A source of light is extremely desirable, if not absolutely essential, when darkness falls and you need to move around. It should be dependable, bright enough to see well, long lasting, robust, and lightweight.
For decades, the choice was the handy flashlight with a filament bulb. From multi-celled “D” cell torches to Mini-MagLites and smaller. All had the disadvantage of a relatively fragile bulb, short cell life and weight. Bulbs can shatter or filaments break when dropped. Cells last at most a few to several hours; frugal use of light is a necessity. Spare cells take room and add weight to your pack.
With the advent of the white LED (light emitting diode), a new generation of flashlights appeared. LEDs typically last 10,000 to 100,000 hours (400 to 4000 days of constant burning), are immune to shock and basically indestructible in normal use. Moreover, LEDs use less than one tenth of the power of bulbs. A four-cell AAA three LED flashlight weighs 2.5 ounces, provides adequate light for camp use and will last up to 150 hours. At 5 hours of use a day, it would last one MONTH. A two cell D flashlight would not last even ONE DAY of 5 hour usage.
What this means is that you never have to bring extra bulbs or cells on even the most extended backpack or camping trip unless you intend to hike the AT or PCT.
Similar improvements have also been made to headlamps, a major benefit to hands-free camp work and night hiking.
The advent of the Luxeon 1 watt and 5 watt LEDs and flashlights that use them provide light equal to or greater than even the xenon and halogen bulbs. If you prefer a much brighter light, consider Luxeon LEDs.
However, for a low level, long lasting light and battery life, the original recommendations are still valid. At present there are many, many more LED flashlights on the market and the choice is almost overwhelming. In an emergency situation, a dimmer, longer lasting light is often preferable to a bright, quickly exhausted light. Look for 10-20 hours of battery life, assuming 5 hours maximum use of a light per day for four days.
Updates: January, 2006, July 2006, May 2008
Advances in Flashlight Technology
Why do we need a flashlight?
A flashlight is a portable, battery operated source of light used to illuminate a task. Different tasks require different levels of light. Some category of tasks is:
- Light to see the immediate area for moving around, such as campsite, night walks, and dark home. Minimum requirement is enough light to recognize small objects. Color recognition not required.
- Light for reading, color recognition, close-up tasks.
- Light to illuminate a wide area for searches, large groups, etc.
- Light for spotlighting distant objects enough to recognize it.
Each type of task may need a different type of flashlight.
What is a flashlight?
Flashlights before the mid-1990s consists of an incandescent bulb, a set of batteries, a switch and a holder for all the components.
In 1993, the Mr. Nakamura of Nichia Corp of Japan developed the first practical white Light Emitting Diode (LED). In 1999 LumiLED Corp of USA introduced the Luxeon brand high powered white LED.
The LED replaced the incandescent bulb and introduced a revolution in flashlights.
Let’s look at the differences.
LED vs. incandescent bulb
- Bulbs depend on a filament heated to incandescence. It produces both light and heat. The filament is susceptible to breakage due to shock, such as dropping the light or knocks against an object.
- Bulbs typically last about 6 hours before it burns out.
- Bulbs use up a set of batteries in about 2 hours.
- Bulbs typically produce a yellowish light.
- LEDs produce light electronically by changing an energy state. There is mostly light and little heat.
- LEDs are encapsulated in clear epoxy and are shockproof. You can drop it with no damage.
- LEDs typically last 100,000 hours. That’s 11 YEARS of continuous light.
- LEDs use up the same set of batteries in about 60 hours.
- LEDs typically produce a white light similar to daylight.
What kinds of flashlight do I need?
Let’s look at some considerations.
Bright enough or super-bright
- Choose the correct level of light for the intended task. Too bright a light at night in a campsite or on a night walk will destroy your night-vision.
- The brighter the light, the more battery power you will need.
Flood v spot? Do you need an area light, close up to do chores? Do you need to see things far away?
- A good floodlight will have a wide “spill” and not much of a center hotspot. You can see around you without moving the light much.
- A spotlight will have a clearly defined hotspot and very little “spill”. To see an object on the side you have to move the light around.
- Batteries come in several common sizes. From small to big, they are: coin-type (2016, 2032), AAA, AA, C, D, 9-volt. These are most commonly available as alkaline batteries.
- Some of these sizes are available in the more expensive Lithium cell. They are coin-types, AAA, AA, C, D, CR2, and CR123A. Lithium batteries have a 10-year shelf life.
- Larger batteries last much longer than smaller batteries.
- Smaller batteries are used in smaller, more convenient sized lights.
- Most of these battery sizes are available in a rechargeable form. They cost less to operate, but must be recharged frequently.
- Large flashlights, such as C and D-cell lights, provide long lasting light, but are heavier and bigger.
- Smaller lights using AA or AAA cells are lighter weight and more pocket-able, but provide a shorter battery life.
- Coin cell lights are great for key chains, but are usually much dimmer.
Regulated and multi-level LED lights
- Recent advances in LED lights have a built-in electronic regulator that keeps the light at full brightness even as the battery wears down. This provides a longer usable light life and a more efficient use of the batteries. When it finally dies, it dims fast but still provides a “moonlight” phase that allows you enough light to find and replace the batteries.
- Because LED lights uses electronics, new ones often come with several levels of light. It can go from dim to medium to bright to flashing strobe just by pushing the switch. Very useful in saving battery life until you need the bright setting.
- Buy a LED flashlight. With over ten times the battery life and being shockproof when dropped, there is no reason not to get one except that it costs more than the old-style flashlight.
- With a LED flashlight, you don’t have to carry extra batteries or extra bulb.
- For camping, get a medium bright light that has at least 10 hours or more battery life. A small 4-AA light with 3 LEDs has a battery life of 150 hours. That’s a MONTH of light if you use it only five hours a night.
- For camping, consider getting a LED headlamp. This frees your hands to do things. Great for going to the bathroom at night and setting up tents in the dark.
- For hiking, backpacking, camping and emergency use, see this link
- For home and occasional use, you can get a brighter light because you would not be running it for long times. Again a LED flashlight makes more sense because you get both long battery life and an unbreakable LED bulb.
Jim Yuen – July 2006, Aug 2011
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