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How to Buy a Great Headlamp or Flashlight

flashlight

If people had the night vision of owls, we wouldn’t need headlamps, flashlights or lanterns. Unfortunately, for finding our way around a campsite or adventuring after dark, we need artificial lights.

Lights come in a dizzying array of sizes and shapes, but Gear Guy has great advice to help you buy a headlamp, flashlight and lantern tough enough to illuminate your outdoor adventures.

THE BASICS

Lights come in many shapes and sizes. Handheld flashlights are the most common. They are versatile because you can easily direct the light and focus it closer to the ground when hiking.

Headlamps are like flashlights you wear on your head. Headlamps are the standard for any outdoorsmen who need to have their hands free for climbing and handling gear.

Battery-powered lanterns are used to light up larger areas for cooking and hanging around camp.

Finally, signal lights are flashlights that come with several different colored lights and special blinking options that can help you call for help when necessary.

BLACK DIAMOND SPOT ($40, blackdiamondequipment.com): For hands-free activities, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better value than the Spot. It’s one of the brightest ultralight headlamps around — with a max power of 200 lumens — and can illuminate up to 260 feet away. The Spot also has multiple white and red LED modes (red for maintaining your night vision), a locked setting to avoid accidentally draining batteries and a unique PowerTap feature — tap the headlamp’s side to cycle among brightness levels. 3 oz. (including three AAA batteries)

PRICE

You get what you pay for. Cheap lights usually are not durable and won’t last long. Expect to spend at least $10 to $15 to get a quality flashlight. Headlamps are more expensive — you can get an entry-level headlamp for about $20 to $25.

PRINCETON TEC SYNC ($30, princetontec.com): Looking for affordable simplicity? Check out the Sync. Its max power of 90 lumens (range: up to 190 feet) casts enough light for hiking after dark. It has five beam settings, white and red modes, and an intuitive dial with a locking function — no clicking through modes. Plus, it will run up to 150 hours on a set of batteries. 3 oz. (including three AAA batteries)

SIZE AND WEIGHT

If you mainly keep the light in your pack for emergencies or for getting around camp at night, get a smaller light. Some of the newer, more expensive small lights can pack as much power as the older big ones.

PETZL ZIPKA ($40, petzl.com): The self-adjusting retractable cord makes this one of the most compact headlamps on the market. Switch between the Zipka’s two white-bulb modes (100 and 20 lumens) with a click. The cord zips back into the casing, so the entire unit disappears in your fist. A set of batteries will last up to 180 hours at 20 lumens. 2 oz. (including three AAA batteries)

BATTERIES

Most flashlights use alkaline batteries, but if you can afford lithium batteries, they last longer. Rechargeable batteries are another choice to consider since they are better for the environment, but they don’t hold their charge as long as other types.

As you’re shopping, it’s important to consider a light’s runtime — the number of hours of continuous light provided from a fresh set of batteries. This information is often included on a light’s packaging.

SUREFIRE TITAN PLUS ($100, surefire.com): A keychain light less than 4 inches long that’s this bright is almost unheard of, but the 300 lumens cast by the Titan Plus could freeze a deer in its tracks. Twisting the Titan’s head will switch to the LED bulb’s two other settings: 75 lumens and 15 lumens. Its wide beam shines evenly. The rechargeable NiMH battery lasts up to seven hours and can be replaced with one AAA battery in a pinch. 2 oz. (including battery)

BRIGHTNESS

Think about what you’ll be using your light for. If you just want a light to read by in camp, consider a small flashlight or tiny lantern with LED lights. If you need it for hiking or mountain biking, a bright headlamp with a halogen or Xenon bulb might be a better choice.

As you shop for a light, you may see the word “lumens” on the packaging. What’s a lumen? A lumen is the total amount of light emitted from a flashlight or headlamp. In general, the more lumens, the brighter the light will be.

GOAL ZERO LIGHTHOUSE MINI LANTERN ($60, goalzero.com): Illuminate the night — or charge your smartphone — with this ingenious lantern that folds up and packs down to 4 x 3 inches. The two-way dimmer switch throws either 360 degrees of light (max 210 lumens) or 180 degrees (max 105 lumens). Charge it using Goal Zero’s solar panels (sold separately) or from a USB outlet. Good for one full phone charge. 8 oz. (including battery)

DURABILITY

When you’re buying a light, ask yourself: Over a few camping trips will it be able to hold up to wear and tear?

If the light is made of aircraft-grade aluminum or super-strong plastic, the answer is yes.

It’s also best to pick a model with a push-button switch because lights with sliding buttons can accidentally be turned on in your pack, killing the batteries or bulb — and leaving you with no light.

WATCH OUR FACEBOOK LIVE VIDEO

At the beginning of December, we demonstrated some of these great flashlights and gave them away to lucky readers.

13 Comments on How to Buy a Great Headlamp or Flashlight

  1. I use a Energizer headlamp, and it has been through night hiking, caving, and regular camp use. You can find it at a Wal-Mart for about $10 at the most. It is really cheap but has lasted quite a while. I also have a hand-held XPG flashlight from Cabela’s that works great.

  2. middie football // January 27, 2010 at 8:14 am // Reply

    stream light makes the best light in the world i wouldnt trust any other light

  3. Where Oh Where are replacement Lightbulbs 1501 // October 13, 2009 at 5:06 pm // Reply

    Replacement lightbulbs for mag-lites may be sometimes placed on back order with the customer service department of Bass Pro Sports Shops. Extra lightbulbs sometimes come with brand new mag-lite flashlights. Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Target Pharmacy Stores do not have replacement lightbulbs in stock and have no retail pipeline to order replacement lightbulbs for people who need to replace lightbulbs for mag-lite flashlights. Or, just purchase a completely new flashlight–what’s the big deal with purchasing another new flashlight?

  4. i bought a cheap headlamp and it broke in half while i was caving

  5. ssssssssssssssssssssssss // August 23, 2009 at 1:34 pm // Reply

    I am looking for A new light to use on general campouts and I am going to use the info found here to buy 1

  6. Where can replacement lightbulbs for mag-lites be purchased to replace a no longer working mag-lite lightbulb? Mag-lite flashlights are not disposable flashlights like Energizer flashlights or Everready Flashlights where the lightbulb is sealed intact and a new Energizer flashlight costs less than $20.00 for the entire flashlight at a camping store or Walgreens or Rite-Aid.

  7. mag-lites all the way! the one i have adjusts for a wider area of coverage.

  8. go with a mag lite. but a leatherman light is still good.

  9. Are “Shake Lite Flashlights” good as usuable flashlights. They don’t require any flashlight batteries and produce energy for a flashlight by having a magnet slide inside a metal coil “slinky” type coil within the flashlight. Crank flashlights require someone to wind a crank for up to 90 seconds to produce enough energy to light a flashlight lightbulb. For flashlights which use batteries, it is easy to find replacement batteries for a flashlight–however, where can someone find replacement lightbulbs for flashlights which contain removable lightbulbs?

  10. I have a surfire e1e it only ways two ounces and it works great

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