A Few Bright Ideas: The Different Types of Flashlights

Flashlights are a must-have for any camping trip. This guide breaks down everything you need to know, from key features to the different types.

A person shines a flashlight against a dramatic starry night sky

Photo by Clarisse Meyer

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A good flashlight is a must have for walking around your campsite at night, but they are also very handy for inspecting dimly-lit areas during the day, in emergency situations like power outages, or even for checking under the hood of your car. So bring one along on your camping trip, always have one handy in your car, and know where you keep yours at home so you can grab it in a pinch.

While your cell phone likely has a built in flashlight that works pretty well and can probably put out about 50 lumens, it isn’t necessarily something you want to have to rely on. With so many different types of flashlights on the market today, it can be difficult to find exactly the one that is right for you. In this article we’ll discuss different types of lights and key features to look for when searching for one that will best suit your personal needs.

A person looks up at a starry night sky while wearing a headlamp

Get as far away from the light pollution of the city as you can and see more stars than you ever thought existed. Photo by Steve Halama

Key Features

When examining potential options for a new flashlight, you may find yourself overwhelmed by all of the features and the jargon used to explain them. Below is a list of basic features that I find useful.

Light Output/Lumen Output

Lumens are a measurement of light output. One lumen is roughly equivalent to the light output of one birthday candle. The more lumens, the brighter the light. A standard light bulb in your house probably produces around 500 lumens.

Beam Distance

Also known as “throw,” the beam distance measures how far away your flashlight will illuminate an object and is most commonly measured in meters (three feet). Three hundred lumens will throw a beam of light about fifty meters (one hundred and fifty feet).

Bulb Type

  • LED Bulb: LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. It is simply a device that emits light when an electrical current is run through it. LEDs produce more light with less power than traditional incandescent bulbs. They also don’t produce very much heat which in turn can conserve more energy on heating costs when lighting an entire building.
  • Incandescent Bulbs: Incandescent light bulbs utilize a tungsten filament that emits light when an electrical current is run through it. It is a pretty old, reliable, and still widely-used technology today. While most flashlights are shifting to LED format, many lower quality devices still use incandescent bulbs because they are less expensive.

Battery Type/Power Source

  • Lithium Batteries: Lithium Ion batteries often utilize a USB charger system. Li-ion can often be recharged and reused an indefinite number of times, which reduces waste and cost since you don’t need to buy new ones every time they run out of juice.
  • Disposable Batteries: Most commonly alkaline batteries are non rechargeable and lights that utilize them are fairly inexpensive. One advantage is that if you always carry spare batteries, you’ll never have to worry about running low on power.
  • Crank/Shake Flashlights: There are some flashlights that can be powered by human output. What a bright idea! A flashlight outfitted with a crank or a shake feature is able to turn our energy into light. These types of devices are great to keep in emergency kits since you won’t have to worry about how long the battery will last and you can be sure that it will work when you need it.

Waterproof

While most flashlights are fairly water resistant most are not waterproof, while some are engineered to withstand underwater depths of 100 meters. A nice headlamp will be waterproof to about 10 meters.

Types of Flashlights

Lanterns

A lantern glows against a cloudy sky

You can also hang your lantern high to maximize the flood of your light. Photo by Vladimir Fedotov

“Flood” is a term that refers to the width of a light illumination. Lanterns have a much wider flood than other lights, which makes them ideal for lighting a general area. Typically a lantern can be hung above head height so that it can light up a campsite as if it were a lighting fixture in your home. When setting up your camp kitchen, consider where you can hang a lantern to light up your cooking space when the sun goes down. A lantern that uses combustible fuel can also make a great heat source to gather around and stay warm on cold nights at the campsite.

Headlamps

A person stands silhouetted against a night sky with a headlamp shining

Be sure to have a headlamp when wandering away from camp so you can find your way back. Photo by Nick Fisher

Headlamps are ideal for hands-free illumination of your surroundings whether you’re cooking, keeping the trail visible, reading a book, or wrenching on your car in the middle of the night. A headlamp with 100 lumens of light output will provide adequate light for most activities, while 350 lumens will provide some extra pop to your line of sight. A good headlamp will feature multiple lighting modes to fit your intended use: a lower power setting saves battery for when you only need it to light up the page you are reading, a red light setting that preserves your night vision and avoids blinding others around you, and a strobe setting you can use in emergency rescue scenarios when you want to be as visible as possible to anyone looking for you.

Headlamp Etiquette While wearing a headlamp it is important to practice good etiquette. While around others, adjust the beam so that it is angled down to avoid shining 300 lumens straight into your buddy’s eyes. You could also keep it around your neck rather than on top of your head; this will allow you to see what you are stepping on without putting the spotlight on an unsuspecting target. Again, try to use your red light setting whenever possible. It may seem dim at first, but it only takes a few seconds for your pupils to dilate, allowing your eyes to see better in the darkness. After a few minutes, you may be surprised at how well you are able to see at night without a headlamp at all, especially with a clear sky and a full moon overhead.

Tactical Flashlights

A tactical flashlight can be defined as a light designed for law enforcement or military use. These typically have very high light output and are made of incredibly strong and durable aluminum. Some are very small and made to fit well on a utility belt, while others are very hefty and can be used as weapons or to break windows. While we always hope that these kinds of situation never actually arise, carrying a tac light when you are alone in the dark can provide a certain amount of peace of mind

A person in an orange jacket shines a flashlight towards a starry sky

Remember to keep an eye on where you are walking so you don’t stumble and fall in the dark. Photo by Julian Paul

So what did you think of this guide to flashlights? I hope you found it informative. Did any light bulbs pop up above your head when reading it? Did I miss anything that you find really useful about your own flashlight? Feel free to send me a message and chat with me about it. You can click on my expert profile below to open a live chat with me any time or reach out to another Camping & Hiking expert here on Curated

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Written By
I have years of experience planning and executing multi day river trips for up to twenty customers at a time, and I've spent countless summer nights living out of my Honda Element. I love moving from river to river, living wherever the water is flowing. ​ I have also toured the San Juan Islands via...

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