Since its invention in 1898, the flashlight has been an invaluable tool for human beings, who, unlike cats, are unable to see in the dark.
Nowadays, flashlights are incorporated into cell phones and keychains and can be purchased at supermarkets, hardware stores, gas stations, and more. They’re so common that many people are unaware of how deep and varied the flashlight market is. From $1 plastic flashlights to luxury pieces handcrafted from zirconium that cost well into the thousands, there’s a lot to choose from.
Why would anyone pay more than a few bucks for a basic flashlight? Durability, reliability, and versatility, for starters. Many people buy flashlights to prepare for emergencies. You want to know that your flashlight will be ready to go whenever a storm approaches, whether it’s right now or in five years. And if you have a job or hobby that demands regular flashlight use, you’ll not only want a product you can rely on, but that also includes certain features that fit your tasks.
You simply won't find the best quality and variety of flashlights in supermarket aisles. Most cellphones nowadays have flashlights, which can give you a little light in a pinch, but there are reasons why you may also want to own a dedicated tool (or a few of them) that has a far superior light source and can last a lifetime.
Is a phone flashlight good enough?
The flashlight feature on smartphones (which basically turns the phone’s camera flash into a flashlight) has been a game changer for random encounters with darkness. However, they're no match for even the smallest dedicated flashlight.
Here’s why it’s smart to have a high-quality flashlight on hand, rather than just getting by with your phone’s light:
• The light on your phone reaches a maximum brightness of approximately 50 lumens, which pales in comparison to the 120 lumens on a basic flashlight, like the AAA-powered $10 Lumintop EDC01, for example.
• The biggest cell phones on the market are about 8mm thick overall, and the light has no reflector; the reflector alone on dedicated keychain flashlights is over 15mm in depth. With a bigger reflector, the beam is more concentrated and reaches farther distances. The tight area on the phone also limits heat dissipation, so a phone flashlight can’t be used for too long at max brightness or your phone might overheat.
• In emergency situations, your phone’s battery is too valuable to waste using the flashlight.
• Phones can be uncomfortable and inconvenient when doing certain tasks or trying to use both hands. A flashlight’s shape is far more versatile.
Flashlight buying guide
There’s a wide variety of flashlights, and their uses can be very situation- or job-specific. Here are some features you should learn about before buying.
• Lumens. Lumens are an overall measure of light. Flashlights should feature this number prominently; if they don’t, it’s a red flag.
Another red flag is when a flashlight claims to have an outrageous number of lumens such as 9 million, as seen throughout ads on the internet. At the moment, the brightest flashlight in the world is the Imalent MS18, which is rated at 100,000 lumens (and costs over $600).
Although it’s hard to put in perspective, and the shape and size of the reflector can alter how light looks on different models, there are some good ways to tell how truly bright a flashlight is.
Lumens can go all the way from 0.1 up to the aforementioned record high of 100,000. However, the most common range is between 5 and 2,000. An iPhone’s flashlight at maximum brightness is roughly 50 lumens, and those $1 multi-LED lights you find at supermarkets range from 20 to 30.
In addition to the maximum power, it's important to look at a flashlight's different modes and the versatility that these provide. While 1,000 lumens is great to scope out a backyard or dark street, this kind of power can take a toll on your battery and heat the flashlight. It can sometimes even be counterproductive in an enclosed area because you could temporarily blind yourself. Lumens of 5 to 25 are far more useful in small spaces or for up-close work. The best flashlights have multiple settings, so you can change the lumens based on your needs.
• Run time. Small and powerful flashlights are certainly cool and convenient. However, a flashlight is less useful if it can’t sustain its brightness over time. Depending on the battery and the power you’re using, flashlights can last from half an hour to several days of non-stop illumination. Normally, this information will be advertised, along with the lumens.
Obviously, the more lumens you use, the less time your battery lasts. This reinforces just how important it is for flashlights to have different modes, including very low brightness (0.1-2 lumens), which brands might call “moonlight,” “firefly” or “eco.”
• Battery type. Flashlights can use a variety of different batteries. There are the classics: small watch batteries (2032, for example), classic AA and AAA, lithium CR123s, and some, like heavy-duty Maglite flashlights, still use big old D batteries.
Although many flashlight still run on AA or AAA-size batteries, most modern high-powered models use rechargeable lithium-ion cells. That’s the type of battery used in your phone, laptop, Bluetooth speaker, or external battery pack. The most common sizes are 16340, 18650 and 21700.
The general rule is that the larger the battery, the more capacity it’ll have, which translates to more run time. In terms of power, most lithium-ion batteries run at 3.7v (alkaline and lithium AA/AAAs run at 1.5v), so they can, technically, emit the same amount of brightness, but size and capacity will dictate if that’s a good idea. You’ll see tiny 16340 flashlights that can go up to 1,000 lumens — but only for 15 to 30 seconds, because they’ll heat up fast and drain the battery.
Some batteries are more convenient than others. All lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable, and many flashlights have on-board charging, meaning you can plug directly through micro-USB, USB-C, or other kinds of ports. AAs and AAAs, on the other hand, can be either disposable (alkaline or lithium) or rechargeable (Ni-MH, like Eneloops), and when they die they can easily be replaced with a quick trip to the nearest gas station or drugstore.
Finally, some small and lightweight flashlights — mostly keychain variants — have built-in non-removable batteries. Such a small lithium-ion battery can stop working altogether in a much shorter time than larger ones (like your phone’s), and when it does, the flashlight dies with it.
• Purpose. The flashlight you pick ultimately depends on why you need it. There are small flashlights, good for daily things like looking under a couch or lighting your way to the car; others have more specific uses. Flashlights with larger reflectors have more "throw," meaning the beam reaches greater distances — this is important for search and rescue, hunting, or scoping out large areas such as farms.
On the opposite side, some have more "flood," so they light up a wider area around you. This is good for situational awareness as it opens up your peripheral vision, and comes in handy when camping or handling detail-intensive tasks (for the latter, you want to use the lower modes, or your eyes will suffer).
There are also lights with high CRI (Color Rendering Index) rating, good for tasks that require you to discern colors. These can be great for electricians, doctors, or photographers.
Lastly, the shape of a flashlight, the button positioning, and how easy it is to access different modes all play a role in how practical and enjoyable it is to use it.
A flashlight meant for safety or tactical purposes, for example, should have easy access to maximum brightness. Or if you want to use it to light up a room, it should be able to stand on its back (known as tailstanding). These types of considerations will determine if a flashlight is truly right for you.
1. Best overall: Olight Marauder 2 Rechargeable Flashlight
Lumens: 14,000 │ Throw: 800m │ Run time: 59 hours on 50 lumens │ Battery: Built-in 3x 21700 battery pack
Making a choice for the “best overall” flashlight is nearly impossible, since it's a subjective matter based on the person and their needs. However, Olight checks a lot of boxes with the Marauder 2. It will satisfy those looking for a powerhouse flashlight that can serve many purposes, including lighting up a football field.
While there are more powerful offerings by Olight and other brands, for $330 the Marauder 2 provides as much power as you’ll ever need with 14,000 lumens. It also makes good use of all its LEDs (it has a total of 13) by having two modes: throw and flood.
Throw uses the central LED with the deep reflector to shoot a beam up to 800 meters of distance. This throw is a very tight square shape, though, so it’s limited on the area it illuminates (and might look awkward for some). On the other hand, flood mode uses the surrounding 12 LEDs for a smoother, wider beam; this is the mode that reaches 14,000 lumens. In between, you’ll find useful modes like 200 lumens — which is more than enough to light up a small room — that can last for 40 hours. The lowest mode (50 lumens) can last for only 59 hours; this is a downside shared by many lights in this form factor.
There are many benefits to a flashlight this size. It can be used as a battery bank via the USB-C port at the bottom so you can charge your phone or other devices, adding to its appeal as a camping or preparedness flashlight. Just be aware that if you're attempting to charge it with an external battery, sometimes the flashlight ends up charging the battery instead of being charged by it.
If you want to scope out a comparable alternative in the same price category as the Olight, look at the Fenix LR50R. It’s significantly bigger and heavier, and it doesn’t have the option to switch beam patterns. However, its 950-meter throw has a wider beam, and it can use regular 21700 lithium-ion batteries as well as its included battery pack.
2. Editor’s pick: ThruNite TT20 Rechargeable Tactical Flashlight
Lumens: 2,526 │ Throw: 258m │ Run time: 64 days on 0.54 lumens │ Battery: 5000mAh 21700 Li-ion
ThruNite has been a fan favorite for some time now. The company makes simple and affordable flashlights without skimping on features, power, or reliability. The lineup always delivers, and the TT20 is no exception.
At $70, it’s one of the least expensive models among high-quality flashlights with a 21700 battery, and it is one of the most powerful at a max 2,526 lumens. It’s charged via USB-C, and it has a high-capacity 5000mAh battery. Considering it has the widest range of modes in its class as well, battery use can be optimized. It can run as low as half a lumen and last for 64 days at that mode. It’s also estimated to last 90 hours at 31 lumens.
The run time on the modes in between is hard to measure, though. The TT20 has what’s known as a ramping interface. After you turn it on by pressing the side button once, you press it again for a bit longer and the light will smoothly brighten up or dim down until you stop it at your perfect spot. When you turn it on again, it will come on at the last brightness setting. While using that ramping, there are no exact modes except the maximum 1,468 and minimum 31 lumens.
To get to the firefly mode (0.54 lumens), you long-press it from off; to reach the maximum 2,526, you press the tail switch, exclusive for this “turbo” mode. This makes it a good tactical/self-defense flashlight too. That instant access to both firefly and turbo, in addition to its “infinity” ramping in the middle, make this light very versatile and user-friendly.
ThruNite does, however, have a shorter warranty than most competitors: only two years compared to the more common five years.
3. Best for low prices: Wuben C3 Rechargeable Flashlight
Lumens: 1,200 │ Throw: 179m │ Run time: 143 hours on 5 lumens │ Battery: 2600mAh 18650 Li-ion
Full-featured flashlights with USB-C charging ports and high-powered 18650 batteries usually come at a high price. But Wuben has managed to make an all-around flashlight with these features for under $30.
When compared to our picks above, 1,200 lumens might seem low, but it’s nothing to scoff at. The standard is still about 1,000 lumens, and anything above 350 is actually enough to light up a room, take a look at your backyard, or even temporarily blind someone.
The Wuben C3 has a wide array of modes, which give it added versatility and can help extend run times. It can go as low as 5 lumens for 143 hours, 80 lumens for 20, or 400 lumens for 3.5 hours. The maximum mode is 1,200 lumens for one minute, then it automatically scales down to 500 for an advertised 2.5 hours.
It’s made with high-grade aluminum, has a high-quality LED, and is covered by a solid five-year warranty. One downside is that the reflector and lens produce a square-shaped beam, and the bright center is too small for some people’s liking, so it doesn’t illuminate as wide an area in open spaces. However, it’ll definitely get the job done, and it's a terrific value for a full-feature light.
4. Best everyday carry flashlight: Olight S2R Baton II
Lumens: 1,150 │ Throw: 135m │ Run time: 143 hours on 5 lumens │ Battery: 2600mAh 18650 Li-ion
Just under 4” in length and 0.9” in diameter, the Olight S2R Baton II is one of the smallest 18650-powered flashlights in the market. It can even fit inside the coin pocket of your jeans.
Though small, it’s definitely powerful, reaching a maximum of 1,150 lumens, and it comes with a surprisingly large battery. It can run at half a lumen for 60 days, 15 lumens for a solid 100 hours, 120 lumens for 14 hours, and at 400 lumens for 4 hours. The advertised 1,150 lumens is its turbo mode, accessible by pressing the button twice whether it’s on or off, making it easy to access at a moment’s notice. These modes cover most — if not all — daily tasks and cover you in the case of emergencies.
Another important feature is its magnetic bottom, so it can easily tailstand (remain upright) to function as a lantern. Or it can stick to metal objects like car hoods, refrigerators, or pipes to let you work hands-free. The battery charges through that same magnet, so there’s no need to find the port or remove any rubber caps.
This can be a drawback as well, since you won’t have easy access to charging like you do with USB-C compatible lights. (An alternative could be the Fenix E28R, but it’s taller, thicker, and it doesn’t have a magnet.)
If you want something cheaper, simpler and even smaller, try the Lumintop Tool AA 2.0, a no-frills AA flashlight that pumps out a respectable 270 lumens, or 650 if you want to use a 14500 lithium-ion battery.
5. Best keychain flashlight: Fenix E01 V2 LED Flashlight
Lumens: 100 │ Throw: 35m │ Run time: 25 hours on 5 lumens │ Battery: AAA
Keychain flashlights are tiny, convenient, and a huge help when trying to find the right key (or the keyhole) late at night. They do take a lot of abuse, though, with the jingle jangle of keys and the many drops they’re subjected to. Therefore, durability is a must.
The Fenix E01 is not flashy, and it’s not filled with smart features or additional buttons. Instead, it’s a simple flashlight with enough lumens and versatility to do what it’s supposed to do, plus a bit more. It’s powered by a single AAA battery, which can be replaced with a rechargeable Ni-MH to avoid acid leaks and having to buy new packs every few months.
It’s easy to use — simply twist the cap to access the three available modes. Having more than one mode already puts this model ahead of many keychain lights. As for the light life, 5 lumens can run for 25 hours, 25 lumens for 5 hours, and 100 lumens for 50 minutes.
The lack of buttons means fewer parts that can break down; additionally, Fenix is known for making reliable flashlights that are covered by a five-year warranty.
This combination of known durability with versatility for only $15 makes the E01 a great keychain flashlight. But if you do want rechargeability at this price point, check out the Olight i1R 2, which uses micro-USB. It’s even smaller, but it has less run time and only two modes (low and high), and the built-in battery does limit its lifespan.
6. Best rechargeable keychain flashlight: Nitecore TIP SE Rechargeable Keychain Flashlight
Lumens: 700 │ Throw: 90m │ Run time: 50 hours on 1 lumen │ Battery: Built-in 500mAh battery
When Nitecore made the original TIP, the company redefined the standard for keychain flashlights. Now in its third iteration, the TIP is one of the most powerful keychain flashlights out there.
With a turbo mode of 700 lumens, the amount of light coming from the palm of your hand might seem overwhelming. Still, it could be convenient when taking a quick look at a dark parking lot or down an alley. And of course, you’re not limited to that light option. It also has a 1 lumen mode that can last 50 hours, and more convenient 30 and 180 lumens modes that last 8 and 1.5 hours, respectively.
Controlled by two buttons instead of a twisty cap or a single on/off switch, the interface is quite intuitive. The bottom one is for turning the flashlight on and off (long press to access low light mode), and the top one lets you toggle between the 1, 30, and 180 lumen modes. A long press lets you access turbo mode.
It has an IP54 water splash rating, so it can get lightly wet without issues, and the exposed port won’t be affected because it’s USB type C, which is in itself IPX8 rated. As always, USB-C provides accessibility, so the TIP SE can be easily charged at your desk, car, or nightstand.
Unfortunately, as with all built-in batteries, the lifespan on the TIP SE will depend on use. But with a sizable 500mAh battery, as long as you’re not using that turbo mode often, it should last many charging cycles.
7. A reliable and straightforward flashlight: Streamlight Protac 1L-1AA Light
Lumens: 350 │ Throw: 160m │ Run time: 14 hours on 40 lumens │ Battery: CR123 or AA
Streamlight is a well-known brand among law enforcement, military, and tactical users. It makes reliable weapon lights and flashlights that can survive the elements and really take a beating, for a reasonable price.
The Protac 1L-1AA is a small, robust flashlight that can use either a disposable CR123 lithium battery or an AA (whether it’s lithium, alkaline, or a rechargeable Ni-MH). It can be modified to operate on high only, high/low, or high/low/strobe. The factory default setting is high/low/strobe, and you can access the modes by half pressing the tail switch.
With a CR123 battery, it can reach 350 lumens for 1.5 hours or 40 lumens for 14 hours. When using a regular AA battery, it lights up 150 lumens for 1.20 hours, or 40 lumens for 7.5 hours; although run times can be higher when using a lithium AA. It’s important to note that this model does not work with lithium-ion batteries such as 16340s or 14500s, even though they fit. The higher voltage can provoke overheating, risking serious injuries.
Retailing for about $40 (and sometimes found for less than $30), the Streamlight’s durability, battery versatility, and lifetime warranty have made it a longstanding staple, even surrounded by new high-tech products. It’ll serve buyers well in any situation.