right, carry an backup flashlight. When you ask around there are a lot different approaches to what a perfect backup flashlight is. Here's some bullet points to consider:
- When your perfect main flashlight fails it's a good indication for something going really wrong. And the last thing you want is your backup flashlight failing, too. So go for the most rugged, overbuilt and indestructible light source with a really easy user interface (meaning just one switch with very few or even only one setting)
- Others say, that your backup flashlight is for the very unlikely case that your main light is failing. So you can chose a cheap, easy to replace light. The chance of both failing at the same time is very low
- Then there's the question of the power source. If you tend to carry extra batteries you might want models that share the same sort of batteries. If you don't carry extra batteries, models with different power sources give you a bigger chance to find a replacement for at least one of your lights.
- One of the other types mentioned before might be just the right one as a backup. Especially key chain lights will be in your pocket most of the time
- If you have an EDC-pouch you could put your Backup-light there. Most of the time it's not a problem if you have to search your bag a bit. Most of the time you have at least a small source of light and in an real emergency you even could dig for it without seeing anything. It's more important to have it safe without possibility of being lost, stolen or broken
There are flashlights that are about the size of a pen. Their main usecase is carrying them in a pen holder which makes them perfect if you're wearing uniform or a lab coat because they usually have pen loops. Their size restricts their features but they still make good EDC or backup flashlights if you can live with their minimal approach.
They work well when searching for keyholes, something in your bag or stuff you've dropped on the floor. The way you carry them and their relatively low light make them perfect when testing the pupillary reflex of patients. Just note that most Penlights are made as a backup flashlight and are way too bright to be used to shine them directly into a patients eye. If you need a light especially for that purpose, there's a, rather dated, thread at Candlepowerforums.com.
Since this is a blog about tactical things we can't end without talking about tactical flashlights. While there's no official definition what a tactical flashlight is, it usually comes down to the following.
- A very tough and bright no nonsense flashlight that is not only a reliable light source but also offers extra functionality
- Bright enough to have a blinding light, preferably combined with a stroboscope mode to be even more confusing
- Small enough to be carried at the ready but big enough to double as a koppo stick or kubotan
- Maybe with some extras like glass breakers or a strike bezel to help with the kubotan use
What to look for in a tactical flashlight:
- Almost every "tactical" flashlight you'll find will use 18650 rechargeable Li-Ion batteries or, not as popular, its bigger brother 21700. They bring the perfect balance between power and size and had some big improvements over the last years. 18650 has the big advantage that it can be replaced with two CR123a if you run low on battery
- A very common feature on tactical flashlights is a tail switch at the end of the body. This allows for several different ways to hold the flashlight and operate it at the same time. Most have instant light so they turn on when you touch the switch lightly and turn off immediately when you release it. That's a big bonus if you want to have quick peaks into dark places but don't want to give away your position. It also helps with blinding a potential attacker. For the same reason a way to turn on strobe is at the same position. Some models have a side switch for permanently turning on the light or changing brightness others use click combinations with the tailswitch. Just make sure the switch isn't easily triggered by accident. The body being able to stand upright in spite of the switch being at the end is an extra optional bonus
- Extra features like glass breakers might come in handy in an emergency. Just remember that you might have to explain why your flashlight has razor sharp teeth for collecting DNA when you go for a strike bezel and try to take the flashlight into restricted areas
- You definitely want a high IPX rating and an overall tough build on a tactical flashlight. Even when you won't use it a for striking something the whole nature of tactical things is intended to be virtually indestructible
- Maybe skip the more complicated models with lots of different brightness modes or colors. You might need to operate the light during periods of stress. So the less complicated the better. A bonus is to look for models that not only have instant light as said before but also instant light in highest mode and or instant strobe. A strobe is worthless if you can't start it when you need it the most.
An important warning about strobe mode. You can trigger an epileptic seizure for people with certain conditions. So while strobe is great to confuse an attacker, especially when under the influence, always remember that you can end up providing first aid to whomever you "flashed". While some people have the "no mercy" approach with attackers, keep in mind that you might accidentally trigger the strobe and knock out innocent people or even yourself with that.
How I use it
No post without some personal insight about my personal approach. Like with other tactical gear I'm as much a collector as I'm a user. So I'm not satisfied with having the flashlights I'll actually need but I go for different models in the same category and try different approaches. In fact all the pictures of flashlights in this article are from items from my personal collection.
Since tactical gear is just as well a hobby to me as something useful I like to put some thought into what I carry and change that accordingly to what I expect over the day. This often results in the following:
- My Backups flashlight being the most rugged and tough one I own plus a backup battery. It used to be a Fenix L1D (AA powered) for several years until I exchanged it with a SureFire E1B (single CR123a powered). I carry it in a small pouch with some EDC stuff that I throw in whatever bag or smock or cargo pants I use
- For quite some time I wasn't a big fan of key chain lights. I thought them to be either too bulky or too dim. Then I got a Olight i1R 2. It's tiny with a rechargeable but not replaceable battery and a tiny reflector. It puts out astonishing 150 lumens which is quite a lot for a light so small
- Then the collector kicks in and I add one flashlight I just fancy to play around with. This model changes more or less on a daily basis. I carry this one as easily reachable as possible. In a pocket of my clothes, in a loop of the Helikon Mid-Pro belt or a single mag pouch on a bag
- And there's of course always the possibility that I go on a trip where I expect to use a light. That can go from a small searchlight to a headlamp or whatever
Yes, this can add up to me carrying 4 flashlights, just in case. Don't get me started about knives. Since this is a guide and not a personal review, I'll keep my personal view rather short and safe them for later posts.
About the author
widhalmt is what you might call a tactical gearhead with a focus on collecting. Like your average nerd he likes to dig into topics he's interested in and learn as much about them as possible. Then he tries to get hold of his items of interest (he's quite picky about brand and model when he chose a certain item) and put them to the test. Be it while walking the dog in the woods or go for overnighters outdoors.
In his daytime job he works as lead support engineer for an open source IT consulting company. Since his work involves a lot of travelling and going to customers he has quite some experience in choosing items that are rugged enough for constant travelling but still work in an office environment without offending anyone by being "too tactical" (although he tends to stretch that last part a bit). It's safe to say that he has some tactical gear on him when he walks out the door (and sometimes even when he stays at home).
In tactical gear he has very widespread interests but if he had to pick something, it's be knives, bags/backpacks and camo patterns (especially PenCott)