For daily carry or emergency preparedness, there is hardly a more valuable and more used tool than a good flashlight. More than any firearm, more than even a knife, a reliable flashlight is vital for all kinds of situations, from common chores and tasks to serious survival situations.
The reality is that you cannot see in the dark, even with some ambient light from the moon and stars to keep you from being totally blind.
In a darkened structure, whatever meager light is entering the threshold you so happen to be passing through will not be enough to let you move safely, to say nothing of identify what you are searching for, or revealing who or what may be inside.
So for ho-hum EDC tasks, emergency preparedness or self-defense, a flashlight will let you light up the darkness with only the click of a switch so you can see what you need to see, be it a path to safety, a misplaced item or a lurking threat.
A handy, powerful LED flashlight, with its powerful beam and power-efficient circuitry, is your very best tool for doing all of the above in a compact, pocketable package.
In today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at the anatomy of modern flashlights and what that means to you, as well as offering up a list of 10 of the very best values in LED flashlights available heading into 2019.
Why an EDC Light?
A compact, high-intensity flashlight is simply the most convenient multi-purpose lighting system available. Easier to draw and stow than any headlamp, and far easier to carry than a lantern, only flashlights have the form factor and flexibility to allow you to use them for both utility and self-defense tasks.
What’s more, modern LED flashlights are fantastically powerful and boast runtime that would have been the stuff of science fiction just over a decade ago. More light is almost always a good thing, and when you need light, you won’t go wrong choosing a powerful model with an optional dimmer function or multi-mode output.
You should always have a flashlight on your person versus in your Go-Bag or in your vehicle whenever possible, even if that means going down in size and output: a sudden power outage, night-time car crash or after-dark attack will make the need for light immediate, and just like your other carried emergency tools, you cannot afford to be without it when you need it.
Every light on our list later is small enough to make for a great EDC flashlight.
LED Light Characteristics
Today, LEDs offer far more advantages in the size of lights we want for EDC compared to classic incandescent bulbs. While incandescent bulbs are capable of more raw output than LED’s, all things being equal, they gobble batteries and produce far more heat than LED’s; neither is desirable.
For most people, the blue-white tinge of most LED-produced light is no great flaw compared to the warm, even “natural” spectrum produced by an incandescent bulb.
LED’s also enjoy far greater durability and shock resistance than old-school bulbs do, and it never took much of a whack to snap that delicate little filament in them. Plainly stated, incandescent bulbs aren’t the first choice for general-purpose lights anymore, not by a long shot.
LED flashlights will today use (most often) one of three common power sources: 123A lithium batteries, 18650 rechargeable batteries and built-in rechargeable (read non-removable) battery packs.
These all have their own pros and cons, but one of these solutions is necessary to feed the most powerful and voracious of flashlights, as well as provide enough energy density to attain the extended runtime you definitely want.
Even so, lights that allow multiple power sources or use more common AA or AAA batteries are far from uncommon, and still make great choices so long as you don’t need retina-melting levels of brightness.
While 123As are increasingly common and have been the standard cell for flashlights and other energy-hog applications for some time, one may wish to consider a AA or even AAA flashlight to ensure you can find or scavenge batteries literally anywhere.
While you might scoff at the idea of relying on a rechargeable flashlight for anything more than no-pressure everyday carry, don’t be so quick to dismiss them: you heard it here that we will see removable and non-removable battery rechargeables become the new standard over time since they provide even greater capability than expendable lithium cells.
The obvious flaw in the use of flashlights depending on this technology for power would be in something like a long-term survival situation.
Even that though is not a crippling shortcoming with the prevalence of off-grid power solutions like solar panels, thermoelectric generators, mini wind turbines and even hydroelectric power sources. Lights making use of built-in or removable rechargeable batteries are more viable than ever even for major grid-down events.
While they lack the convenience of quick-swap consumable batteries, there is nothing stopping you from keeping a spare 18650 battery charged and ready to go if you use a light that runs one, or a power bank with cable routed to keep the light charged up in your pocket or in your pack. With the right gear and a little extra material preparation, these lights can free you from consumable batteries for good.
Alternately, since it is always a good idea to have two of every piece of mission-critical equipment (redundancy saves!) you could choose to have one light use conventional batteries and the other use rechargeables with some type of self-contained charging system along for the ride. You would certainly be ready for all contingencies then!
No matter which one you prefer, both types otherwise have models in their family trees that will give you all the options you could want: output, battery life and intelligent switching options.
The type and function of a flashlights switch or switches is a big deal, at least a bigger deal than you may think. For lights that have a defensive role in your load, making sure your light’s switching is functionally ideal for the task is essential.
This means you will need to pay attention to both the location of the switch on the flashlight body and precisely how the switch functions the light when activated. For lights that are only intended for utility purposes this is still worth consideration, but is less important.
The best places for a flashlight switch on the body of the light are on the side near the head, or on the end opposite the head, called a “tailcap switch.” Both work fine for utility jobs, the primary difference being how the light is held for instant activation.
For a side-mounted switch, the light is held with the head protruding from the top of the fist to allow the thumb to access the switch. For a light with a tailcap, the opposite; head protruding from the bottom of the fist to allow the thumb to access the switch.
For defensive use, especially with a handgun, the tailcap switch is superior as it allows a stronger grip on the light itself but also lends itself to a variety of techniques to employ the light properly with or without a handgun in the opposite hand.
Most handheld light techniques with a pistol become clumsy and clunky with a light using a side-mounted switch. You can only imagine how treacherous this operation could become if you have a light with some oddball arrangement like a twist-turn-on bezel or something! Any light used for defense must be able to be activated easily and instantly with only one hand.
Your other considerations for switching entail what the light does when it is depressed. Sounds pretty simple, huh? Well, it would be if we were just in an “on and off” world, but we aren’t. Modern lights damn near have more functions than a home computer!
Many lights have multiple output modes (high, medium, low) dimmer functions, alternate color LEDs, strobe, SOS modes, and all kinds of other options.
While handy for utility tasks, chores, signaling and the like, these can become liabilities in a tactical situation when all you need is full-on and off. Some lights have programmable switches and others have their functions accessed by a combination or sequence of taps.
Something else you should be sure of is if your light’s switch is constant-on or momentary-on, meaning simply will it click on and remain on until clicked again, or must it be held to keep the light on. Both have pros and cons, and some lights even have this as a selectable function based on the position of the tail cap.
Remember, for utility and work flashlights, as far as switching is concerned you can get by with just about anything so long as you know how it works and it is reliable. For a light to be considered good to go for use in any kind of high-stress or defensive situation simple and predictable activation is a commandment.
Is Brighter Better?
It depends on the task (you’ll find this is a common answer when discussing flashlights). For defensive and other tactical uses, more output is always better, at least almost always better, in order to see more clearly despite any prevailing conditions or obstacles.
For utility tasks, more light always comes at the expense of more fuel/power consumed and waste is always to be avoided since fuel is precious.
Concerning self-defense use, there is a rogue school of thought that prefers lights of modest output die to concerns of impairing your own vision from reflection or bounceback of your own light off of mirrors and other shiny surfaces, even light-colored walls.
Their concern is that it is possible to blind yourself using the same mega-output light that you will hopefully use to blind an assailant. This is a fair concern but one that boils down more to technique and skill employing the light rather than the performance of the light itself.
High, even extreme output is important on defensive lights in a few crucial situations. Any “obstacles” like smoke, fog, mist, permeable barriers (screen mesh, tinted glass, etc.) and other light sources between you and the threat all impair the effectiveness of you light.
A more powerful light will “blow through” these barriers to get more light onto what you need to see, e.g. the potential threat and just what is in their hands, along with their disposition.
Even in straight-up conditions of low- or no-light, the more light you can pour on your target the better you can see. If you can see better, you can process (think) faster and reach an optimal decision about how to proceed.
Another major perk embodied by these super-bright lights of the breed is their ability to hamper or even severely impair the vision of an attacker. While this is not truly “blinding” because their vision will return, it is a great distraction, and may even eliminate their visual horizon with significantly disorienting effect.
Don’t fear the lumens! Go for maximum output as is feasible on a self-defense light.
Now, the opposite is true for utility lights. Using more light than needed for the task is, as I said, wasteful and should be avoided. Stretching you current charge or batteries as far as they will go is a virtue. This can be achieved by choosing a light with lower output and (usually, among equivalent lights) correspondingly longer runtime.
Another way you might accomplish this is by choosing a light with selectable output levels or even dimming functionality. Obviously you can still use a lower-powered utility light to good effect for self-defense but you will not be able to rely on it to overcome obstacles or impair the vision of a threat to any significant degree.
In the case of lights with programmable functionality or selectable switching, you could choose to run the light on “high-only” or some similar arrangement and then reprogram it for a fuel saving mode in the event the SHTF.
Not every light offers this option and further not every light that has it makes it easy to do even when you are calm and collected, but it is still a good option for a do-everything light.
In essence: for defense-specific lights go for maximum, scorching output, a tailcap switch and dead-simple programming. For utility lights, you can go for either type of switching and whatever you want for LED color and programming, the sky is the limit, just make sure that your light will support your most common tasks and it has a modest runtime.
The Best LED Flashlights
1 – Surefire Stiletto
This oddly shaped light sure got a lot of press when it was announced, and even more when it hit the streets. You might say the hype train was on the rails and chugging faster than usual for Surefire.
The Stiletto is a refinement of the concept Surefire explored with their Guardian light: namely, a rechargeable, all-around EDC utility and defensive light. Where the Stiletto is definitely an improvement on the Guardian is in its slim and ergonomic shape and a nicer price tag.
The Stiletto’s name evokes how it is intended to be carried clipped inside a pocket as you would a folding knife. Everything about its design from the bell-shaped body to the position of the clip is intended to facilitate its carry and draw from this position.
Where things get really cool is the position and function of its multiple switches. The Stiletto’s three switches- one activation switch on the tail, one more on the side and a smaller mode switch next to that- do different things depending on how they are programmed and pressed.
The tailcap switch, what Surefire calls a tactical switch, will always fire the light at max power (650 lumens) when pressed and can activate a high-frequency strobe if programmed to.
The side-switch will activate low, medium or high modes in that or the reverse order depending on the programming. On low beam, the Stiletto only produces 5 lumens but will run for at least 30 hours. No matter how you have the light setup, a fuel gauge shows you at a glance approximately how much juice you have left.
Weighing only a scant 2.8 ounces this is one seriously high-performance EDC light. It’s only real weakness is that its wide-angle flood beam is not ideal for longer distance work and identification and the fact that this beauty is a recharge-only proposition.
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2 – Surefire Fury DFT
Surefire’s Fury series of lights are very well known among those who are strict believers in the “Moar Lumens!” church. Back when first introduced, the Fury quickly became the light to beat for raw reach and output in a classically sized Surefire package. Of course, Surefire being Surefire, it was only a couple of years before they introduced a Fury model with a retina-punishing 1,000 lumen output.
Today, we have the Fury DFT as the flagship model. The DFT is the current Fury model to beat, boasting significantly more output than even the 1,000 lumen Fury and the flexibility to use standard 123A lithium batteries or the new 18650 rechargeable batteries. Using the standby 123A’s, you’ll get 1,200 lumens of darkness-destroying goodness or a melting 1,500 lumens on the 18650
As with all legacy Fury models, the hotspot is extremely concise and this makes it now as then an ideal choice for long range applications; Surefire claims this Fury is effective all the way out to 300 or so yards.
Your switching options here are all-tactical, all the time: click on, click off, full power or bust. You can hold the switch lightly for momentary but that is it.
3 – Surefire Sidekick
If you are pressed for space, or just obsessed with keeping everything as small as conceivable, check out the Surefire Sidekick. Unlike some other tiny “fob” lights, the Surefire delivers major power and performance in a pint-sized package.
Less than 3 inches long and pumping out a max of 300 lumens, the Sidekick is about as small as you can make a light with its robust feature set.
Convenient, compact and ideal for no-profile EDC use or emergency kit storage the Sidekick still affords selectable high, medium and low modes accessed by its side-mount switch. The Sidekick is so small and light it is not out of place on a keychain, zipper pull, retractable lanyard or backpack strap.
This light affords you no excuses for leaving it behind, definitely its greatest asset. This tiny titan is another recharge-only model and the battery is fixed internally, refueled by way of a micro USB. You will probably find the Sidekick an ideal backup or minimalist primary light for your needs.
4 – Surefire G2ZX
The most “tactical” light on our list is Surefire’s latest generation of the “Z” suffix Combatlights, featuring the same grip ring that facilitates the cigar-like grip on the light so suited to use with a handgun.
This is also one of Surefire’s less-expensive Nitrolon series polymer lights, which will save you some weight and some cash with no loss of performance. It should be noted that the head is aluminum in contrast to earlier all-polymer Nitrolon lights.
600 lumens at 1 hour and 30 minutes is nothing to sneeze at and more than enough output for almost any defensive situation imaginable and like all Surefire offerings it is famously reliable, durable and weatherproof.
Your switching option is a momentary tailcap, but it can be twisted clockwise to go constant-on. This is not the most convenient arrangement when you just want to have the light stay on, but at least it does function as a “dead man switch” should you drop the light in a sketchy situation.
5 – Coast PX1
Not everyone can afford or wants to shell out for an expensive Surefire, but that does not mean you have to forgo an intelligently designed light with good features. Coast is a popular brand of lights for those who don’t want to spend a lot of money or time in search of the perfect light.
Now, if you are looking at Coast, your search could be long indeed, since they make dozens and dozens of lights, but I can save you a little time and recommend the PX1.
A great bang for your bucks, the PX1 has a great feature set usually found on more advanced and expensive lights, as well as a few surprises. 315 lumens at 2 hours on common as common gets AAA batteries is admirable performance, and a 25 lumen low mode will make the most of these little alkaline cells for up to 40 hours.
Most interestingly, the PX1 features twist-adjustable focus: you can dial it into a long-range spot beam, a soft, wide flood beam or anything in between.
A standard tailcap runs this light and allows easy activation with most holds. The Coast PX1 is feature rich and definitely a performer in its category, but do keep in mind that it is not as tough or as durable as some other lights, though I would not have any worries assuming I was not beating it or submerging it completely in water.
6 – Fenix LD15R
A modern approach to a classic “cult” design, the Fenix LD15R emulates the style of the old military right-angle neck flashlights, but thankfully it leaves them consigned to history when it comes to its performance.
Fenix made a name for themselves in the flashlight game as an upstart maker who placed heavy emphasis on performance and innovation at modest prices. The LD15R is no different.
A top-mounted (headcap?) switch works for this light ergonomically, and a reversible clip allows you to carry it in a variety of ways on your gear or in a pocket according to your preference.
A built-in magnetic strip lets you pop it on a magnetic metal surface instantly for work lighting and take it down just as fast. This is one compact light that can take the place of a lantern in the right circumstances.
This unique design does make using it with a handgun a limited proposition, but it can be done with something that looks like a modified two-handed hold on the gun.
The LD15R has red and white LED’s and it can produce a very respectable 500 lumens on a battery draining turbo mode. This is above and beyond consumption rates compared to the high mode of other makers lights, and the stock high mode here is a very sedate 150 lumens, though this is more than enough for utility tasks, it definitely lacks for tactical use compared to today’s offerings.
Luckily, you can still get not quite an hour out of it on turbo mode and the whole light is rechargeable with a specialty 16340 battery. A 123A battery can be used in a pinch, but output is decreased. All around, a pretty solid light with nifty features.
7 – Elzetta Alpha Series
Elzetta sells their lights according to a simple philosophy- you know what you need. Elzetta lights all come made to order, with you picking out the features you want like the type of lens, bezel, how many cells you want your light to utilize and more including switching options.
Their Alpha lights are compact and potent single 123A cell flashlights that push 415 lumens out of a spot or flood lens according to your preference. You can even order both lenses and change them according to your needs!
The Alpha series is a great example of adaptable and modular lighting technology that will not break the bank. Made of sturdy aluminum at a good price and sporting better performance, Elzetta’s Alpha units are a great choice for any EDC requirement.
8 – Streamlight NANO
The other big name in flashlights, Streamlight offers dozens and dozens of sturdy, heavy-duty lights to suit any task. The itty-bitty NANO is about as un-tactical as it gets, but it fills out a couple of very important roles in anyone’s kit.
With a nearly microscopic form factor and using equally tiny hearing aid batteries for power, the NANO is hardly an inch long and can fit, literally, anywhere. Cheap and small means you can hide or stash these little beauties anywhere for when you need 10 lumens of light to find your way or read a map.
You sure aren’t going to conquer the wasteland with just 10 lumens, but its eight hour runtime will be plenty to get you back on the right trail or keep you safely moving till sunup.
It cannot be overstated how little this light is. It will fit in any pocket, on key rings, on zippers on lanyards, clipped to your pack or belt, or in tiny pocket tin survival kits. If you need an emergency backup in case your primary dies or runs out of fuel at an inopportune time, the NANO is a lifesaver.
As a main light, these are a ridiculous notion. As a backup or emergency option, they rock, and are highly reliable to boot.
9 – Streamlight PROTAC 1L-1AA
One of my favorite concepts in lighting technology presently is the dual fuel concept: the ability for the light to use different battery options or even battery/rechargeable tech to maximize flexibility and reduce dependency on power sources. My current, hands-down favorite in this category is the Streamlight PROTAC 1L-1AA.
As you might have guessed from the model, this light can make use of a single 123A lithium cell, or a single bog-standard AA, either alkaline or lithium in that case.
Best performance and runtime is attained with the lithium 123A, naturally, but you can get plenty of time and light from an AA. At max power with the best battery option, you’ll get 350 lumens on high and 40 lumens on low, while the AA will push 150 lumens on high and 40 on low.
These lights are compact and feature great, positive switching and easy Ten-Tap programming, allowing you to run the light as a multi-mode high-low-strobe, high-strobe, or high only depending on your preferences, and it is easy to go from one to the other to adapt to changing circumstances but tough to do accidentally if that makes sense.
Adaptable, powerful and durable. All in a slender single-cell light. My pick for ultimate EDC light on the market today.
10 – PROTAC 2AA
The cheaper-to-fuel cousin to the 123A powered PROTAC lights, the PROTAC 2AA is all about ease of resupply and modest performance. If you have ever come close to fainting from the price of 123A’s, even bought in bulk, this is the light for you. It is slim, handy and plenty bright enough for most tasks.
250 lumens does not feel like much compared to so many lights today, but you’ll be the one laughing all the way to the bank when you don’t have to feed this thing 123’s by the bushel.
Extended runtime is another perk to make sure that the darkness stays at bay and you get your money’s worth from your chosen cells. Like the 1L-1AA model above, this light uses Ten-Tap programming to allow you to tool the light to serve you best, be it in a defensive or utility role.
If you don’t strictly require scorching output, the PROTAC 2AA is about as good a flashlight as you can get and will drastically reduce your fuel costs and ensuring you can always get batteries.
You cannot go without a flashlight, and LED lights are the absolute best choice 99% of the time. To make sure you aren’t without one when you need it, pick up a good EDC light off this list, and you can trust that your super bright and durable LED flashlight will be ready when you are.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.