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Best flashlights for aid workers?

January 28, 2013

A recent mile long trip through a cave system in Mexico reminded me of the practice of aid workers in Kosovo in the late ’90s of wearing Maglites on lanyards round their necks so that they were always on hand during the frequent power outages. Flashlights (torches, for the British among us) are essential items for aid and development workers, and are always welcome gifts for anyone traveling to the developing world. The good news is that technology has moved on in the last 20 years. Incandescent bulbs have almost completely moved aside in favor of a new generation of LED technology, battery technology has improved, giving more brightness and longer life, and cost has come down.

Firstly, some principles:

  • Size Matters. Smaller is always better for the purposes we have in mind (something to clip comfortably to a belt, of carry in a handbag so as to be always on hand).
  • Cost is a consideration. I tend to lose flashlights, or end up giving them as gifts.
  • Type of battery, and battery life. This is important. I have a rather anal habit of trying to make sure any electronics I travel with all use AA batteries. That way I can take one type of spare, and take batteries from anything else in a pinch. I try to standardize on AAs.
    They are small, and readily available almost anywhere in the world (although the quality can vary a lot!), and if you need to you can use them in place of D cells (either using an adaptor like this one, Adapter, D Size Shell, for any AA Battery
    or by wrapping them in cardboard).

That said – here are my top three choices, in no particular order:

        1. Cree 7W 300LM Mini LED Flashlight – This is a great little torch. It takes one AA battery, and is super bright, with a sliding focus ring that gives spotlight or broad beam or anything in between. Its small enough to fit comfortably in your pocket, and a robust aluminum build. My only complaints are that, like most modern LED lights, the light is harsh, and the end-cap based switch toggles between a range of idiotic flashing strobe modes that serve no purpose I can discern. Ah well, you can’t have everything, and for under $10 this is amazing value.
        2. Cree Xml T6 Flashlight – I have mixed feelings about recommending this flashlight. Like so much of the modern world, I am both seduced by it and wary of its limitations. First off, it is amazingly bright. Much brighter than the little 7W above, and much brighter than the Maglite. It’s almost too bright for reading with. It has a handy belt-clip and fits comfortably in the hand. I have the same complaints about useless and annoying strobe modes, but my biggest issue is that it uses non-standard batteries. You will need something like this – 18650 3000mAh 3.7V Rechargeable Li-Ion Battery (Pair) + Charger Combo – which is a pair of 18650 Li-Ion batteries with a small charger. Now, don’t get me wrong, the charger is small, and packs neatly, and the batteries are awesome – much better than AAs. But, and it’s a big but – you will never find them in a market in Mombasa, much less Juba. If you’re willing to take your chances on loosing or frying your charger or batteries, or if you have another light as a backup, then this is a great option, otherwise, I’d say stick with the 7W. Of course, I do suggest you have a backup, in which case this is a perfect choice, especially if your job requires you to do things like light up the inside of a large warehouse.
        3. Maglite AA Mini Flashlight and Holster Combo-Pack – OK, so when I sat down to write this post I was having a hard time justifying recommending the old style krypton bulb Maglite. It’s not as bright as its LED competitors and its battery life isn’t as good, but it does have a couple of good things going for it. The light quality is wonderful. It’s hard to quantify, but if you’re reading by flashlight, or if you have it on a table in Maglite’s unique ‘candle mode’, the light quality is important – it’s why we light romantic dinners by candle and not fluorescent tube. It also fits nicely into the side pocket of a Leatherman belt case (btw my current Leatherman recommendation is this one).
          While this isn’t as bright as its competitors, that’s sometimes a plus – it won’t blind people, and it has no obnoxious strobe mode. Better still is the barrel twist on / off / focus control – much easier than an end-cap switch to use, much better focus, and twist the lens far enough and comes off entirely, exposing the krypton bulb as a surprisingly romantic candle… For all this flashlight is outclassed by newer LEDs in performance, this is the flashlight I reach for when I’m traveling. Indoors, in situations where power failures are common and range and brightness are less important than light quality and sociability, this is a great torch, and for $10 is also great value.

A couple of closing thoughts:

    1. Please do consider using the Amazon affiliate links on this page to buy these or anything else – it doesn’t cost you anything and helps me support this site.
    2. Consider wrapping a few rounds of gaffer tape (like this – JVCC 30 Yard Gaffers Tape: 2 in. x 30 yds – it’s like duct tape, only better quality) round the non-bulb end of your flashlight. This serves two important purposes – first, you can comfortably grip the torch in your teeth when you need both hands, and second, you have a few inches of duct tape when you need it!
    3. Alanna was quick to call me out for not mentioning headlamps! She’s right – many people love them. My personal dislike for these stems from their awkwardness, and their tendency to blind people when you look at them, but as she points out, they are handy, especially for trips to the restroom when the power is out! My favorites in this class both use AAA batteries, which is typical for headlamps but is another negative in my book. Here they are – the Rayovac DIYHL, and the Energizer 3 LED Headlight. The first has three straps, and is more sturdy in its construction, while the second has a neat option for a red LED that is more friendly to night vision.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2013 9:44 pm

    How do you write about flashlights and not mention headlamps? They make all the difference to bathroom visits.

    • January 28, 2013 9:49 pm

      LOL – You know, I almost did mention them, and you’re right about bathrooms – actually that’s the reason for the lanyard round the neck in my experience… Certainly a headlamp is handy, but personally I think the huge drawback for me is the fact that you blind everyone else when you look them in the face… Do you have a favorite headlamp?
      Hope your new list-serve is working well!

  2. sug permalink
    February 7, 2014 12:24 pm

    i enjoyed your flashlight recommendations. i am wondering if you could write a larger article re: ‘outfitting yourself for humanitarian aid’ w/ suggestions about items you would bring with you for aid missions (first aid kit, water sanitation, bug net, types of clothing, etc.).

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