Saturday, November 15, 2008

Lightweight Flashlights, Headlamps, and Other Light Sources

Picking the right flashlight for lightweight hiking is a chore many have grappled with as there are so many options. These options seem to get heavier, costlier, bulkier, and more confusing the more this topic is considered. Fortunately, some flashlights have edged their way to the top and they don't include the old MAG light which is a useful tool for bludgeoning an attacking grizzly but not for much else.

When considering a lightweight flashlight, the user needs some general understanding of things that work and things that don’t. For example, a red filter on a flashlight can save your night vision once it is turned on. When a white light is used, it will take anywhere from 15-30 minutes for your night vision to be restored. Therefore, a simple red filter on any light is a good idea for simple nighttime map checking, reading, or camp chores. For hiking, white light seems to be the best choice as it is most visible. Similarly, different lighting levels may also be important as it makes as much sense to try to read with a blazing light as it does to try to hike and navigate with something very dim. Of course, how much light is desired is based on the individual hiker and conditions. No doubt there are people who would like to bring a spotlight while others would be plenty comfortable with no light at all. Over time, I found that I gained little comfort with more light yet still felt uncomfortable with too little light. Mentally, I figured more light would make a huge difference, but the reality is that all light disappears into the mass darkness of the wilderness, can't get past trees, or otherwise doesn't reach whatever the destination I'm seeking to highlight. For me, minimal light is necessary, but no light at all doesn't make a lot of sense. Having the ability to obtain light is as much about useful utility as it is about making yourself more visible to search and rescue teams if necessary.

Batteries are also important and users are encouraged to use the same batteries for any items they carry so they can be interchanged in a pinch with one another. It is also important for the user to be able to change batteries on their own, in the field, with little to no tools which in many cases is impossible either by design or by lack of special implements. Also standard Alkaline batteries have less power than Lithium, but Lithium tends to cost more.

The type of bulb is also an important topic as a standard bulb has multiple fragile implements and is subject to damage quite easily whereas an LED bulb has often been described as indestructible and able to last for decades. The key to any good bulb is the measurement of the “lumen”, or the unit of luminous flux which is essentially a measurement of the perceived power of the light based on the sensitivity of the human eye to different wavelengths of light.

A couple other good tips when searching for a flashlight is to determine the climate it will be used and the utility necessary. For example, due to fluctuating temperatures, condensation, rain, snow, and the inevitable drop into a creek bed, having a waterproof, floating, or highly visible flashlight might be a good idea. Similarly speaking, a flashlight mounted in a manner to wear on the head (i.e. a headlamp) might be the most practical hands-free method to use any flashlight for any reason. Thru-hikers would likely argue that some kind of belt-mount mechanism is equally important as having the light beam closer to the ground is often preferred during night hikes.

Knowing all these things, there are a couple options available which are solid choices for lightweight backpackers.

The manufacturer Photon Light ( offer multiple options, but one of the lightest is the Photon Micro-Lite II. Weighing in at just 6.3 grams, it brags to be visible over 1 mile with an on/off button and the whole thing is about the size of a U.S. quarter. The battery lasts 12 hours and the entire unit is only $16 or so. An available hat-clip likely makes this the most lightweight option on the market.

The “NEW Photon PRO Flashlight” (not to be confused with older models) boasts 1000+ lumen candle power from 2-watt Cree LED, 4 safety modes, weighs in at 46 grams with a single AA Lithium battery. It lasts for 1.5 hours at full power or 250 hours at reduced brightness and costs roughly $50.

The manufacturer Fenix ( also offers a lightweight favorite in the LD01 Fenix which weighs 14.8 grams with just 1 AAA battery. It is waterproof and has three light settings: 10 lumens (8.5 hour life), 27 lumens (3.5 hour life) and 80 lumens (1 hour life). It uses a top end Cree Q5 LED and costs around $45.

For those interested in strictly a headlamp, the manufacturer PETZL ( has many offerings with one of their three lines of headlamps (TIKKA, TACTIKKA and ZIPKA). Each of these offers numerous different options and frills for varying costs. One item, the Petzl e+LITE has quickly become popular because it weighs only 27 grams which is a quite a bit less than the 65-98 gram weight which is common for other headlamps. It also only costs $24 instead of $60+. It claims to shine up to 19 meters and lasts for 45 hours or so. It even has a red filter and strobe signaling mode. Princeton Tec ( also offers some nice options, of specific note, a 78g headlamp known as "Fuel".

The manufacturer SureFire ( makes a variety of lights which are very powerful and durable, but few are lightweight or practical to cover in this venue.

Another option which doesn’t require batteries is something like the UCO Mini Tea-light ( which is nothing more than a small candle within a fairly windproof glass/metal container which weighs around 3.2 ounces and costs less than $15.

Lastly, lightweight backpackers may consider a natural light source (i.e. moon, fire, etc.) which, depending on your needs, may be plenty sufficient. In the end, it depends on the preferences, needs, budget, and competency of the user.

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