For most of us who are over 30, we remember growing up holding flashlights to hike a nighttime trial, or do any task and find anything in the dark, for that matter. Those who remember, probably have pictures of large D-size batteries and weak, yellow beams engraved in their minds when thinking about flashlights. Today, however, headlamps and small compact LED flashlight models dominate the illumination world and active-outdoor spaces. From mountaineers and search and rescue crews to hikers and campers, the convenience of carrying an illumination source that’s light, portable, yet more powerful than the ancient, bulky torches we used back in the day has made them the default choice.
With that said, nowadays, there are thousands of different headlamp and flashlight products available. Handheld light solutions still have a place for outdoor enthusiasts who still prefer a unit that’s ready to deploy from the hip. So what’s the ideal portable lighting solution for your outdoor needs? Flashlights or headlamps? In order to make the right choice, here’s how these two lighting sources compare to one another in terms of brightness, durability, beam angle and price.
Modern advances in LED technology and efficiency has been beneficial to both flashlights and headlamps. Nowadays, most models rely on LED technology, which has made them brighter at a significantly lower cost. Flashlights no longer hold a monopoly on ultra-bright beams, as there are headlamps that shine as bright as the headlights on your car. But if you’re looking for the brightest solution, spotlight-style flashlights that incorporate larger LEDs and produce more lumens are still considered the ultimate lighting solutions that shine hundreds of metres into the night.
Since headlamps feature straps and a small housing often made of plastic, they can’t take the beating that conventional torches can. With that said, LED flashlights are in most cases more versatile and durable than headlamps. Quality flashlights can be made of a lightweight aluminium cylinder, sealed with gaskets to make it watertight, making them almost indestructible, no matter whether you toss them in the back of your car or put them in a backpack. But generally, you get what you pay for, so there are also headlamps that are rugged and completely watertight, but those features come at a higher price.
You can direct your light from a LED flashlight by maneuvering your hands, whereas headlamps only illuminated from a fixed point. In certain situations, the adjustability and varying angles of flashlights can provide you with a depth-of-field that would be difficult to get with LEDs affixed to your head. This is why many avid campers and hikers use a combination of a torch and headlamp during nighttime travel. That being said, consider how you’re going to use that light, and whether you’re going to need both your hands to perform a task, like climbing, setting up a tent, or climbing.
The price of both headlamps and torches can range widely, but generally, flashlights cost less than headlamps of similar performance. This is simply because the construction of a torch involves fewer parts and has become commoditised. On the flip side, there are entry-level headlamps that are quite affordable, yet provide decent illumination and are usable for any common outdoor task.
Just like LED, battery technology has advanced rapidly over the past decade. High-end headlamps and torches that dish out a lot of brightness use powerful, rechargeable li-ion batteries. Although more expensive, these batteries can be a great investment for people using their headlamp or torch on the regular. However, you can still opt for disposable alkaline batteries, but you won’t get the best performance out of the torch, and you’ll have to constantly buy new packs. If you’re an occasional torchlight user, then alkaline batteries are a good choice – they’re affordable and widely available, plus you won’t have to spend money on a charger.
When buying batteries, you need to pay attention to the milliamps per hour and volts, or maH and V, respectively. The volts measure the battery’s bandwidth, i.e. how much power the battery can discharge at a time. The maH measurement represents how much energy is stored in the battery’s cell. For most flashlights, you want discharge rates of 3.7V to 4.2V, and more than 1500maH. Most alkaline batteries are 1.5V, so if the headlamp or torch can only use one battery, they won’t cut it.
Besides the aforementioned li-ion and alkaline batteries, you’ll also find lithium and NiMH batteries. Worth noting is that not every lighting device can run on any type of battery. Most batteries can run on NiMH, lithium and alkaline. High-end lighting devices used lithium cells only, but that’s no longer the case. Lithium cells like the CR2 and CR123A provide better performance for their size when compared to alkalines. For best performance, however, you want RCR123AS, 18650 and 18350 cells.