Choosing the Right Flashlight

Whether you're just making your way around camp after dark or exploring a deep crevasse, a dependable light remains one of the most important items outdoor enthusiasts should carry. A flashlight with spare batteries/bulb has long been listed as an item on the ten essentials list and with good reason. Even the simplest task can become treacherous if you can't see what you're doing. However, what has changed in recent years is the level of technology and performance that is now available in flashlights and headlights. 

LED lamps
Perhaps the best-known advancement is the LED lamp. LED is an acronym for Light Emitting Diode, a solid-state component that has no fragile filament and thus is more robust and longer lasting than traditional bulbs. LEDs lamps have been around for quite some time (we've all seen them as status indicators on appliances and other equipment), but only in the last several years have manufacturers produced LEDs that can efficiently emit a bright white light. There are now LED flashlights that generate over 200 lumens of light. 

The key advantages of the LED lamp are dramatically increased reliability, extended battery life and much longer lamp life. A quality LED light will likely survive a drop on a rock or take a quick dunking without a problem. Carrying a spare bulb is largely a thing of the past with LED flashlights.  They're durable enough and last so long that it's really not necessary.  And, replacing an LED lamp is not practical in most cases, unless you are replacing the entire lamp module.            

But not all lights that have LEDs are created equal. You want to choose one that has a long warranty, long run time and brightness, weatherproof operation and tough construction. Outdoorsmen, in particular, should resist the temptation to settle for bargain bin lights. Most use inferior LEDs that are inefficient and are not made to withstand the rigors of use in the backcountry. 

Lithium batteries
Another recent development is the lithium battery. Available in AAA, AA, 123A and various coin type cells, lithium batteries have many significant advantages over alkaline and carbon batteries. Lithium batteries are 30% lighter, have a ten-year shelf life, improved cold-weather performance and a higher power density. It's obvious why lithium batteries are a good choice for both outdoor use and for emergency kits. 

Some lights have multiple brightness levels to choose from. A very bright beam useful for signaling, for tactical use or to illuminate long distances on murky nights.  Other levels extend battery life and are more than adequate for general use around camp. 

Other features to consider include: power switches that lock in the off position (preventing inadvertent activation), a clip to secure the light to a pocket or the bill of a cap, and a lanyard. 

Headlights and micro lights
Headlights, are practical because they allow hands-free use and illuminate wherever you're looking. Most are small and have multiple light levels to choose from, including a flashing mode.  Many small micro lights are surprisingly bright, have variable output and several flashing modes. These little keychain-sized lights are great for everyday use or as a back up and should be in every survival kit. 

Cyalume lightsticks are an inexpensive way to round out your illumination arsenal, one that doesn't require batteries or create heat. Also known as chemlights, lightsticks are safe for tents, are waterproof and non-toxic. A smart adjunct to have in addition to your flashlight, lightsticks are useful around camp, on the water and in your car. Just remember, lightsticks are one time use only. Because they create light using a chemical reaction, cold temperatures diminish performance. 

In summary
Whether you're in the backcountry or in the backyard, the world seems to always change at nightfall. Distance and spatial relationships are more difficult to judge, obstacles are obscured and confidence wanes. A reliable light will help you avoid pratfalls, stay safe and make you feel more secure. Be sure to choose a light that provides a high level of performance and reliability. Don't settle for discounted disappointment.