Better batteries and better lightbulbs have transformed pocket flashlights (or, as we say in English countries, ‘torches’). What was formerly bulky and heavy, requiring multiple batteries that would be used up way too soon, large reflectors, and fragile bulbs (drop a flashlight with an incandescent bulb switched on and you invariably cause the bulb to fail) has now been replaced by tiny little lights using amazing energy-efficient, long-lived, robust LEDs.
The tiny LEDs obviate the need for large lenses, and their energy efficiency (they use three to thirty times less power than traditional incandescent bulbs) allow for massive reductions in the batteries needed to power them. Best of all, they are virtually indestructible, and with a life measured in the many tens of thousands of hours, they’ll potentially outlive their owners.
Making a good thing even better, modern batteries store a lot more charge within them. Alkaline batteries – now the standard – hold 2x – 11x more charge than the previous carbon-zinc batteries.
The bottom line – in my case, my one-time much-loved six-cell Maglite (with six of the large D-cell batteries) has now been replaced by a single AA cell flashlight. The battery lasts longer, the light is probably as bright, and while it doesn’t work as well as a ‘night stick’, the convenience of having a reliable and omnipresent flashlight in my pocket is hard to overstate.
Sure, many people now use the flashlight feature on their smart phone as a ‘go anywhere’ type flashlight, and that’s a good solution too. But I only have my phone with me 95% of the time, whereas I have my flashlight with me whenever I have my trousers on, because it lives unobtrusively in my pocket. It is also slightly better than a cell phone light – more powerful and more directed, so better able to light up, for example, a path in front of you.
It is astonishing how often I use this little flashlight. It is particularly useful on planes, particularly when they dim the lights for ‘overnight’ flights and you want to find something around you or up in the overhead. I use it regularly, every day. From peering into the coffee bean hopper in my coffee maker in the morning to lighting up the hallway at night; from using it to search for items that fall behind something to using it when taking the dog outside at night, I use it several times every day.
Best of all, the single AA cell that powers it lasts seemingly forever. I replace them ‘whether I need to or not’ as part of a ‘getting ready for a long journey’ ritual – with AA cells from Costco or Amazon costing as little as 25c a piece, I’d rather know I have a fresh battery and not want it, than find out I have a dead battery but be wanting it.
How Much Light Do You Need
There is a huge range in terms of how much light flashlights emit. Their lighting ‘power’ is generally measured in lumens, but these ratings are seldom accurate and seldom sufficiently specified. Ideally you want to know not just how much light is emitted, but also how focused the beam is – the more tightly focused the beam, the longer its range, but for some purposes (indoor area illumination in a power cut, for example) you might prefer a more diffuse beam.
Note that the solution for when you need area illumination can be simple, assuming a moderately flat and moderately white ceiling is simple – stand the flashlight on its end and shine it upwards; the light bouncing back down from the ceiling will be much softer and diffused.
There is a potential temptation to ‘treat yourself’ to more light power than you really need. While we love being able to carry a ‘portable sun’ with us, and it is true that dazzling a potential attacker might be a possible way of de-escalating an encounter, it is important to realize that in this article, we are narrowly considering a convenient pocket light, not a larger flashlight that you’re less likely to always have with you.
In addition, because of the way our eyes perceive light, doubling the lumens won’t necessarily double the range of the beam or how bright we see it as being. It would sort of double the area it can illuminate to a constant brightness, but we tend to think of ‘doubling’ an area as what is actually a quadrupling of the area. So the difference between, say 150 lumens and 200 lumens is probably imperceptible to most of us, and remembering also that the lumen measurements seem to be equal parts science and science fiction, we suggest not giving too much importance to lumen measurements.
We suggest you will probably find anything from about 120 lumens and up to be fine for most general purposes, and if the flashlight has a lower light setting, then the lower it is, the better, down to perhaps 10 – 20 lumens.
A distinguishing point that you probably can’t tell if you’re buying online is how even the beam is. Some beams have a ‘hot spot’ somewhere that makes the rest of the beam area dim in comparison and harder to see, and some have the ‘doughnut of death’ – a dark spot in the middle. Both these issues are absolute no-no’s in a tactical light, but more forgivable in a pocket light. The more even the coverage, the more useful the beam.
There are lots of different types of batteries used to power small flashlights. Some will operate with one single AAA or AA battery, others use non-standard batteries, some use two or more AAA/AA batteries, some use NiMH rechargeable batteries and some use Li-ion rechargeable batteries.
Even cleverer, some will accept either an alkaline AA battery or a NiMH battery or a Li-ion battery, which seems like close to the ideal ‘best of all worlds’ approach.
From the perspective of a small tiny ‘go everywhere’ pocket flashlight, we recommend you only consider units that will accept one single AAA or AA battery. Don’t get trapped by buying a lower cost flashlight but which then turns around and consumes expensive hard to find batteries at an alarming rate.
On balance, the single AA battery flashlights are only slightly larger/heavier, but have a much longer life per battery and probably a more powerful beam, too, than the AAA battery units, so that is our ideal compromise battery.
If the flashlight has ‘clever’ electronics in it to accept either a regular AA battery (1.5V when fresh) or a NiMH battery (1.2V when fully charged) or even a Li-ion battery (3.7V – possibly internally reduced to 1.5V) and there’s no appreciable cost or size penalty, then maybe choose that. But probably you’ll tend to only use it with the AA battery – at 25c each, it is so simple to just replace them as needed, and maybe only once or twice a year. If you choose rechargeable batteries, you’ll have to recharge them at regular intervals – not only because you have used up all their charge for lighting, but also because such batteries ‘self discharge’ and become flat all on their own over three – six months or so.
There’s nothing worse than a flashlight with a dead battery when you need some light. And rechargeable batteries, when discharged, are of no use to you if you, eg, need your flashlight in a power cut. So while we have rechargeable batteries in most of our electronics, we use regular batteries in our flashlights.
Features to Look For
If you’re going to carry your flashlight in your pocket, you want to make sure that the unit has no sharp edges. Some ‘tactical’ flashlights deliberately have semi-sharp crenellated edges to allow it to become a defensive tool if you are attacked, but those edges will chew through your pocket linings. Get a flashlight with nice smooth rounded corners.
We prefer metal to plastic, but that’s merely a preference with no real science behind it.
We like units that are dual power. We seldom use the high power setting, preferring the low power which most of the time is plenty bright enough, while extending its battery life out from perhaps 2 – 5 hours to maybe 20 – 50 hours. But when we do want the high power, it is great to have it available.
On the other hand, we find three power levels are less essential, and four levels unnecessary. KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. And we hate the “SOS” flashing function, but most lights seem to come with that, so it is almost impossible to avoid.
It is good if the unit is somewhat waterproof.
It is good if the unit, while probably generally cylindrical, has some edging on it so it won’t roll off a sloped surface.
It is good if the unit can stand on its end and act as a lamp.
Some units have focusable beams, but that tends to be offered in larger sized units, not in the smallest ones, and we’ve also noticed that some of the low-priced focusable beam flashlights have terribly flimsy focus rings that break almost instantly. And, need we remind you, we are recommending here a simple ‘take everyone’ small and light and robust unit. By all means do as we do and get larger more powerful and more fully featured units to keep in the car, on the bedside table, and elsewhere, but for your ‘Every Day Carry’ light, choose small and simple.
Some units come with pocket clips and/or split ring/key-ring attachments and/or wrist straps. We remove all such things. At the risk of being overly repetitive, all we want is a simple unadorned flashlight to keep in our pocket.
Small Flashlight Choices
These days it is possible to get small pocket-sized flashlights for as little as $5 – $10. Certainly, there’s no need to get a unit costing $100+, but if this is to be an ultra-reliable item that is always in your pocket, maybe you want something a bit better than the $5 unit in the bargain bin.
We would also point out that, on average, it seems each of these lights lasts us about three years. But we replace them not because they fail, but because we lose them. We surmise they fall out of our pockets – especially when lying back in an airplane seat. Or we leave them alongside beds in hotel rooms and forget them when checking out. If you feel you might be similarly prone to forgetfulness, it might be best to not choose an ultra-deluxe unit (and to buy them two at a time!).
We have used Surefire lights in the past for tactical purposes, and continue to view them as the ‘gold standard’ for high stress and special application environments. But, as we keep returning to, we’re simply wanting a tiny pocket flashlight, so the Surefire units, none of which are small or appropriate enough for this purpose, stay in the drawer.
Our last three units have all been Fenix units, and they remain our preferred brand. They are robust and well made, and their small pocket models are indeed small and well suited for pocket carry. They have a limited lifetime warranty, but we’ve never had a warranty claim.
I occasionally buy astonishingly cheap flashlights from China that seem to be as good as the Fenix units, but they have always disappointed, with poor quality construction and uneven lighting, and the Fenix units remain unchallenged as my EDC (Every Day Carry) light.
The Fenix lights come in a wide array of sizes and configurations (and pricing). Three possibilities to keep in mind would be :
- Fenix E05, the smallest of the three. This takes a single AAA battery, has either an 85 or 27 lumen brightness setting, and is $20 on Amazon.
- Fenix E12, which uses a single AA battery and has three brightness settings – 130, 50, and 8 lumens. It is $27 on Amazon. This is probably the best choice and best compromise between too big and too small.
- Fenix LD12, which uses either a single AA battery or either a NiMH or a Li-ion rechargeable battery. It has four brightness settings – a ‘turbo’ mode 320 lumens with a Li-ion battery or 150 lumens without, then a 70, 30, and 5 lumen mode as well. It costs about $50 with one regular battery included, or $60 with a Li-ion and a regular battery. The Li-ion battery is clever – to charge it, you plug a micro-USB cable into a socket on the battery itself.
If you did want to go ‘wild and crazy’ and get a light so powerful you could cook with it (I exaggerate slightly!) then the Fenix E35 with its 1000 lumen capability is only an inch longer and 0.2″ wider in diameter and 1 ounce heavier. It has a number of other brightnesses all the way down to a mere 8 lumens and uses a rechargeable 18650 li-ion battery. $46 without battery or $55 with, on Amazon. It too uses a Li-ion battery with a recharging socket built in to the battery.
There are of course plenty of bigger and brighter flashlights. And there are ones much smaller as well, to say nothing of most phones these days also having a ‘flashlight mode’ to provide a broad/diffuse short-range beam of light.
But for a general purpose always-keep-in-your-pocket light, one of these Fenix lights is an excellent product, and astonishingly useful. Whether you’re getting one for yourself, or several as stocking stuffers for Christmas, they’ll be appreciated for the high quality and functional items they are, and – like me – you’ll end up wondering how you ever lived without one in the past.