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Characteristics of a General Purpose Survival Flashlight by W. in Washington

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.

My purpose here is not to recommend specific lights. There are web sites that can better help you make that decision. I’ll include a few links at the end to get you started. What I want to do is offer my opinions about what I think makes for a good survival light. Other people will have other opinions. While I don’t consider myself a flashlight expert, I own over 20 of them and have put a lot of thought into using flashlights in long-term survival scenarios. Following are what I consider the most important criteria in evaluating a survival flashlight (not necessarily in order of importance).
1. Small and lightweight is better
Bigger flashlights are usually bigger (or longer) because they hold more or larger batteries than smaller flashlights, which usually translates into increased light output. On the other hand, they’re also heavier and more unwieldy than their smaller cousins, and do not necessarily enjoy a longer runtime than lights using fewer or smaller batteries. Ideally, a survival light uses just one or two batteries, and is 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 (though there are some that would make decent back-ups, such as the PALight or PakLite), while most D-cell lights are too big and/or heavy for consistent, comfortable carry. That leaves AA- or AAA-cell lights as the most logical choices. Using a common battery size is important for obvious reasons. Many new battery types and sizes have hit the market in the last few years, and while these are (slowly) gaining in popularity, they’re still not as common as AAs and AAAs. They also tend to be more expensive. Remember, we’re talking about serious, long-term, dedicated survival lights, not the fancy whiz-bang or cheap-o flashlight you keep by your bedside, in your glove box, or take car camping. 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. In fact, if possible, it might be wise to standardize all your survival-related electronics so that they use AA and/or AAA batteries.
3. Uses a variety of battery types
It’s important that survival flashlights be able to function whether using 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 levels. In
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 [1] 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 flashlight.
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 [2]
. 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 [3]. It’s no longer updated regularly, but many of the lights still being sold are reviewed at the site.

JWR Adds: I agree with W’s recommendation to get white LED flashlights. Here at Rawles Ranch [4], we mainly use the older late 1990s-vintage C. Crane Company blue-white LED lights that are compatible with NiMH [5] rechargeable AA batteries. I realize that many SurvivalBlog readers have a lot invested in incandescent bulb flashlights. Rather than selling them at a loss, keep in mind that LED replacement heads [6] now available for most or the major brands including MagLite and SureFire. OBTW, 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 [7] 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, but almost suicidal when confronting two-legged predators. However, I do advocate using the same lights with an infrared (IR) filter installed, in situations where you have night vision goggles (or a Starlight scope [8]) and you have a high level of confidence that your opponent does not. This will give you a tremendous tactical advantage in low-light fighting. In these circumstances, for short periods of time you will want all the light that you can get! For this purpose, I keep the original incandescent light heads for my Surefire lights handy. 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 shelf life. Our current box, (which, BTW, was generously donated by a reader in lieu of a 10 Cent Challenge [9] subscription payment), won’t expire until 2018.

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 [10]. 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 [11]–a.k.a. Lanyard Knot) to be able to hang a light from a branch, belt loop, tent d-ring, or other object.