Your Go-To Guide for Flashlight Buying
The process of selecting a flashlight can be overwhelming at times. With the advent of the LED, the market is constantly updating, changing, and growing. With thousands of lights available, it can seem truly daunting to make a good decision. However, our flashlight gurus here at Going Gear have come up with some simple guidelines to make the process easier.
Usage - What will be your flashlight's primary use? Search and rescue? Emergency? Every Day Carry? Camping?
Size - Does it need to fit within a certain size requirement? Is it for your pocket, keychain, or backpack?
Lumens - How bright of a light are you needing? Remember: the higher the lumens, the more batteries you're likely to need.
Beam type - Do you want a something to illuminate a field or a corner in a room?
Tint - Do you prefer a certain color temperature on your light?
Switch type - Have a preference? Not important to all flashlight buyers, but there are options: side switch, tail switch, or twisty.
Price range - How much are you willing to pay?
This is the best place to start. Recognizing your most common usage is the most important step in the buying process. Are you a contractor needing a flashlight for home repair? Are you a military or law enforcement professional depending on a search and rescue light? Are you a camper looking for something easy to use around the campsite? Knowing these can help you select a flashlight that is not only well suited for your needs, but most importantly- one that you'll be happy using.
This is largely a matter of personal preference. Keychain lights are small, conviennent, and great for immediate tasks such as finding the lock on your door or locating the pen that fell. If it's something you want to carry every day, it should be small enough to fit comfortably in your pockets (probably 5" long or smaller). Headlamps are great for camping and hiking, since they're handsfree. At the largest end of the spectrum, monster lights are huge and usually require two hands or a strap to carry.
There are two routes you can head down with batteries: rechargeable and disposable. If you think you'll be using your flashlight a few times a week, you'll want to go with a rechargeable battery. You'll be paying more upfront for the rechargeable batteries and charger, but you'll offset these costs quickly by not having to frequently purchase disposable batteries. On the other hand, if you see yourself only using your flashlight during power outages, special projects, or to keep in your car, disposable batteries will be just fine.
Non-rechargeable or disposable batteries have two main subcategories- standard alkaline and lithium. Your standard alkaline accounts for 80% of all manufactured batteries in the US and commonly comes in AA, AAA, C, D, and 9V sizes. Alkaline batteries have operating temperatures of 0° to 131°F, and are likely to rupture and leak when overheated. Non-rechargeable 1.6V lithium batteries commonly come in AA and AAA size, but have better operational battery temperature ranges: -40° to 140°F. Non-rechargeable 3V lithium batteries commonly come in a CR123 size that is also referred to as SF123, CR123A, 123, SL123, and many other names that all refer to the same battery type. Less likely to leak and rupture, lithium batteries are great for flashlights that are stored for long periods of time (think: emergency flashlights). Compared to alkaline batteries, lithium batteries have more power for a smaller size. Lithiums enjoy a long self-life, typically 10 years. The only downside is that not all flashlights accept lithium batteries in place of alkaline ones, so be sure to check your flashlight's operating manual for compatibility. Lithium batteries can also be harder to find and more expensive compared to alkalines.
Rechargeable batteries come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most commonly used chemical combinations in rechargable batteries are lead-acid, nickel cadmium (NiCad), nickel metal hydride (NiMh), lithiom-ion polymer, and lithium-ion. If you're looking for a rechargeable battery for a flashlight that you'll be using every day, you'll want to reach for a lithium-ion or NiMh. Most commonly used in laptops, cellphones, and mp3 players, lithium-ion batteries are becoming increasingly more popular. They are lightweight, but have a high energy density. Lithium-ion batteries hold their charge well, with a low discharge rate of around 5% per month. Additonally, they have no memory effect, meaning that you don't need to completely discharge the battery before charging it again.
Compared to lithium batteries, lithium-ion batteries of the same size have less capacity but higher voltage, meaning higher output of power, but a shorter run time (generally). Fresh off the charger, a lithium-ion battery carries a 4.2v, with its resting volts reading 3.7v. However, if the battery begins to run outside of the safe range (3-4.2v per cell) a fail-safe circut kicks in, assuming the battery is protected (Going Gear only sells protected lithium ion batteries). The fail-safe is comprised of a shut-down separater, tear-away tab, vent, and thermal interrupt which protects against overheating, internal pressure, and overcharging. Lithium-ion batteries are a generally low maitenance battery, but are subject to aging. Most protection circuits also include an over discharge protection that keeps the light from drawing too much current out of the battery.
Different Types of Beams
This is one of the most important aspects of your flashlight. Beam type is what distinguishes between a flashlight that would be best used for spot-lighting a corner of a room verses those that illuminate a large area of a field. Typically, you will buy either a “flood” beam for large areas and short distances or a “spot” beam for small area, long distance applications. However, there are brands, such as the LED Lenser flashlights, that have an adjustable focus beam which allows you to range between the two.
The beam of a flashlight is mostly determined by the LED combined with the style of its shiny, metallic cone, referred to as the reflector, which surrounds the LED. There are two different textures of reflectors: smooth and orange peel. A smooth reflector will create a focused beam that will give roughly 15% more throw than an orange peel reflector of the same size. A textured orange peel reflector helps smooth out the beam. The most frequent usage of the flashlight would dictate which beam type and reflector style you should use. Hunters, firefighters, and search and rescue personnel usually prefer a spot beam for long distance applications. Technical work, automobile work, and any other activity where you're up close to your object or want to illuminate a wide area - you would most likely prefer a flood beam.
With some flashlights, you'll have a tint (color temperature) option. The most common color temperature options on the market today are: warm, neutral, and cool white. Color temperature is measured in “degrees Kelvin”. This refers to how “warm” or “cold” the light appears. To put it into perspective, daylight from a clear blue sky (around mid-day) is considered to be 6500K (considered “cool”). On the other end of the spectrum, a traditional 100W incandescent bulb is approximately 2900K (considered “warm”). And anything between 3500K and 4000K is considered to be a neutral tint. Many enthusiasts prefer the neutral tint as it renders a more balanced color, however the warmer the LED tint the lower perceived max brightness. Color tint is a matter of personal preference, so just find one that you enjoy.
The flashlight's usage will dictate switch type. There are lots of options on the market, but the most common are as follows:
- Bezel twist/Twisty: Simply twist the front of the light (bezel) for on and off. Very common switch, but it usually requires two hands to turn the light on and off. Usually change the battery by twisting off the bezel as well.
- Side click switch: Typical with larger lights. Click switch located on the side of the light, sometimes rubberized for water resistance, and allows for single hand use. Side switches are often electronic switches in higher end lights.
- Tailcap switch: Click switch is located at the bottom of the light. Allows for single hand use, typically using your thumb to click the switch.
- Tailcap twist: Not as common. Twist the bottom of the flashlight to turn on and off.
- Membrane press: Switch lays nearly flush with the body of the flashlight. Typically a plastic membrane covers the switch.
- Side slide switch: Typical on inexpensive lights. Usually a plastic piece which you push forward or back to turn on/off. Difficult to waterproof this type of switch.
- Rotary ring: Ring that twists and changes modes or turns the light on and off. Usually a combination of a magnet in the ring and a magnometer inside the light.
Mechanical clicky switches have two main types: reverse and forward.
- A reverse clicky has to be fulled pressed and released to turn the light on. Soft presses often switch modes. Reverse clicky switches are common on general purpose or outdoor lights where easy mode switching is more important than immediate, reliable access to one or two modes.
- A forward clicky can be lightly pressed for momentary activation and fully pressed for constant on. Forward clicky switches are common on tactical lights and lights were there is a secondary way to change modes, such as another switch, rotary ring, or other method.
The price of the flashlight will largely depend on the materials, technology, size, and power of the light. You can narrow your options by having a general ballpark of what you're willing to spend beforehand. The upside of having so many options on the market is the likelyhood of finding a quality light within your price point. Choosing a flashlight can seem like an overwhelming task, but understanding the options is half the battle. Do your homework. It's smart to have a general idea of what you're needing before you commit to buy!
Once you answer some of all of these questions, we have filters in our flashlight category that can help you quickly and easily narrow down your options. Having trouble with a question or two? Shoot us an email or give us a call and we will be happy to help.