Flashlights and headlamps let you continue your activities once it is too dark to see. The ability to expend the hours that we can do things is invaluable. Today, virtually all flashlights and headlamps use LED to produce light. I strongly encourage people to retired any lights which aren’t using LEDs. LEDs are more durable, have a longer lifetime, and are more energy efficient than other options.
I have used a ZebraLight H51 since 2010. The light, AA eneloop battery and headband weight 3.5oz. It has 6 regulation output levels which include lumens/runtime : 0.2/19 days, 8/39h, 200/55min. I use the lowest setting for basic proximity lighting I bump up to 8 lumens for tasks when I need to see accurate colors or when I am walking on establish paths. I use higher settles for night hiking or bouncing off ceiling to light up a room. I have the standard (non floody) reflector: the beam has a hot spot with enough throw for wayfinding and enough spill to be useful for close up tasks. The headband is comfortable, removable, with a glow in the dark holder which makes it easy to find at night. The only thing this light is missing is a battery life indicator. When stored, I unscrew the tail-cap 1/2 a twist to prevent accidentally it turning on.
Issues to Consider
There are a wide variety of headlamp and flashlights. They come at all sorts of different price points, features, and characteristics. Below are some of the issues I consider when selecting a light.
The need for light varies based on how light sensitive a person’s eyes are (often older folk need more light) and the task at hand. Given time, eyes can often adjust to available light. If you are patient, you might find that the moon and stars provide enough light for a number of activity.
Petzl has been developing lights which adapt their intensity based of the conditions. While I think this is an interesting idea, but everyone I know with one of these headlamps has told me that it’s still a work and progress and more gimmick than function.
I look for lights which have multiple output levels. My experience is that 1 lumen is enough light for simple tasks. I have found that 10-20 lumens is plenty of light for any close proximity task, is enough light for me to see colors accurately, and provides enough light to follow well worn trails. I have found that I want at least 70 lumens in a focused beam when I am going cross country. It’s really useful to be able to have 200 lumens or more for brief periods of time when trying locate markers that might be in the distance.
For up close activities, an even, floody light is desirable. When moving fast, or trying to see things in the distance, a narrower, focused beam is helpful. The distance that a light is effective is called the “throw”. Often lights will provide a compromise by having a focused center (call the hotspot), with a broader area of light at a lower intensity called the spill.
I strongly recommend using flashlights and headlamps which have full regulation, sometimes called boast regulation. Full regulation uses circutry to keep a steady amount of power flowing through the LED. As a result, the brightness of the light stays nearly flat through until the battery is really out out of power. An unregulated light just lets the current flow which means the light is quite bright with fresh batteries, but falls off quickly.
The best way to understand the performance of a light is through a runtime graph. In the graph below you can see the performance of four different flashlights. the Fenix has full regulation and keeps nearly 100% of it’s initial output for most of the flashlight’s runtime. The Sapphire light has no regulation. It’s very bright for the first few minutes and then it’s brightness falls off fairly quickly. The EOS flashlight uses simple resistance regulation which limit the amount of current that is permitted to flow. This prolonging the “high” runtime by limiting the maximum brightness with new batteries.
You should know that unregulated lights tend to report how long light is generated rather than light which is at a particular intensity. So in the case of a flashlight like the Sapphire, the runtime might be reported as 9 hours, even though it’s at 50% after just 30 minutes, and a quarter after 2 hours. This issue is explore more in the article why headlamp claims are deceptive.
Battery Type & Sizes
Historically I have selected lights it to use AA because this is what more of my other devices use. it’s easy to find, and a reasonable size/power density trade-off. If size was really important I would use lights powered by a AAA battery. In recent years I have been willing to consider 18650 due to their higher voltage / power, and devices with built in recharge batteries which are recharged via USB.
During summer months I recommend using eveloop (or other NiMH formulation) batteries which outperform classic alkaline batteries and are more eco-friendly. I would also recommend getting a conditioning charger because you can be losing more than half a batteries capacity using stupid charger. I normally recommend the La Crosse BC-900, though the Maha MH-c9000 has more features at the cost of ease of use.
In cold conditions NiHM batteries function better than alkaline, but I would recommend using Lithium batteries because they even less effected by cold, hold more power, and, are 30-40% lighter as an extra bonus. You should be aware that lithium batteries can often burn out un-regulated LEDs. Verify that your light is rated to be used with lithium batteries.
Other Issues to Consider
Beside what’s listed above things I look for:
- reasonable user interface (can be used with gloves and doesn’t have many blinking modes you have to cycle through)
- comfort to wear
- stay of the head when active
- weight (lighter generally better)
- battery life indicator
- Good Price / Value
I generally recommend getting a headlamp because the hands free operation is extremely useful and you can always use it like a hand light. Why would you use a headlamp in your hand? Having a light source coming from the same location as your eyes creates hard shadows which can make it harder to see things. When night hiking having the light coming from down around your waist makes it much easier to see the terrain. Secondly, when in groups, there is a tendency to turn toward people who are talking which minimally exposes them to the spill of the headlamp if the headlamp is properly adjusted down, or worst case, you just hit your friend with full force light.
I generally recommend headlamps with swappable batteries.
- Zebralight make numerous excellent headlamps. These are my top recommendation if their price isn’t too high. I suggest the standard (non floody) reflectors for all-around use, powered by whatever batteries has the size / runtime profile you desire. Zebralight maintains a google sheet with the specs of all their lights. I like the H53 for backpacking and the H600 if I want a lot of light.
- Thrunite TH20, $30 is one of the best values. Durable case, good quality regulation, nice user interface which ramps up intensity rather than going in 2 or 3 big steps. Can use any formulation of AA battery including Lithiums. Beam patterns is fairly floody.
- Mankerlight E03H, $35 can be thought of as a budget version of the Zebralight H53.
If none of the above headlamps appeals to you, I would recommend looking at headlamps made by Fenix since they have good regulatory circuity and durable cases. Missing from my list are many of the better known manufacturers include Petzl, Black Diamond, and Princeton Tec. I have found these companies tend to lag when it comes to embracing the more efficient LEDs, regulation and durability. If I was going to choice one of the mainstream headlamps it would likely be the Petzl Actik-Core. While the light itself isn’t regulated, the USB rechargeable core is regulated. If you find your Core out of power, you can pop it out and drop in three traditional AAA batteries. I know people who really like the Petzl e-lite but I don’t recommend it. More details below in the section “Button Lights”
There are several headlamps that have built in batteries that recharge via USB. Three I think are worth considering for urban use:
- Petzl Bindi: less than 2oz and quite compact. On medium has around 3 hours run time. At the same price as the Zebralight H53 which is superior in almost all ways other than packability.
- Black Diamond Sprinter is a purpose designed headlamp for urban running. Around 3.5 hours near full brightness, with a flashing tail-light so motorists can see you.
- Fenix HL40R is a good all around rechargeable headlamp. It has an adjustable focus, an great UI, and an easy to use battery life indicator. My only complaint is that it’s a bit heavier than I like.
I don’t have a lot of experience with headlamps which are extremely bright (>600 lumens) or make use of remote battery backs. Remote battery pack are very important when in extremely cold environments because they can stay under your coat. Otherwise, the cold gets to the batteries which reduces the effective runtime.
Traditional (Hand-held) Flashlights
There are numerous good options today. I would suggest you start by decided what battery size you want to use. Three factors typically effect battery selection: what batteries are being used by other devices, size/weight, and run time. I generally think flashlights which are powered by AA batteries are in the “sweet spot”, through I will consider 18650 when I want longer runtime / brightness, or AAA when small size matters.
There are a number of companies which make excellent flashlights. Generally I tend toward the flashlights made by Fenix because I have found them to be well made at a competitive price. There are a number of other companies that make numerous excellent flashlights including Nitecore, olight, Streamlight, Thrunite, and Zebralight.
- Thrunite Ti3, $16, uses a single AAA battery. Good regulation with three lighting levels 0.04 lm(115h), 12 lm(6.3h), 120lm(0.5h). I think this is the best flashlight you can stash in your pocket, purse, backpack for emergency lighting. The olight i3s eos is very similar, with the maximum output being 80 lm(50 minutes).
- Fenix LD12, $50, uses a single AA battery. Good regulation with four light levels: 5 lm, 30 lm, 70lm, 150lms. When using a 14500 battery, the maximum light jumps from 150 to 320 lumens. I think this is one of the best all around flashlights in a compact form.
- Zebralight SC600w, $100, using a single 18500 battery. Has 10 light levels that range from 0.2 Lm (3.5 months) to 705 Lm (2.5 hours) with the ability to put out 2300 lm briefly. Great if you need a very bright light in a modest size package.
Small lights that are powered by coin/watch batteries and typically have a single LED. These lights are very small and light. People often attach them to keychains, zipper pulls, or drop them in their pockets or purses for when there might be an unexpected need for lighting.
Button lights typically have only a few hours of useful light for close proximity tasks or illuminating an easy to follow path. Most button flashlight permit momentary on/off operation by squeezing the case, and most provide a way to “lock” the light on. Many of the locking mechanisms can accidentally get locked on when carried in a pocket using up the batteries. I think the Doug Ritter Photon made by Photonlight is the best button light made. It’s user interface is very good (easy to vary intensity and to select push-to-light mode, and the various strobes stay out of the way unless you need them). The primary down side is that the light falls off pretty quickly as indicated by the Photon Freedom’s runtime graph.
Some ultralight backpackers seem to like the Petzl e-Lite, which is a headlamp powered by two coin batteries. Like the Photon Freedom, the light intensity falls off very quickly. I think a AAA powered flashlight with good regulation is nearly as small, significantly more useful, can can be significantly cheaper.
Bicycle headlights after sometime mounted on the handlebars and sometimes mounted on the helmet. I prefer the handlebars because I see shadows being cast by obstacles that I might otherwise miss if the light was coming from the same angle as my eyes. The one advantage of a headlamp is that it can shine in any direction you turn your head, not just in the direction your bicycle is going,
I believe that headlights under 200 lumens primary use is for other people to see you. At the speeds I ride, I want a light with an output of least 500 lumens. More is better. There are a number of companies that make excellent bicycles lights. I have been very happy with the lights made by Cygolite and Light and Motion. There are a number of other good manufacturers. The website bikelightdatabase.com has pretty good coverage of all the options.
The Cygolite Expilion 850 is the bike headlight I am using today. It’s bright enough that I have time to maneuver around obstacles in my path, it’s reasonably compact and the batteries are swappable for longer rides, though you have to buy them from Cygolite due to a special case. If I had to buy a light today it would be a Fenix BC21R which is a lot like my current light, but the battery doesn’t require a special case so it can be recharged an external charged. The one downside with the BC21R is the provided handlebar mount isn’t very good.
I think it’s very important to use tail lights during the day and at night time. They make bicycles significantly more visible. There are a lot of good tail lights. I don’t have a strong preference between them. I purchased the original Cygolite HotShot several years ago, and have been very pleased with it.
If you want a lot of light (>800 lumens) the best option are fuel powered lanterns. There are a variety of options which make use of either iso butane canisters or run on propane. While quite bright, these lanterns can be somewhat fragile.
There are a number of excellent LED lanterns. If you what less than 700 lumens, these lanterns are not only more durable the their fossil fuel siblings, but they also produce more light / weight. Better yet, if you have a solar panel, you can “fuel up” during the day. My favorite options is the fairly compact Black Diamond Apollo which can put our 230 lumens and is powered by an internal rechargeable battery and can switch to three AA batteries if you need additional power. If you need more light, the UST 30 day lantern puts out 700 lumens, and is powered by three D batteries.
In the old days, candle lanterns, or small oil lamps were the lightest way to provide long lasting light. There were not bright, but you could get something like 12 hours out of a 2oz candle. The candle holder would be another 4-6oz. The old candle lantern has the one advantage of providing a bit of warmth which is nice on a cold night.
Candle Power Forums (CPF), is one of oldest online communities devoted to flashlights. They have great reviews which typically include runtime graphs and beam shots. FlashlightWiki has links and information for people who are obsessed by all things flashlight like.
There used to be a large number of websites which specialize in high quality flashlights, headlights, and batteries. These days it seems like there are only two that are left: brightguy and battery junction.
An interest podcast about how the cost of lighting dropped through history. Until 300 years ago, a day of labor would pay for around 10 minutes of artificial light. The development of kerosene in the 1800s raised this to 5 hours. Today, a day of labor pays for more than 20,000 hours of artificial light!!
For basic task lighting, the photon II knock-offs can be found for between $1-$3 many places.