When you need to see in the dark a trusty flashlight is often the first thing you should reach for. From all-night hikes to exploring a large structure with no power, flashlights push back the shadows. But is that all they are good for? Are there other uses for flashlights besides general illumination and shadow puppets?
Yes, and it pays to know them! From multi-purpose hacks that help you store gear more efficiently to field and survival uses you might not have thought of, a quality flashlight adds significant capability to any savvy survivor. In this article I’ll shine some light (sorry) on lesser known or utilized techniques you can use with your flashlight and tips to help you maximize its inclusion in your BOB. Read on to find out what they are.
A Quick Primer on Flashlights
We are facing a flood of riches on the flashlight market today. I won’t even get into all the different manufacturers, models, types of lamp or emitter, switchology, modes and more. That could be a series of article by itself! I do though want to specify a few things about them as it will pertain to the info in this article and your criteria for selecting a light in general.
First, all the info in this guide is tailored for handheld lights in particular, not weapon-mounted flashlights, headlamps, lanterns or anything else. The reason for this is these tips all revolve around a consistent design characteristic consistent among 95% of handheld flashlights: they all have a tubular body! Why this is a prerequisite will make sense as you read. Suffice to say the odd shapes of WML’s and tiny size of headlamps make them inappropriate for some of these techniques, some will work with any light-emitting tool.
Second, for a general purpose light, I recommend you get one that has as much output as available while still having a decent battery life. When you need light for many purposes, you generally need plenty of it. True, some tasks like basic navigation, work or camp lighting don’t need much in the way of light to be achieved, and in those situations a low-output mode or headlamp may well work better and save battery power. Nevertheless, you’ll never wish your handheld was dimmer. If in doubt, get a secondary, less-potent light for those purposes or select a model with a dimmer mode.
Lastly, buy the best quality you can. Many cheaper lights can still have a frightfully high output, but they really suffer in areas of ruggedness and durability, especially their switching. A drop or bump may not break them (at first blush) but some of the techniques you will learn are abusive on the light, well in excess of its design parameters. A well-made light can shrug off such treatment but a lesser one may not. Just something to think about.
Now, let’s get to the techniques.
Improve Your Grip and Store Cordage/Tape
Instead of stashing a hank of cordage or line by itself, you can whip or wrap it around the tube of your flashlight’s body and store your cordage efficiently. A great variation on this tip is to wrap your duct or electrical tap around your light, as flat folding it can lead to faster degradation of the tape and leaving it on its factory roll is an inefficient use of space. This technique works best with slim, small diameter cordage depending on the length and size of your light. A larger light can accommodate huskier cord or line.
Several perks from this technique: whipping or wrapping cord or line around your light can improve your grip on it, especially with gloves on or in wet conditions. It is also a fairly simple affair to add a lanyard during this process. If using tape, here’s a great tip: create a tab of tape at the end of the light body opposite the lens. Bulk it up a little bit, and use this as a mouthpiece to bite down on when you need to go hands-free. Instead of the traditional, risky and fatiguing between-the-teeth method, you can bite down on a soft tab of tape and still control your light.
Yes, headlamps are better for hands-free lighting, of course, but if you have a handheld light already why not make it a little more capable in the role? And be honest: for quick jobs you aren’t going to rummage through your pack and whip out your headlamp, you are going to stick that light between your teeth, tie your knot, open your MRE or whatever, and drive on. We all do!
Lastly, this technique scores you the benefits of all important redundancy. If you have your light, you’ll have at least a little cord and tape with you also. If you have a multi-tool in one pocket and a light done up like this in the other, that is not a bad first-line toolkit, in this author’s humble opinion!
Signaling and Communications
Analog will have its revenge in a massive and society crushing disaster. A bright light can be seen for miles at night, and the human eye is predisposed to noticing it. This is one of the reasons you want a light with high output. You can strobe or blink it on and off to get attention or signal potential rescuers.
If you are working with a group or your family, you can establish simple codes using the light to communicate instantly across great distances with no noise. If you care to take the time to learn Morse code, you can transmit intricate info or have conversations, albeit not as quickly or conveniently as texting or email! Morse code is still taught and retained as a tertiary mode of communication around the world.
Lights with different colors can be used to discreetly signal danger or something else to returning party members. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination. At any rate, take the time to learn or make up a few simple queries and responses with your group, and the most essential Morse code phrases like SOS.
Breaking glass safely and quickly can be important in emergencies. To get in or out of a building or extricate yourself or someone else from a vehicle. An alloy or steel flashlight will usually have plenty of strength to withstand striking glass, and a longer model will give your hand some much needed standoff to keep your flesh away from shards or chunks of sharp glass.
But to turn your flashlight into a really effective glass breaker, you can choose a model with built-in crenellations around the bezel, or purpose designed glass breaking studs on the tail. Both will focus the force of a blow onto a very small surface area of the pane, breaking it easily.
If you don’t have or don’t want to spring for a fancy, spiky flashlight, here’s a wasteland approved trick that works like a charm: find a small, roughly pyramidal chunk of hard ceramic, maybe a piece from a spark plug sheath, broken body armor, tile or a substantial piece of crockery, and tape it securely to the tail of your flashlight with the “base” flat and the “point” of the pyramid poking through a slit in the tape.
Wind and drive the tip of the ceramic into a window or pane of glass and it will shatter with ease!
A powerful flashlight is a great tool to have in a personal confrontation or fight, and gives you a couple of different options when it is in your hand doing its job. While it should not be your first choice in blunt implements, a hardened piece of metal or plastic is always harmful when applied vigorously to an assailant. The ergonomic shape of a flashlight makes it a better improvised melee tool than some others. Depending on the size of your light and your own skill, strikes to hard and soft targets on the body as well as pressure points and joint lock techniques become viable.
The aforementioned crenellations and spikes sometimes found on lens and tail of modern tactical flashlights can drastically increase the power of a blow, and afford surfaces to rake and scratch exposed skin on an assailant in a clinch.
The other, and in my mind, more valuable function of a flashlight in a defensive situation is its ability to degrade an opponent’s vision. A powerful stream of white light shined into the eyes creates a “wall” of light that makes perceiving anything beyond it very challenging. This effect is very pronounced in conditions of low light or to dark-adapted eyes.
Aside from perceiving the light itself, judging distance, movement and positioning can become troubling for your adversary, and used in conjunction with other skills, can handily give you a major advantage in a fight, or even diffuse it before it starts. And, no, even the most powerful handheld light will not truly blind an adversary, though that word is commonly used to describe the effect this technique has on them.
The effect of shining a light into their eyes will range from distraction level to severe degradation of sight. This is one time where high output makes a tremendous difference in outcome.
The following techniques are labeled ‘destructive’ because they will or are very likely to break your light, and therefore should be performed only in extremis or you are very literally out of options.
Most handheld lights have a flat bottom or beveled flat somewhere on the body. If your light is made of metal, you can pound something or drive a fastener by striking with it. This technique is not recommended for use with plastic flashlights for obvious reasons!
The weight and density of a flashlight will give you more oomph than expected from a small device, and can make short work of most tasks. As I mentioned above, this is hell on the light though, and you should only do this if you have no other tool or object suitable to the task.
If your light is incandescent, not LED, you can use this trick to make a pretty good electric fire starter, though it requires a steady hand to pull off without completely wrecking the light. First remove the lens of the light to expose the bulb, or take it out of the light completely, depending on your design. Next carefully, carefully break the glass of the bulb without destroying the filament inside. This is a small trick by itself and a great reason to carry an extra light or bulb assembly.
Once that is done, reinsert the now glassless bulb assembly into the light and switch it on. If you did well, the filament will light up and burn per usual. That filament is ferociously hot, that’s why it glows, and will easily ignite fine, fuzzy tinder held close to it. Work quickly, as without its protective bulb and nitrogen or argon gas charge the filament will rapidly burn away in oxygen. Use a steady hand and the right tinder and you should light tinder right up.
Again, this is pretty far from even a D-List fire starting technique, but it is an option if others fail and you need to get a fire going pronto. You can replace the lens assembly over the busted bulb to give it some protection in case your filament has enough life left for another attempt, but the lifespan of most filaments treated so will be measured in minutes, if not seconds.
Your flashlight is your first friend when darkness falls, and an invaluable ally. But most lights can bring more to the table than just light. These techniques, used judiciously, will get you out of a tight spot, make better use of existing resources and give you the means to prevail over your situation.
Don’t let your flashlight be a one-and-done tool! Practice the above techniques now to learn the limits of your tool, and yourself, before the S hits the proverbial F.