Sure, headlamps have become wildly popular in recent years — but flashlights still have their place on the trial and for good reasons.
This article will explore why flashlights are a great choice for some backpackers as well as what makes the best backpacking flashlights.
There are several features I consider absolutely necessary in a backpacking flashlight:
- Long Battery Life
Let’s take a deep dive into the criteria of backpacking flashlights and how to choose your next backpacking flashlight.
How to Choose
Today we have tons of options for batteries in flashlights, including replaceable batteries:
- Disposable Alkaline
- Rechargable Alkaline
- Nickel Metal Hydride (rechargeable)
Let’s look at the pros and cons of each battery type…
- Low initial cost
- Short battery life
- Least environmentally friendly
- 1.5 volt discharge
- Reusable – save money over the long haul
- Battery life will get shorter over time
- Last for years
- Performs well in extreme temperatures
- Relatively environmentally friendly
- Available in ultra-low self discharge format (best for flashlights)
Overall, the best battery choice for backpacking is probably Lithium for single users or NiMH if you want to recharge your batteries.
Because we’ll be using our flashlights in harsh conditions, we’ll need to keep them safe from the elements. Maybe the most well-known waterproof rating system is the international protection rating, or IPX.
This system uses a single-digit scale for describing the “proofness” of flashlights, so let’s take a look at how they work.
Let’s consider the following rating: IPX6
By using a standard chart for IPX ratings, we can determine that the number (6) means the flashlight is protected from “powerful water jets”. Each rating has a test providing exact specifications on how the test must be performed and how long the flashlight must be subjected to the test.
Generally, a rating of IPX6 or better should be just fine for backpacking uses!
This is always a consideration when we’re picking backpacking gear. It’s important to reduce weight wherever we can when we’re considering our backpacking gear since these objects have to be carried on your back all day!
There are a few considerations, however, that may factor in to our choice. While plastic may be lighter than metal in most cases, metal is usually more durable. For some this trade-off may be worth the weight.
Weight is always relative, as well. Each hiker has their own priorities and we all need to consider what’s the most important feature in a backpacking flashlight. Perhaps you’re willing to carry more weight in order to have a brighter or more durable flashlight.
Just remember, all things being equal, we always want to opt for the lighter weight backpacking choice so long as that choice doesn’t compromise performance.
Flashlights have one job: create light. Ideally, the best backpacking flashlights are going to put out a high amount of light in a small, lightweight form factor. But how is light output measured?
This is a measurement of the total amount of light created by a flashlight. While there are different ways to measure lumens, we’ll consider any lumen measurement to be adequate for comparison.
Lux, Candela, Throw
These are all ways of measuring light output in various forms. It’s very rare for manufacturers to note these specifications so we’ll consider them moot points for choosing the best backpacking flashlights.
Best 3 Backpacking Flashlights
1) Fenix MC11 – Best Overall Backpacking Flashlight
With just one AA battery, this light puts out up to 105 lumens for over an hour. Conveniently, however, there are three different settings to choose from for varying output and battery life combinations.
Why did this flashlight make the list over everything else on the market? Because it’s reasonably light, adjustable, and can be clipped to the shoulder strap (or hat brim) for night hiking just like a headlamp. You can even set it on the picnic table or hang it in the tent for light all the time.
Here’s all the things I love about the Fenix MC11:
- Fenix brand is reliable and proven with a lifetime guarantee!
- Light can be used as an angled flashlight or straight flashlight
- Pocket clip and be used to attach to the pack or hat
- Only 2.3oz overall weight
- Can run up to 100 hours on a single AA battery
In one simple package, this flashlight manages to cover so many of the essential needs of hikers, it’s hard to say “no”. Adjust the head to be inline with the handle and you’ve got a traditional flashlight or a hat brim light that can replace a headlamp. Angle the light at a 90 degree bend and you can carry the light on your backpack shoulder strap – essentially the same function as a headlamp. It even weighs less than most conventional headlamps.
Possibly the most useful feature of the Fenix? The stated 100-hour run-time on a single AA battery. This is great because specialty batteries can be difficult to come by in many locations and having three power saving modes means you can adjust your battery use to fit your needs at all times.
2) Nitecore EA11 – Most Tech-Savvy Backpacking Flashlight
This might be the most impressive technical light in our review lineup today.
Nitecore makes some really great gear and they have an established name in the tactical light industry – from military to law enforcement. This small form factor light operates off of one AA battery (or one IMR 14500 battery) and can produce up to 900 lumens for 30 minutes at a distance of over 620 feet.
Now, keep in mind that you’ll have to use the upgraded IMR battery to achieve these high statistics, but they’re rechargeable and if you run out, you can easily replace them with standard AA batteries which will achieve 160 lumens for 45 minutes at the highest output in this light.
I love this light because it weighs in at just 1.87 ounces according to Nitecore and has so many flexible output options! In rare cases, you might need a high lumen output for search and rescue or other emergencies. Most of the time, however, the moderate 40 lumen mode (with AA’s) will last you nearly 3 hours of use. Considering that my current headlamp operates off of 4 x AAA batteries, this light is more weight conscious right out of the gate.The Nitecore EA11 also includes a reversible pocket clip so you can carry the light in your pocket for work, or flip the clip around and use it as a headlamp replacement hat clip on the trail.
These are some of the reasons I would consider the EA11 as my backpacking flashlight:
- Uses one easy to find AA battery
- Adjustable and reversible pocket clip
- Lightweight construction at just 1.87 ounces
- Many output modes
- IPX8 waterproof, submersible rated
One of the biggest drawbacks of the EA11, however, is the short battery lifespan. A single AA battery will last just 10 hours at most on 1 lumen output mode. That’s not enough light to perform normal tasks, only enough for a serious emergency when you’ve totally run out of batteries. Compared to many backpacking headlamps, this short lifespan is quickly out-performed. However, when we take into account that most headlamps require several batteries (my Black Diamond headlamp takes 4), the operational time at a more reasonable 40 lumens becomes 11 hours when adjusted.
3) Foursevens Mini M2A – Simple and Light Backpacking Flashlight
This flashlight manufacturer produces reliable and rugged light from Georgia, USA. Their mission is to “redefine everything about high-performance LED flashlights” and it looks like they’re doing a darn good job of doing that. The Foursevens Mini M2A operates on 2 x AA batteries and features 3 output modes from 3.6 to 216 lumens. We’ll focus on the more reasonable 43 lumen mode with 8.8 hour lifespan for most of our review of this light.
Like all of the lights on our list, this tactical inspired flashlight is machined from aircraft grade aluminum and features tons of knurling (the little bumps) on the outside for positive grip in any condition. With an IPX8 rating, this light is waterproof and submersible and Foursevens even included an extra o-ring for repairs down the road. At just 1 oz without batteries, this light gives even the notorious Petzl e+Lite a run for its money.
Why does this light make our list?
- IPX8 waterproof
- Reasonable ~9 hour battery life at 43 lumens
- Extremely lightweight at just 1 oz
- Durable aluminium body
There’s nothing fancy about this flashlight – just well designed and focused purpose. It seems like most backpackers will even want to use the strobe feature at some point. Since this light has a low-power strobe mode lasting up to 88 hours of run time, you’ll have a search and rescue companion for days.
While I really like this light overall, the biggest drawback for me is the lack of reversible pocket clip. This means the light can not be used as a hat clip headlamp. Still, the lightweight features and simple design make the Foursevens Mini M2A a great choice for many backpackers.
We need to consider things like weight, run time, and waterproof reliability in a backpacking flashlight. Because everyone’s needs are different, we’ve tried to include three backpacking flashlights with unique character and roles.
For those seeking a versatile flashlight with all considerations met, the Fenix MC11 is probably the overall winner of best-in-class. Reversible pocket clip and adjustable head mean that this light can fill just about any role on the trail.
When you’re looking for serious power in a tiny package, the Nitecore EA11 reigns supreme. With the optional IMR 14500 battery, this light can throw 900 lumens over 620 feet!
For simple and lightweight, it’s hard to beat the Foursevens Mini M2A. IPX8 waterproof rating and a dead-simple design keep the weight down and performance up.
It’s worth considering all of your options before purchasing your next backpacking flashlight. We’re certain that the best backpacking flashlights combine energy efficiency, lightweight, and small form factor. Remember that specialty batteries can be expensive and hard to come by so be sure that the light you choose makes sense for you. Especially when hiking in more remote areas, it can be impossible to find special battery replacements. Stick with easily available energy sources for the best backpacking flashlight for you!