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How to Buy a Great Headlamp or Flashlight

Whether you’re spelunking, digging through your pack at night or walking around camp after sundown, you need a good light. It’s one of the Scout Basic Essentials for outdoor adventures. A flashlight or headlamp can help keep you safe while exploring in the dark, serve as an emergency signal or provide a little illumination on a good book before bed.

Let’s shine some light on which headlamp or flashlight to consider before buying.

Sleek and simple, the MINI MAGLITE PRO LED ($30, maglite.com) fits perfectly in your hand, and — thanks to its aluminum exterior — if it slips, it can withstand a 3-foot drop. The flashlight offers 332 lumens and includes 2 AA batteries with a 2 1⁄2 -hour life. 4.1 oz. A cool accessory: safety wands ($9). They’re plastic cones that fit over your flashlight, instantly turning it into a lantern.

THE BASICS

Think about how you will use your light. Will you be taking it on a backpacking trek? Look for something lightweight. Do you want your hands free? Consider a headlamp or flashlight with a clip so you can attach it to the brim of your cap. Would you like different amounts of light? Shop for something with variable settings, including a red-light option, which is easier on everyone’s eyes at night.

If you want versatility, check out the COAST G32 ($30, coastportland.com). It has high and low settings, which you control from the rear button, and you can focus the beam by twisting the bezel at the front of the flashlight. The G32 produces 135 lumens on the low setting and 370 on high. Includes 2 AA batteries with a 4 1⁄2 -hour life on high, 17 hours on low. 5.6 oz.

DURABILITY

Hard plastic should be tough enough if you accidentally drop your light. But some are made with aluminum or super-tough polyethylene plastic. Stronger materials should protect your light from the hardest impacts.

When you’re buying a light, ask yourself: Over a few camping trips will it be able to hold up to wear and tear?

It’s also best to pick a model with a push-button switch because lights with sliding buttons can accidentally be turned on in your pack, killing the batteries or bulb — and leaving you with no light.

You can carry around the COLEMAN CLASSIC 300 LUMENS LED FLASHLIGHT ($35, coleman.com) or hang it from a thin rope or carabiner through its rear bail handle. The light features four settings: high, medium, low and strobe, with 300 lumens on the high setting. It includes 3 AAA batteries with a 3-hour life on high, 75 hours on low. 5.2 oz.

BRIGHTNESS

Think about what you’ll be using your light for. If you just want a light to read by in camp, consider a small flashlight or tiny lantern with LED lights. If you need it for hiking or mountain biking, a bright headlamp with a halogen or Xenon bulb might be a better choice.

Brightness is measured in lumens. What’s a lumen? A lumen is the total amount of light emitted from a flashlight or headlamp. In general, the more lumens, the brighter the light will be. Some handheld flashlights reach levels up to 12,000 lumens — strong enough to shine on something more than half a mile away. You won’t need anything that powerful; a light producing a couple hundred lumens provides more than enough illumination.

Always be aware of where you point your light. Shining a beam into someone’s eyes can disrupt their night vision for up to 30 minutes.

The handy and lightweight PRINCETON TEC ALLOY-X ($60, princetontec.com) is a penlight. Think of how a pen feels in your hand; a penlight is very similar. Even though it’s small, it offers 400 lumens of light. The penlight features three settings you can control either with the front bezel or rear push button. It includes one rechargeable battery with a 30-minute life on high, 28 hours on low. You can swap out the battery with 2 AAA batteries. 1.5 oz.

BATTERIES

Technology has advanced beyond disposable batteries. One popular alternative is rechargeable batteries, often using a USB cord. Other lights use solar cells or magnets. Most lights, though, still operate on AA or AAA batteries but can stay on for hours, even on the brightest setting.

At 250 lumens, the PETZL TIKKINA ($20, petzl.com) presents a great value. The brightness can rotate through three white lighting levels by pressing a large push button. The stretchy adjustable headband can be removed and washed. The light also can be angled down and set into place so you can watch where you’re going. Includes 3 AAA batteries with a 2-hour life on high, 120 hours on low. You can swap out the batteries with a rechargeable one. 2.8 oz.

PRICE

Your budget will determine what you can get. More expensive lights generally have more features, but a simple flashlight for a few dollars might be a great choice. Remember that cheap lights usually are not durable and won’t last long.

One of the coolest features of the LANDER KIVA ($50, lander.com) is its rechargeable USB system. Instead of using a separate cord, detach part of the headband to reveal an integrated charger you can plug straight into a USB-A port. The Kiva’s bulb produces a warm, yellowish beam that can be adjusted by holding down the push button to produce up to 150 lumens. The headband is made from recycled plastic harvested from the ocean. Includes a built-in battery with a 2-hour life on high, 40 hours on low. 2.3 oz.

SIZE AND WEIGHT

If you mainly keep the light in your pack for emergencies or for getting around camp at night, get a smaller light. Some of the newer, more expensive small lights can pack as much power as the older big ones.

The PETZL TIKKA ($30, petzl.com) offers quality and features similar to the Tikkina. One main difference is its phosphorescent reflector, which glows green after you shut off the headlamp. This helps you find the headlamp in the dark. I turned on the light for a few seconds, and it glowed for several minutes afterward. If you hold down the push button, the headlamp’s red-light setting turns on. Includes 3 AAA batteries with a 2-hour life on high, 120 hours on low. 3.3 oz.

For a headlamp that doesn’t take up much space, the BLACK DIAMOND FLARE ($30, blackdiamondequipment.com) is perfect. This headlamp emits 40 lumens and has white- and red-light settings. Instead of a push button, you turn it on by twisting its bezel, which will probably require both hands. You can also adjust it at different angles. Includes 2 lithium coin-cell batteries. 1 oz.

Tap the side of the BLACK DIAMOND SPOT 400 ($45, blackdiamondequipment.com) and switch from a full-power beam of 400 lumens to a setting at half the power. You can also use the two push buttons to switch between settings, as well as put the headlamp on its red-light setting. A nice feature is the Spot’s three-light battery-life indicator. It also comes in a rechargeable version ($65). Includes 3 AAA batteries with a 2 1⁄2-hour life on high, 200 hours on low. 2.5 oz.

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