Torches are versatile tools used in a variety of applications. The first torches were invented well over a century ago, by British inventor David Misell, who soon sold the patent to American entrepreneur Conrad Hubert, founder of the Eveready company. These were basic devices that could only produce short flashes of light at a time, hence the name ‘flashlights’. Misell’s invention was based on a century’s worth of research, first the invention of the battery at the turn of the 19th century, and later on that of the light bulb. Modern iterations incorporate advanced lighting, superior battery efficiency and the use of lightweight composite materials. The design though doesn’t deviate much from Misell’s invention.
Today, there are dozens of kinds of torches. From tactical and hunting torches, diving torches, heavy-duty and work torches, utility torches, torches used in everyday carry, in the military, police and emergency services. Then there are torches with different powering options, like battery-powered, USB, and solar-powered torches, and those with different types of light arrays – incandescent, LED, and laser torches. Buying one can seem confusing. Here’s a list of basic features to consider in helping you choose your next torch:
The type of lighting array affects how bright the torch can get and how long before it needs a replacement. Incandescent bulbs, like the type used in the first torch, are steadily being replaced by newer, and more efficient technologies. The reason for this is low light output, meaning shorter beams, and the tendency for burning out quite quickly. Heat is one factor that doesn’t help in this area. Cheaper torches, like those in thrift stores, still have incandescent bulbs.
The majority of decent torches today have LED lighting. These are much more energy-efficient, have longer running time and better brightness levels, and what’s more, are cheaply produced. One step further is laser technology, used in specialty torches where extremely long beams are required, like search and rescue JETbeam flashlights.
This is an indication of how bright a torch can get, measure in lumens. This is based on the type of light array used. Torches with incandescent bulbs have about 20 lumens, enough to read a book, to 3500 lumens that will light up a distance of over 2 kilometres. Moderate readings of around 500 lumens are a good starting point in tactical torches. Beam distance measures how far the light reaches in metres with fully charged batteries. Moderate beam distances are between 100-200 metres.
A beam is how light is dispersed within a given area. It can be focussed, producing a spotlight, or cover a wider area in a flood beam. Flood beams are used to illuminate wider areas at a shorter distance, for example at a campsite, and spot beams are used to cover longer distances, like bike flashlights. Many advanced jet beam flashlights, can adjust the lighting in increments from a wide flood beam to a long spot beam.
Size and Weight
Torches come in all shapes and sizes. There are small keyring jet beam flashlights, that weigh a measly 10 grams, to huge full-featured heavy-duty torches, that approach 30cm and almost half a kilo. Size roughly correlates with the battery power output, and the overall light intensity. Everyday torches should be comfortable to handle, without being top-heavy, and easily operated.
Which materials are used to manufacture torches largely dictates how and where they are used. Cheap torches have plastic outer shells, with ridges lining the handle for better grip. These though won’t last in an accidental drop, let alone being crushed or immersed in liquids or chemicals. More upmarket torches have aircraft-grade aluminium housings that can take a beating, meaning they’re waterproof and won’t budge when dropped from a height. In addition, they can stand up to high temperatures, good in search and rescue missions and for firefighters. Of course, better materials and build will up the price.
Strobe, Beacon Lighting and More
Torches are also priced by the number and types of features. This includes the ability for high-output flashes of light, or strobes; a feature useful in law enforcement and self-defence. SOS signalling is used by hikers and in recovery missions, and so is beacon lighting, or light emitted at high intensity or duration of several seconds. Light colour, measured in Kelvins, can be adjusted from a warm light at around 2000K to white-bluish light of 7500k. This feature is accessed through a rotary cap at the front. The same cap can also change brightness less on some jet beam flashlights.
How easy torches are turned on can be a make or break venture. High-end torches have two switches, one in the middle, another as a tail switch. This prevents accidental powering up in dark settings.
Smaller and cheaper torches use disposable batteries, which in turn don’t provide much brightness. AA and AAA sizes are the most common. For tactical and utility torches look for rechargeable options with batteries in higher capacity. These will last a long time and provide better brightness levels. Some torches with rechargeable batteries don’t require a separate charger but use a USB-C port instead. There are also solar-charged torches, good for light camping trips.
So, considering all the features of different torches, which one do you choose? I’m often for the middle ground, with decent materials, good light output and beam types, and resistance to knocks or the occasional slip. This kind of torch will set you back around $100 and last a lifetime. Of course, you can spend way more depending on what you need.