Whether you’re new to flashlights or an avid enthusiast, you’re probably looking for the best LED flashlight for the budget. With so many options, where to begin, right?
Here are some things to consider, and some recommendations.
How you plan to use the LED flashlight?
Will you be carrying this flashlight in your pocket every day, attaching it to a bag, carrying it in a coat? Maybe you plan to throw it in a safe place in case of emergencies. This is an important first question, since it helps determine the size and battery type you’ll be looking for.
Budget is a bit of a factor as well, and not just in how much you’re willing to spend on the light itself. How much are you willing to spend on batteries for it?
If you don’t mind using specialized batteries that are more expensive, don’t shy away from CR123 flashlights. These little lithium batteries are harder to find than your typical Energizer AA’s, but pack 3.0V each (or 3.7V if rechargeable). This higher voltage often means brighter light or longer run time, which is useful if you need a super bright flashlight.
If you’re going to carry the light around with you regularly but mainly use it for sudden situations where you need as much light as possible, that configuration is ideal. Overall run time may be less important to you, and you’ll be swapping the batteries out less often so the price is less of a deterrent.
If your day-to-day involves what could be frequent use of your LED flashlight, you may end up changing batteries far more often. In that case using standard batteries like D, AA, and AAA may be better for you.
Flashlight Batteries and Body Size
As mentioned above, choosing a light for the battery should at least be a consideration.
If you think you might use the flashlight in an emergency situation, such as a prolonged power outage, having a light that uses basic batteries is a big win. How easy is it to stock up on AA batteries or make it to a store that carries them? They’re everywhere, so you’re far less likely to be stuck in a position where you’re low on batteries when you need them most.
If small size isn’t a factor you can split the difference and use D cells. Lights like the Maglite ML300X are fantastic illuminators that also have impressive run times. That 3-D cell LED flashlight in particular sports 626 lumens on its highest mode and can output at that level for an impressive 16 hours. With those 3 big D cells you’re not choosing between voltage or capacity. One its lower modes you can literally go for days.
If you’re in a survival setting, that’s huge.
Other times, though, you might be looking for an everyday all-around flashlight. I’d personally recommend a light by Nitecore as a super bright LED flashlight for almost any situation. Using 2 AA batteries it can deliver over 300 lumens for hours, and also has low modes for when you just need light for as long as possible.
It can be worn in a pocket, stuffed in a jacket or bag, or comfortably carried if you’re camping or going for long hikes. Read the full review in the link for more info. Of the many AA flashlights I’ve used, that’s my favorite thus far.
Size and Heat, Waterproofing
LED emitters generate more heat than the basic incandescent bulb. Each LED flashlight is equipped with a heat sink, but its size is generally proportional to the flashlight itself. Small flashlights will have smaller heat sinks, meaning they may got hot more quickly if they have a high or turbo mode. One the other hand, you’re probably not using a small pocket flashlight for hour long duties.
You may notice that several flashlights have a heat warning, often a triangle with “HOT!” written in them on the bezel (head). That comes into play on the flashlight’s highest mode; lower than that the lights seem to stay pretty cool. For short usage you may only notice the light get warm, but if it’s a warm environment and you have the light on high mode for 15 minutes or more, you may indeed notice the bezel get hot.
Generally the heat sinks are designed to dissipate enough heat to ensure safe operation even when the light feels hot, but if you think you might be in scenarios where you’ll be using a high mode for longer than a few minutes at a time regularly, you may be better off with a larger flashlight.
Big ones like the Maglite mentioned above, while bulkier to carry around, are built for performance and won’t give you any heat issues.
Most modern tactical flashlights are made of aluminum and are waterproof, save for the really cheap ones. Aluminum is nice because it doesn’t rust and is lightweight.
You may not care about waterproofing if it’s a light for around the house or your back yard. But if it’s a pocket light or one you’ll bring camping, for survival, or job-related, you should check the IPX rating of the light you’re considering.
Nitecore has a useful IPX standard guide that clarifies what each number means next to the X. Lights that list IPX7 or IPX8 are solid enough that you can drop them in a stream, in a tub, etc. and won’t worry about shorting it out. I’ve had IPX8 flashlights I’ve accidentally left in a pocket that survived the washing machine no problem, for what it’s worth.
The Pocket LED Flashlight
Another common use scenario is the pocket flashlight. Great for when you need ready access to light at all times but you don’t need the long run times of bigger lights, the pocket flashlight strikes a compromise between body size and brightness.
CR123 pocket flashlights tend to be the brightest lights because they can deliver 3V with one battery, and the CR123 battery itself is shorter than a AA. If moderate brightness is acceptable, there are a lot of good single AA lights as well.
One in particular I can recommend is the Fenix E12. For things I’ve personally used a pocket flashlight for it’s a great all-arounder. It has two brightness modes, the lower of which is great for closets, checking under a desk or couch, or even walking out into your back yard when it’s late. When you need more brightness, its high mode does a pretty decent job illuminating an area in front of you at a moderate distance. It gets less than 2 hours of battery life at that mode, though, so I’d recommend breaking out your larger lights if you anticipate needing lots of light for longer periods.
What I like about AA LED flashlights in general is the ease of replacing batteries. If I’m going out of town for the weekend camping or something, I can simply throw a handful of AA’s in a backpack. I may not end up needing them, but if I do they’re right there and were cheap to stock up on.
Also, you can get yourself some good NiMH AA batteries for every day lights. These can be recharged 1000 times and get longer run times than regular AA’s. They’re a bit pricier up front, but save you big in the long run if you swap batteries regularly.
LED Flashlight Modes
Old school flashlights only had an on/off button. These days a growing number of flashlights have various output modes you can switch between. This increases their versatility, but is also another thing to consider.
Some flashlights have 3-5 or more modes. One person may find all those options great, but someone else may find so many options tedious to switch between. In some cases the light will remember the mode you left off on, and will resume that mode when you switch the light on again. Other times, though, it has a default order it switches through that resets every time you turn the light on. It can be a pain switch to medium repeatedly in these cases if you have to toggle between 4 other modes first.
The Nitecore MT2A I mentioned earlier has 5 modes, but 2 of them can be used actively at a time and quickly switched between. By either tightening the head bezel all the way or loosening it a quarter turn, you can toggle between Turbo mode and a user selected mode (I use medium). That actually makes it efficient to use, easy to toggle, and gives the option between super bright and decent general usage light all the time.
If you can’t find a setup that makes switching easy and you don’t think you need half a dozen modes, this may be a deterrent for you. In that case you’d be better off to find a light with 1-2 modes and keep it simple.
Other modes the flashlight may incorporate include strobe mode (more on that below), SOS mode, or a continuous on/off mode. These can be great for certain uses, but again if you don’t think you’ll use them it may be a consideration to look at alternatives.
Tactical LED Flashlights for Self Defense
As tacticalintelligence.net points out, tactical flashlights can be useful in nighttime scenarios in the event a hostile person seems to be targeting you.
Provides a Tactical Advantage: When coupled with other self-defense weapons, a flashlight provides a great tactical advantage. Not only does it illuminate threat areas as mentioned above, but it can blind an attacker which can disrupt aim and focus. From the attackers standpoint all they see is a wall of light and a dark silhouette behind it (that would be you). This not only masks your position but will mask any weapons you may be holding such as a knife, baton, or pistol, providing you with that tactical edge you need to come out alive.
The strobe function of some tactical flashlights serves exactly this role. Because it so quickly alternates between darkness and high-intensity light, the other person’s eyes cannot adjust and they’ll be blinded. It’ll be impossible for them to look in the direction of your strobing light and make out any detail or move much without being disoriented.
If you’re certain this person is bad news in that moment, that can give you the chance to make a getaway or perhaps make them rethink their plans altogether. It’s a worthy consideration if you think you’ll carry your flashlight with you everywhere and want a nonviolent way to help avoid conflict.
Big or small for self defense (and home defense)?
Outdoorlife.com gives the following recommendation:
…you’ll be more likely and willing to carry a small LED light, than a cumbersome club-like torch. A flashlight about 5 or 6 inches in length is the go-to light for many professionals in tactical lines of work. It’s small enough to put in a pocket, mount on a firearm or take with you wherever you go.
You shouldn’t be using your light as striking weapon, so a smaller light will quell the temptation to use it to club someone. If you’re trying to beat down an intruder with your light, you are no longer using the device to illuminate or disorient. Furthermore, if the bulb breaks, then you are the idiot who brought a club to a knife—or gun—fight.
Some flashlights have a strike plate on the bezel surrounding the glass lens (often curved and almost bladed). I guess the idea behind this is that you can jam the head of the flashlight into someone and it’d do damage, but most folks in defense forums agree that it’s not as effective as other defense techniques and that using the light as a light to blind someone is more effective.
Hopefully this helps get your search started for the ideal LED flashlight.