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There’s More to Choosing a Flashlight Than You Think

Posted by 
July 16, 2014
Published in News & Tips > Camping > Outdoor Gear
1352   Comment

Did you ever wonder how the flashlight got its name? Early models were powered by energy-inefficient carbon-filament bulbs that "rested" periodically for short intervals. They could be used only in brief flashes, and thus were called flashlights.

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The flashlight's inventor was David Misell of Great Britain. In 1899, he patented the first — just a paper tube containing "D" batteries, with the light bulb and a rough brass reflector at the end. The devices didn't gain popularity, however, until 1904 when the development of improved batteries and the more efficient tungsten-filament bulb made flashlights more useful and popular.

Today's flashlights are available in hundreds of styles, sizes and colors. They provide a portable light source you can carry in a backpack, on a belt, in your pocket or even on a keychain. Prices vary widely depending on features, from $10 for a mini light such as Streamlight's NanoLight to more than $500 for an LED-Lenser X21R Rechargeable Flashlight.

A big difference among flashlights (and other battery-powered camp lights) is the type of light used (krypton, halogen, xenon or LED), the amount of light it projects (measured in "lumens" — the more lumens, the brighter the light) and its relative lifespan.

What Are the Bulb Differences?

Incandescent lights create light when electricity heats a tungsten filament inside a glass bulb. Originally, they had a vacuum around the filament, but newer ones contain krypton, halogen or xenon gas for increased efficiency.

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These three types are technologically superior to conventional incandescents, but the filaments eventually burn out, and the bulb must be replaced. Also, the fragile filaments often break when jarred.

LED for Close Encounters

The lights in LED (Light Emitting Diode) flashlights have no filament to burn out or break and don't get hot like incandescents. Solid-state construction makes them very durable and long-lived — up to 100,000 hours of life. They also have extremely long run-times (hundreds of hours) at low illumination levels, unlike a xenon or halogen light that may have, at best, 5 to 9 hours of run-time. The drawback to LEDs is they don't project light over great distances; most are best for close illumination.

CampLightingOptions SureFireE2DDefender
LED flashlights are made for close illumination.

Also available are combination incandescent/LED flashlights. These provide the best of both worlds, allowing you to adjust the brightness and thus energy consumption level of your light.

Chuck or Recharge it?

Another consideration is whether to buy a flashlight that uses disposable or rechargeable batteries. Disposable (non-rechargeable) batteries, the standard AAA, AA, C, D and 9-volt units everyone is familiar with, have a lower purchase price, so it's less expensive to keep spares on hand. Their biggest limitation is their one-time use, which makes them about 30 times more expensive than rechargeable batteries. On the plus side, they have long storage life, 50 percent more power than lithium-ion rechargeables and immediate operational readiness. No charging is required before use. Rechargeable batteries (nickel-cadmium or lithium ion) have a higher initial purchase price and must be charged before use, but they are much more economical in the long run and often support a brighter bulb or LED.

Battery Options

One also should consider these facts about batteries: 

  • Disposable alkaline batteries — While fairly inexpensive, performance is affected by heat and cold. They are brightest when first used and decline rapidly thereafter.

  • Disposable lithium batteries — Not affected by extreme heat and cold. Have a steady power curve over the life of the battery and a long shelf life of nearly 10 years.

  • Rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries — Highest performance/cost ratio of rechargeables. New technology has increased effectiveness, but must be fully charged to prevent memory-effect problems. Rechargeable up to 1,000 times. Must be recycled or disposed of properly.

  • Rechargeable lithium ion batteries — Can be charged up to 1,000 times with no memory-effect problems. Longer run-time but more expensive than standard lithium batteries. Environmentally friendly; can be thrown away.

What Else Should You Know?

With the above information on bulb and battery types, you begin the process of selecting a flashlight that's right for you, but before making a purchase, consider other features as well. 

  • Size: Choose a light that will be comfortable and convenient to use, store and carry. A five-D-cell light may have phenomenal light output great for illuminating distant objects, but it's probably too long and heavy for backpacking where a smaller light is more appropriate.

  • Construction: Quality, long-lasting lights are built with superior components such as a machined aluminum or Nitrolon body, a Lexan or Pyrex bezel (the clear lens through which the light shines), a well-designed reflector behind the light, an easy on-off switch and weatherproofing features such as O-ring seals.

  • Specialty lights: Many lights are made with specific purposes in mind, including emergency lights such as Nebo Wind-Up Flashlight and tactical models such as Streamlight PT 2AA Ultra-Compact Tactical Flashlight. If you have a specific task in mind, there's probably a light made for it.


Tagged under Read 1352 times Last modified on July 15, 2014
Keith Sutton

With a resume listing more than 3,500 magazine, newspaper and website articles about fishing, hunting, wildlife and conservation, Keith Sutton of Alexander, Ark., has established a reputation as one of the country’s best-known outdoor writers. In 2011, Sutton, who has authored 12 books, was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a “Legendary Communicator.” Visit his website at

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  • Greetings, and thank you for writing the article for us. I would like to address one point: Sir, you state, "The drawback to LEDs is they don't project light over great distances; most are best for close illumination." At one time, this was true. The early LEDs were really not much in either the brightness or distance departments. Nowdays, however, this just isn't true at all. There are many LED lights designed specifically for distance, such as the Fenix TK75 with an advertised beam distance of 754 yards, the Fenix TK61 at 901 yards, and the Thrunite TN32 at a blazing 1070 yards. These three lights are too large to fit in a pocket, but not as large as the old-school incandescent spotlights we all used that had either a cigar plug for the vehicle, or a big battery attached. Even the smaller, tactical LED lights are hitting brightness levels of 1000 lumens and above, such as the Nitecore MH12, which even though it has a bezel diameter of about 1 inch (and thus more of a 'floody' beam) still boasts a reach of 253 yards. There are many others which reach very far compared to the older incandescent lights of anywhere near similar size, and bear no relation to the early LED lights or incandescent lights of similar sizes. I've always liked having a good light or three around, and I am thrilled that portable lighting technology is advancing by leaps and bounds.