A quick show of hands, how many of you carry a flashlight with you ‘all the time’? Ok, you folks whose hand is not up, how do you manage to get through your day? I don’t think a day has gone by in the past five years when I have not needed a flashlight at least once. Oh, ok, there was that one day, when I was in the hospital after emergency surgery…
If normal, everyday life seems to require a flashlight every now and again, isn’t is reasonable to assume that an emergency or survival situation would also benefit from having a flashlight? That is why it is important to have a flashlight in your survival kit and even as part of your EDC (everyday carry) equipment. But which flashlight? There are thousands to choose from.
A survival kit flashlight would be small, light, very bright, run forever, water- and everything else- proof and work equally well in all temperatures. While we are wishing, let’s include low priced as well, because such a light already does not exist. We can compromise to get a light adequate for our purposes. Low price and high quality/function lighting are mutually contradictory; assume that your perfect light will be among the more expensive in its class. Small, light and run forever are mutually contradictory with very bright.
Let us consider the survival/emergency uses of a flashlight. First of all, it should provide light to accomplish things in the dark or just for comfort. This actually does not often require much light; just a few lumens will usually do. Tasks which require more light tend to be fairly short-lived. The other primary usage is for signalling. Bright is good, but not always critical.
Keeping this in mind, we discard any possibilities which do not use a LED bulb. They are just too ‘fragile’ and suck power. Next we tentatively discard any ‘multi-function’ item which includes a light, since in many cases the light function is an afterthought and is not optimal. Unless we are sure the light part is adequate, the most effective use of these is if the other part(s) are critical and we just don’t have any room for a light; in other words, no matter how poor the light is, the only other choice is no light. Next we discard any light which is ‘too big’ for the kit we are building. If the kit is a ‘micro’ kit, only a ‘keychain’ or ‘micro’ light is a possibility and even those will likely not fit. For an EDC or pocket kit, a small flashlight or keychain light are the best choices. For a belt pouch or pack add-on kit, small or medium are the best choices. Only in large, vehicle based kits, would a large light be appropriate and even then I might use a medium light and use the rest of the space/weight for something else.
Now we have a smaller group of lights to choose from. Let us choose possible lights for an EDC kit; thus the only lights we will be looking at are keychain and small lights. A keychain light is powered by one or more ‘watch’ batteries and is about the size of a stack of four quarters. A ‘small’ class light has a head about the same size as the battery compartment and uses one AAA, AA or CR123 battery. Since they are a short battery, some two cell CR123 lights may qualify for this class as well.
Remember the brightness versus run time contradiction? Some modern lights have a selectable brightness so you can get the best of both worlds. When looking for a light, look for the advertised brightness level(s) and the claimed ‘run time’ for each. I would say that you should not settle for less than 100 hours at the lowest setting. Because this is your goal, it might be wise to bypass any light which does not provide this information in their advertising or in a reliable evaluation.
Some flashlights have a ‘momentary’ switch which only provides light when you are pressing the button. This is useful for tactical uses and ‘morse code’, which are not the most important survival flashlight functions. It is fine if this is an option, but the light MUST have a switch which provides continuous light without operator involvement. Some lights also have a ‘strobe’ function meant to disorient an attacker; again not a primary survival function. However some do have build in ‘S-O-S’ flashing which might be of value.
Survival situations tend to be rough, so flashlights should be water proof and impact resistant.
Triple A (AAA) batteries are easy to find but don’t provide a long run-time. They should be avoided unless a light using one is the only light which will fit in your kit. Double A (AA) batteries are also readily available and are a better choice. CR123 batteries are harder to find and more costly, but they tend to offer the greatest performance. The choice in these is usually between Alkaline and Lithium. Alkaline are easier to find and cheaper, whereas the Lithium have a longer storage (shelf) life and work better in temperature extremes.
Rechargeable batteries should be avoided unless the flashlight is designed to work with them (they put out 1.2v instead of the 1.5v of non-rechargeable ones). Even if they work well in a particular light, they all ‘self-discharge’ over time which means you will need to regularly recharge the batteries in your kit (which reduces their capability a bit with each recharge). One option is to have a rechargeable in the light for everyday use, and non-rechargeable batteries in the kit for emergency use. Another is to have a recharge technology in the kit (usually solar or crank generator). In rechargeable batteries, Ni-Cad (Nickle Cadmium) are the worst and Lithium-Ion are the best, with NiMh (Nickle Metal hydride) somewhere between them.
Fenix lights seem to be among the leaders in survival light performance. Many other brands have a shorter run time for equivalent brightness, battery and size. In a single AA flashlight, their LD12 has a maximum brightness of 125 lumens and a maximum run time of 100 hours. My personal favorite is the dual CR123 PD32 with a maximum brightness of 340 lumens and a maximum run time of 245 hours. I carry it in my pocket with a rechargeable (18650) battery for everyday use, and fresh CR123 pairs in the kit for emergency use.
UPDATE: Fenix lights are pretty good, but I found that Olight “Baton” line had some models which are better (brighter with longer run times). The latest models, though, are not as desirable, being optimized for recharging and having higher prices.
If a standard battery flashlight just will not fit, the most likely alternative is a ‘keychain’ light. The best of these seems to be the Photon Freedom Micro. The white light version officially claims a run-time of ’12+’ hours. The red and orange light versions claim ‘120 hours’. There are other colors, but white is best for general illumination and red traditionally does not interfere with night vision. Orange is claimed to also not interfere with night vision, but provide more usable illumination than red. They don’t list the run-time at any particular brightness level; presumably lower levels will run longer. One fellow managed to damage the switch so it cannot turn off. He claims it has continuously burned at the lowest brightness for 9 weeks and is still going. Note that these lights are not ‘regulated’, so brightness will decrease over time while on.
This model is water resistant and fairly rugged with a ‘quick change’ battery compartment. Besides adjustable brightness, it has 3 strobe modes and a S-O-S mode. It comes with a versatile mount which allows it to be clipped to your hat brim or pocket for hands-free use. The Photons are costly for this class of light (around $15); if that is a concern there are many other lights of this type, some of which can be had for as little as a couple of dollars.
One final thought. If you have batteries in your kit, they need to be protected so that they cannot short out. Not only would this leave you without batteries, but a short could conceivably cause your kit to burn up, which would definitely be a problem. Best is a battery case, taped shut, but just wrapping and securing the batteries in non-conductive, penetration resistant material (aluminum foil would not be a good choice 🙂 should do. As for the flashlight, most have buttons or switches which could get turned on in the kit. Prevent this either by packing the flashlight so the switch physically cannot be activated, or by unscrewing the end cap enough that contact cannot be made, or by putting some non-conductive barrier somewhere in the circuit or even taking the batteries out.