Flashlights - How to Choose the Best Flashlight
If you like outdoor activities, like hiking, fishing, camping and similar, odds are you will sooner or later need a good flashlight.
Flashlights come in various shapes and sizes, with many additional options and with often confusing technical data and details.
When buying flashlights and all other equipment in general, it is necessary to know what one needs and allocated budget. Good flashlight don't have to be expensive, but every additional feature can increase the price.
One of the most important and if not the most important feature of any flashlight is its brightness.
Brightness of the flashlight is given in lumens, or for short 'lm'. Light 'lux' is light intensity given in lumens per square meter. For example, 300 lumens flashlight that focus its beam to 2 m2, will create 150 lux on those 2 square meters.
Intensity of light in various situations is given in the following list:
- full moon is usually around 0.25 lux,
- living rooms 50 - 100 lux,
- offices 250 - 500 lux,
- sunrise or sunset on a clear day ~400 lux,
- full daylight (not direct sun) 10.000 - 25.000 lux,
- direct sunlight 32.000 - 130.000 lux (up to 180.000 depending on the location and the season),
Human eye adapts itself to low light conditions and during the night one doesn't require 500 lux of light to see things. To avoid obstacles or to find larger items (or pets or people), few lux is often enough. However, any task which requires accuracy, it requires 10-20 or even more lux. Reading? 50 lux or more or your eyes will get tired soon.
Other Important Features
Light source - classic light bulbs are not used in modern flashlights and are replaced with LEDs for several reasons:
- typical operating life of LEDs is approximately 100.000 hours. That is ~ 11.5 years of constant light and no classic bulb can handle that.
- LEDs are much more efficient and using the same battery, they can operate several times longer.
- LEDs operate at much lower temperature.
- LEDs are mechanically much more robust than classic light bulbs.
There are more benefits of LEDs when compared with classic light bulbs, but these are the most important ones.
Note that some lantern flashlights use spiral fluorescent light tubes, but even they are practically replaced with the LED lantern flashlights.
Water and dust resistance is very important for outdoor equipment, especially when going for fishing trips. Dust resistance codes are rarely provided and personally, they are not so important. What people often want to know is how actually is their flashlight resistant to water.
So, here are the codes:
IPX0 - no protection of any kind. Example of the IPX0 item - toilet paper :)
IPX1 - item is resistant to 1 mm vertical rainfall per minute for 10 (ten) minutes.
IPX2 - item is resistant to 3 mm rainfall per minute, tilted at 15°, for 2.5 minutes for every direction of tilt, but longer than 10 (ten) minutes.
IPX3 - generally, item is resistant to spraying water at any angle up to 60°, for 10 (ten) minutes. Actual test is slightly more complicated, but keep in mind 'spraying water' for ten minutes.
IPX4 - item is resistant to splashing water from any direction for 10 (ten) minutes. IPX4 is, IMHO, minimum water resistance level of the good outdoor flashlight.
IPX5 - item is resistant to water jet from a 6.3 mm nozzle, with the rate of 12.5 liters per minute, for at least 3 minutes.
IPX6 - item is resistant to water jet from a 12.5 mm nozzle, with the rate of 100 liters per minute, for at least 3 minutes.
IPX6K - item is resistant to water jet from a 6.3 mm nozzle, with the rate of 75 liters per minute, for at least 3 minutes. This is very tough 'water jet' test, since much higher pressures are required to achieve such water flow.
IPX7 - item is resistant to immersion in water, up to a meter deep, for 30 minutes. Not bad at all for fishing/outdoor flashlights.
IPX8 - flashlights and other equipment is resistant to water immersion at depths of 1 or more meters. Actual depth and test time must be specified by the manufacturer.
Note that the ratings for water resistance are not cumulative beyond IPX6. A flashlight with IPX7 (immersion in water) level of protection, can have issues with water jets (IPX5 or IPX6). A flashlight which meets both tests often lists both tests separated by a slash, for example IPX5/IPX7.
Obviously, diving flashlights must have IPX8 level of protection, with the manufacturer stating the maximum depth and time for such flashlight.
Impact resistance - some manufacturers state the height at which flashlight can be dropped, without adverse effects on the device. 1m is nice height, since it is higher than most of the tables and desks, but 3m or more sounds even better. However, such units are made using much stronger and more expensive materials and can be quite expensive.
Light modes and focus - Modern flashlights can have several modes of operation. Most common modes are full, medium and low light, strobe and SOS. Adjustable focus enables flashlight to be used in various situations by changing the angle of the light beam and thus changing the light's lux level on certain area.
ANSI FL1 Standards
ANSI FL1 Standards define performance standards for every flashlight manufacturer and knowing these standards is very important.
Light Output of the flashlight - given in lumens, it shows the total amount of light that the flashlight is able to produce.
Maximum Beam Distance - given in meters or feet, it is the distance at which the intensity of the light beam falls down to 0.25 lux (amount of light of a full moon on a clear night).
Peak Light Beam Intensity - given in Candela, measures how bright the brightest point is. For short, it is luminous power per unit of solid angle, emitted by a flashlight.
Run Time of the flashlight - given in minutes or often in hours, it is the time it will take for light to fall down to 10% of its initial strength, measured 30 seconds after turning the flashlight on. Thanks to the electronics, lithium batteries and LEDs, most modern flashlights can operate at full power, until the batteries are almost completely drained.
Impact Resistance of the flashlight - given in in meters or feet, indicates the maximum height that the flashlight can be dropped onto the hard surface (concrete, for example), without any cracks or breaks and still work properly. Rubber protective masks can increase impact resistance of the flashlights significantly, similar to the smartphones.
Water Resistance of the flashlight - according to the ANSI FL1 Standards, there are three levels of water resistance and those are IPX4 (splashing water from any direction for 10 (ten) minutes), IPX7 (resistance to immersion in water, up to a meter deep, for 30 minutes), and IPX8 (resistance to water immersion at depths of 1 or more meters. Actual depth and test time must be specified by the manufacturer).
Note that not all ratings are provided for every flashlight by their manufacturers. Very often cheaper flashlights are advertised as being 'water and impact resistant' - this means nothing!
Types of Flashlights
Outdoor flashlights differ according to their indented use, size, material, power source and other specifications.
Most common outdoor flashlights include tactical flashlights, diving flashlights, lantern flashlights, pen flashlights, mini flashlights, key chain flashlights, black light (UV light) flashlights, headlamps, knife-flashlight combos etc.
Rechargeable flashlights use, logically, rechargeable batteries which can be charged in dedicated chargers outside flashlights or can be charged while being inside the flashlights.
In most situations, rechargeable flashlights use 'externally' charged batteries, which enables the user to operate the flashlight with one set of batteries, while second set of batteries is in the charger.
Personally, this is not very important advantage and flashlights with built-in charger are very interesting option - when needed, just plug in the cable (in most cases, USB cable used to charge the smartphones) into the flashlight and charge the battery.
IMHO - try to 'standardize' your battery operated equipment and use the same battery type. When going on a fishing trip or similar, charge all your batteries using high-quality charger(s), especially if you use lithium batteries.
Most common rechargeable batteries are:
- 18650/19670 lithium 3.7V battery,
- AA or AAA NiMH 1.2 V battery,
- 14500 lithium 3.7 battery (AA size battery), etc.
When replacing the batteries, always use battery chemistry recommended by the manufacturer. Also, high capacity, low current batteries are not recommended for high drain devices and vice versa, high drain batteries are not recommended for low drain devices. For example, 4200 mAh 5C 18650 battery is not good for high drain devices (in this case, 4.2 Ah x 5C = 21 A), but for 5-10 Watts flashlights such battery is excellent.
These days, most popular flashlights have 'tactical' in their name. This implies (or at least it should imply) higher quality, increased flashlight shock resistance, better reliability in adverse conditions, powerful batteries, adjustable focus, several modes of operation, etc.
All these features can lead to higher price of such flashlights, but if you like outdoor activities, or you simply like to have a reliable source of light when required, go for 'tactical' :)
For more information about tactical flashlights, please check our Best Tactical Flashlights - Reviews and Recommendations article.
Flashlights range in size significantly - depending on the model and battery size, lantern flashlights can weigh several pounds or even more. On the other side, mini flashlights are cheap, reliable and often astonishingly strong source of light.
Such flashlights are easy to carry around, require very little space and are excellent choice as second or even third flashlight on outdoor trips. Mini flashlights are available in many forms, with different batteries as power source, but they all have one thing in common - LEDs as light source. Forget flashlights with mini light bulbs.
Pen flashlights are type of small flashlights with the size and shape of the pen - hence the name.
They are often powered by 2 AAA or sometimes AA batteries and can easily provide 50-150 lumens of light - stronger light discharges batteries faster, of course.
Most pen flashlights are of the very similar design - one side contains detachable (to change the batteries, when required) push button tail cap switch with pen like clip for safe carrying around, body is long and wide enough to hold the batteries and other end contains LED with lens (adjustable or not).
Some pen flashlights have option for several modes of operation, but IMHO, keep pen flashlight simple as possible and if you do need a flashlight with several modes of operation good for full size 'tactical' flashlight powered by 3xAAA or preferably with 18650 batteries.
Their price vary depending on the features of individual design, like water resistance, shock resistance and similar.
Pen flashlights are very stylish and often excellent gift for people who like to spend time outdoors.
Key Chain Flashlights
Keychain flashlights are one of the smallest types of flashlights. They often use small button cell batteries or single AAA battery as power source, and LEDs as source of light.
They are very light and cheap and excellent to have around all the time - you will often forget about them until you need them.
Their output is often in the range of 5 to 10, maybe 15 lumens (powered with small button cell battery), but it can be as much as 100 lumens (powered by AAA battery). This is more than enough in emergencies - to find the keyhole, find door knob, turn on other lights and similar.
People often underestimate keychain flashlights, but in many ways they are similar to the pocket knives - you don't appreciate them until you find yourself in situation that you really, but really need them :)
Headlamp flashlights are type of hands-free flashlights, carried on the head, but often used as waist or desk flashlights.
They are very popular for night fishing and other 'planned' night outdoors activities. If you do need such flashlight, go for model powered with 18650 rechargeable lithium batteries, flashlight with adjustable light angle, adjustable zoom and with several modes of operation (strong, medium, low light, strobe, SOS and similar).
Models using rechargeable batteries often come with several chargers - a wall charger, a car charger, and an USB charger. Also, some models can connect USB cable to use be used as an emergency power source to charge a smartphone - not a bad idea, actually.
LED headlamp flashlights are often very strong flashlights, often providing 1500, sometimes even much more lumens of light.
Lantern flashlights are larger flashlights, often varying in size. They are powered mostly by AA, C, D or 18650 cylindrical batteries, have 360° main light, but often have option for more focused light beam.
In order to be carried around or hanged when required, some models feature foldable handles.
Small solar panel can be mounted on top of the lantern and connected to internal charger - such solar panel can recharge the lantern, but don't expect small solar panel to fully recharge the batteries during single day.
Nonetheless, such built-in solar panel provide certain degree of freedom for people far away from mains power or at least a good power generator.
To preserve the batteries, lantern flashlights also have several modes of operation, including full (high), medium and low light, often combined with strobe and SOS light.
To preserve space, some models are even collapsible and as such, they are very resistant to impacts, wind (dust!), water and other elements of nature that can shorten their operating life or even destroy them on the spot.
Diving or Underwater Flashlights
Diving flashlights are designed to withstand high water pressures when being submerged for longer period of time.
Obviously, they have IPX8 level of protection, with manufacturers stating actual maximum allowed depth.
Like many other flashlights, diving flashlights can have several modes of operation like high, medium and low light, strobe and SOS signal.
Body of the diving flashlights are mostly made using aluminum, although some models use stainless steel, titanium or plastic.
Buoyancy of the diving flashlights depend on the batteries used, but in most cases these flashlights have neutral to slightly positive buoyancy. Divers often working near the sea bottom, choose flashlights with slightly negative buoyancy.
Maximum depth varies from few meters (10 or so feet) to, or even more than 100m (330 feet). Of course, titanium, high pressure diving flashlights are expensive, but their features more than justify such price.
Light sources are exclusively LEDs, powered by mostly rechargeable batteries like 18650 or similar lithium ion battery. Such batteries easily provide 2000 or even more lumens of light at maximum power.
For example, good diving flashlight can be have maximum diving depth of 50-70 meters, can be powered by 3-4 18650 3.7 lithium batteries and can provide 2000 lumens of light. Now, compare that with 'tactical' flashlights, with IPX6 level of protection, being powered by single 18650 battery or three AAA 1.2V batteries, providing 500-1000 lumens of light ...
Diving flashlights, all the way, right? Well, check the price difference before making final conclusion :)
Seriously, if you like diving and you need a good flashlight, dedicated diving flashlight is simply a MUST have flashlight. If you like fishing, hiking, hunting, camping and similar outdoor activities, and you need good, robust and reliable flashlight, good diving battery (NOT some cheap $10 model) is perhaps overkill for your needs and the good tactical flashlight is more than enough.
For more on flashlights, feel free to check:
- Best Flashlight Under $50 - How to Pick One?
- Best LED Pen Flashlights - Compact EDC Flashlights
Here is the list of our flashlight reviews, ordered according to the date added or modified.