Characteristics of a General Purpose Survival Flashlight
Let there be light. We take it for granted these days, but in the
woods on a dark night, during a power outage, or--most importantly--in
a long-term survival situation, you'll quickly learn just how
important light is, and how important it is to choose your
illumination tools wisely.
Here are my opinions about what makes for a good survival light. Following
what I consider the most important criteria in evaluating a survival
First, there is no "one light" that will do everything. Any more than "one
gun" or "one knife". You wil need several.
1. Small and lightweight is better in most situations. But in others, you
Bigger flashlights hold
more or larger batteries than smaller flashlights, which usually
translates into increased light output. Some are bigger due to marketing, or
poor design. Many rubber flash lights run on two AA cells, are twice the
bulk of a Mini Mag, and don't work as well as the Mini Mag. Bigger
flashlights are heavier. They may or may not have longer runtime.
Many perfectly good survival lights use just one or two batteries,
and small and lightweight enough comfortably carry in your shirt or
front pants pocket. This gives you more carry options and makes
carrying the light for long periods of time more comfortable.
2. Uses a common battery size
Currently, the most common flashlight battery sizes are AAA, AA, and D
cells. Very few lights use 9-volt batteries or lithium photo batteries.
That leaves AA- or AAA-cell lights are the most convenient for pocket carry.
C and D cells for in the truck. For occasional use when more light power is
Using a common battery size is important for price, and for getting more
batteries if you need them. Depending on the severity and duration of the
survival scenario, it
will probably be easier to either purchase or barter for AA and AAA
batteries than the newer, more exotic sizes.
3. Uses a variety of battery types
It's important that survival flashlights be able to function whether
using carbon, alkaline, lithium, or rechargeable batteries--especially
rechargeables (along with a portable solar recharging system), since
you could be facing a long-term survival situation. Each type has its
own particular advantages and disadvantages. Most lights will function
using all three types, though some manufacturers don't include lithium
primaries in their list of recommendations. That doesn't mean lithium
batteries will harm your light, but don't assume there won't be a
problem using any type of battery that the manufacturer doesn't
specifically recommend. Find out exactly what batteries your survival
light can tolerate before you purchase it, or test the batteries in
your light before you have to rely on them.
4. Fewer batteries is better
Obviously, the fewer the batteries needed to operate the light . . .
the fewer batteries you'll need to operate the light. This is a good
thing in a survival situation, even better in a long-term survival
situation. Your two-cell light may get a total runtime of 60 hours
compared to just 40 hours for my one-cell light. But I'll get a total
of 80 hours using two batteries compared to your 60 hours. Of course,
comparisons like this don't always apply: run times vary greatly
between different manufacturers and models depending on the type of
light source and the electronics employed. Still, as a rule, a
survival light should use no more than two batteries, preferably just
one. Currently, there are many one-cell AA lights on the market that
not only produce a lot of light (for their size), but also enjoy
excellent run times. Twenty-plus hours of usable light is not
uncommon, and even longer run times can be found. There are also a few
1xAAA lights available that might make adequate primary or excellent
back-up survival lights.
5. Simple to operate
There are lots of fancy lights out there that sport multiple output
levels, including SOS and strobe modes. Some are even
computer-programmable. While that's not a bad thing in itself, when it
comes to survival lights (as with most survival gear), simple is
usually better. A light with just one medium-intensity level will
usually suffice, or perhaps a two-level light with low and high output
the end, it doesn't matter how many light levels or modes your light
offers, just so that it's dirt simple and intuitive to operate.
6. Reliable operation mechanism
" Twisty" or "clickie," that is the question. Which is more reliable?
There is no definitive answer, because operation reliability depends
more on the quality of the light (and its constituent parts) than on
the particular mode of operation. And even a good company can turn out
the occasional bad light. I've heard of $200+ Surefire lights having
clickie malfunctions. I've also heard of twisty lights failing because
the circuit board was displaced after repeated use, or by using too
much torque while tightening the bezel. Most clickies have the on-off
mechanism on the rear of the light, while some have it on the side
(e.g., Maglite). Most twisties are operated by turning the bezel
(head) or tail cap. And there are also hybrid models utilizing both
twisty and clickie operations. If at all possible, obtain spare
clickie mechanisms and/or twisty bezels (depending on the type of
light) to use as replacement parts. [JWR Adds: Changing a MagLite
"clickie" switch assembly require the use of an Allen (hex) wrench.
Thankfully, MagLite sells large maintenance & repair spare parts sets
at a very low price, considering the number of parts included in the
sets. I have been told that they sell these parts sets at near their
cost, to keep their biggest customers (such as police and fire
departments) happy and loyal to the brand.]
7. Well constructed
Look for lights where the bulb is reasonably protected within the
bezel, that are shock resistant and water resistant/proof, and that
won't accidentally turn on while in your pocket or backpack. Clickies
are most prone to accidental activation. This can usually be prevented
by rotating the bezel or tail cap (depending on which end the
batteries are inserted into) counterclockwise while the light is on
until the power cuts out, then clicking the clickie button off.
8. LED versus incandescent
No contest here. A flashlight that uses an incandescent (or similar
type) bulb is simply not a primary survival light. Period. If the bulb
itself can burn out or malfunction due to shock (broken element), then
you don't want to trust your life to its operation. While light
emitting diode (LED) "bulbs" technically don't last forever, a 5,000-
to 10,000-hour use life is close enough to "forever" for survival
purposes. And no, LED bulbs are not impervious to shock, but they're a
heck of a lot tougher than other bulb types. Over the last few years
LED technology has improved exponentially, to the point where they now
favorably compare to or out-perform most other lights in almost every
category, including output (brightness). There are still brighter bulb
types out there, but the newest and brightest LEDs are more than
bright enough to meet virtually every basic need you'll have for a
flashlight. The older Nichia brand LEDs, still commonly found on store
racks (it takes time for new technology to trickle down to the retail
level) emit a slightly bluish tint. Many people find this tint
objectionable, though it's really a matter of aesthetics. I still rely
on a relatively dim Nichia LED as my primary survival light (a CMG
Infinity Ultra, now redesigned and marketed under the Gerber name),
and am more than willing to put up with the bluish tint due to its
superb runtime (80+ hours of usable light on just 1 AA battery). My
current back-up survival light (an old Arc-P 1xAAA) is also a Nichia.
Other people are not so forgiving of the tint. Not to worry. The newer
generation LEDs (e.g., the so-called Cree lights, and others are on
the way) boast a lily white tint--or maybe even whiter than lilies.
The bottom line is, go with LED technology.
9. Good compromise between output and run time
Other than the "LED versus incandescent" issue (which is actually a
non-issue), this is arguably the most important criterion, and it's
what separates most lights from true survival lights. Look for a run
time of at least seven hours to 50% output (which would probably
translate into 8-12 total hours of usable light). This is the minimum
that you should settle for. The longer the run time, the better. Let's
make sure you understand that last point. The longer the run time, the
better. Don't get hung up on the whole output (i.e., how bright it is)
thing. Super-bright "tactical" lights are great for impressing your
friends, but will usually suck batteries dry much more quickly than
less powerful lights (although improving LED technology continues to
give us brighter lights and better run times.). Also, the darker your
environment, the less light you need to see well enough. Brighter
lights can actually be a disadvantage, because they more readily
attract unwanted attention, and can also impair your night vision more
than moderate-output lights. These are important considerations in a
survival scenario. Again, we're talking about survival lights here,
not tactical (super bright) lights. While it might make sense to also
take along a super-bright light for "tactical" use (e.g., disorienting
or disrupting the night vision of a potential threat), in most cases
these lights will not meet the necessary criteria to qualify as true
survival lights. And to repeat: the darker your environment, the less
light you'll need to perform most essential tasks.
11. Quality of light beam
What this refers to is the illumination pattern, or beam
characteristic, of the light. It's sometimes referred to as "spill."
For survival lights, a wide spill beam is usually preferable to a
tight, bright spot beam.
While the former won't illuminate specific objects as well, it
provides illumination to a wider area, facilitating a broader picture
and better peripheral vision. The latter will illuminate specific
objects or smaller areas much better, and will have greater (longer)
"throw," but will also tend to draw your line of sight inward, so that
you focus more on what's illuminated in the spot beam than on what may
be around it. Tight, bright beams are also more detrimental to night
vision than wider, dimmer spill beams. A few lights seek a compromise
between the two, claiming to offer both a bright center beam as well
as decent spill. Some are more successful at accomplishing this than
others. Personally, I prefer lights that do one thing or the other
over those that take a "Swiss Army Knife" approach to illumination,
though you may feel otherwise.
If you happen to choose to also carry a more powerful "tactical"
light, just in case it's needed, you'll probably prefer that it have a
bright, fairly narrow beam. But for a general purpose survival light,
you want a wider, more diffuse beam, allowing you take in more visual
information at one time.
12. Lanyard hole
The lanyard hole is just that--a hole [or loop] in the light [body or
tail cap] through which you can attach a lanyard (cord) or a split
ring, to which the lanyard can be attached (I prefer this setup). The
lanyard can then be tied around your wrist, for example, or through a
belt loop to prevent the loss of your light. Instead of a hole, some
lights employ other means for lanyard attachment, and some have no
dedicated lanyard attachment at all--except, perhaps, a (removable or
screwed-into-place) pocket clip under which you could thread a cord.
Unless you choose to forgo the lanyard and attach your light to a key
ring along with other needed items (which I advise against, though
that might be a viable option for a small back-up light), Always use a
lanyard and secure it to your person, your clothing, or your gear,
even when not in use. Your survival light is an essential,
life-saving, possibly irreplaceable tool, but it will do you no good
if you lose it. To be honest, I don't think I'd buy a light for
serious survival that did not feature a dedicated, foolproof lanyard
attachment, preferably a hole through some portion of the body.
13. Pocket clip
Most smaller lights these days come with pocket clips. They are
usually detachable (slide-on, slide-off), and are useful for securing
the light to the inside of a pocket, or for clipping it to your
clothes, gear, or hat brim while performing tasks that require both
hands. (I would always use a lanyard in addition to the clip). Pocket
clips are nice to have. If your light doesn't come with one, it would
be worthwhile to find a clip from some other source (such as another
light of the same diameter) that fits snugly around your survival
14. Can stand on its tail
This is not an essential criterion, and I certainly wouldn't reject a
light simply because it isn't designed to stand upright on its tail
end (and FWIW, my current primary survival light doesn't), but lights
that can do so add an additional level of functionality. They are
especially useful when you desire ambient (rather than direct) light,
such as when reading or dressing in your tent. Of course, you can
always prop your light up or clip it to something to get the same
effect, but it's not quite as handy.
15. Caring for your light
Other than lubing the bezel and/or tail cap threads with an
appropriate wet or dry lubricant, and avoiding cross-threading when
attaching the bezel and/or tail cap, flashlight maintenance is pretty
simple. Don't put the battery(ies) in backwards, keep it dry, don't
drop it, etc. I'd suggest keeping your survival light empty of
batteries until needed. Otherwise, keep lithiums in there. Alkalines
can leak and ruin your light.
Q: What about headlamps? Can these be used as survival lights?
A: Very handy items to have. The light shines right where you look.
Including smack dab into the face of the person you're looking at.
Maybe it's just me, but I don't much care for light in my eyes when
I'm trying to preserve my night vision. They might also make a handy
head-shot target for hostiles. Let's put it this way. While most small
flashlights can usually be rigged to serve as makeshift headlamps
(with the aid of a pocket clip or headband, for example), most
headlamps cannot readily be used in the same manner as one might use a
flashlight. Headlamps could possibly serve as back-up survival lights
(if they use only one or two batteries), but I would not recommend
them as primary survival lights. A flashlight will, in most instances,
prove more versatile.
1. The best flashlight resource on the Web is Candle Power Forums
. Lots of traffic and more info about flashlights than most people
would ever need to know. Also a good source for obtaining custom lights.
2. One of the better flashlight review sites is FlashlightReviews.com.
It's no longer updated regularly, but many of the lights still being
sold are reviewed at the site.
if you decide to transition to LEDs, save
those original incandescent light bulb components. You never know when
someday you may need a lot of light--for example for impromptu surgery
out in the field.
The other exception is truly SHTF tactical use.
While I do not advocate using a visible light flashlight or
rail-mounted weapon light where you are up against and armed opponent.
(Since they provide your opponent with a convenient point of aim.)
They are fine for shooting marauding bears.
I also keep a
50 piece box of the standard Panasonic brand CR-123 lithium batteries
in my refrigerator, as a "tactical reserve." These have a 10+ year
Regarding lanyards, I recommend using a long, stout lanyard that is a
full loop, preferably with a ball-shaped spring button slider. I
mainly use olive drab paracord. The longer the better, for the sake of
versatility. If the lanyard is too short, then there is not enough
slack to loop the flashlight through (in a Girth Hitch--a.k.a. Lanyard
Knot) to be able to hang a light from a branch, belt loop, tent
d-ring, or other object.