Like fire extinguishers and other safety devices, you usually don’t know you need a flashlight until it’s too late. In fact, if aknocks out the power, flashlights can be key not only to your comfort, but in more extreme cases to your survival. But lights are useful in all sorts of mundane situations beyond disasters, whether you’re digging through a dark attic or garage, exploring the woods at night, jogging before dawn, going camping or catching fireflies with the kiddos.
Which flashlight should you buy? Not only are there too many flashlights on the market to count, there are also a number of different categories of flashlights — from baton to hands-free to lantern-style. We researched the most popular products at a number of retailers, read recommendations from experts, acquired over a dozen devices and tested them all for you.
Here are the best affordable flashlights for 2020.
The $30 ThruNite baton-style flashlight is an all-around fantastic device. It offers powerful output for about 40 minutes before dropping to lower lumens; its light-but-sturdy aluminum body is comfortable in the hand; its two-button interface (one to power it on, one to toggle its four brightness settings and strobe effect) is intuitive; its belt clip is handy and keeps it from rolling; its beam is wider than many similarly priced baton flashlights; and the flashlight is waterproof up to 2 meters.
One of the cooler features of the ThruNite was its firefly setting — a gentle light that’s perfect for nighttime use when you’re trying not to startle wildlife or wake sleeping kiddos.
Basically, casual users shouldn’t have much to complain about with the ThruNite. Its only real shortcoming was that 40-minute high-power duration. If you’re walking in the woods at night and want to explore for hours, you’ll want a baton-style light that boasts consistent, high-level output — which comes at a cost.
I didn’t test all the high-end flashlights on the market, but I did test a $90 Olight Baton Pro flashlight — a favorite brand of many enthusiasts — for the sake of comparison. I can’t call it the “best” high-end light, but it certainly showed what a little more money can buy.
The Olight blew the other baton-style lights out of the water when it came to high-level output and consistency. Over the course of an hour, its output — which already started higher than most of the low-end and mid-level lights — barely budged. Its small body is lightweight and sturdy. The designers creatively packed a slew of features into the single-button interface: low, medium and high power settings; a low-level firefly-type mode and a super-bright turbo mode; a strobe effect; timers; and a lock to keep the light from accidentally turning on and draining its battery.
In short, the Olight is a wonder of design, and if you’re in the market for a dependable light that’ll get lots of use, it will serve you better than lights in the under-$50 range.
In the simplest terms, Rayovac’s Floating LED lantern offers the best output for the money. The plastic body feels cheap (though it does float in water), and the rubber button does two things: turns the light on and turns it off. The output across 60 minutes was impressive. Sure, it wasn’t as consistent as a high-end light like the Olight, but even after two hours in a stress test, the Rayovac still put out more lumens than almost any light I tested after only one hour.
The big downside with the Rayovac, besides its simplistic design, is its 6-volt battery, which you’ll have to replace when it runs out. That costs almost as much as the flashlight itself.
That said, if you want a solid light to keep in a closet until disaster strikes, Rayovac’s lantern will do the trick.
Although Rayovac’s light is technically a lantern-style light, it still features a forward-facing beam, unlike some lights with 360-degree coverage. These lights are great for camping or group activities in the dark, and the best one I tested was LE’s rechargeable LED lantern.
Although LE’s output wasn’t exceptional in one direction — which our testing procedures emphasized — it effectively lit a large space for over an hour, and did so more brightly than the slightly cheaper Energizer lantern.
LE’s real charm comes from its inventive design. Two baton-style lights detach from its body, allowing would-be campers to break off and accomplish their own activities without stealing the light from everyone else. It’s a cool idea, and one that cleverly anticipates the concerns and use-cases of real people.
The downside for LE’s lantern is its battery usage. For best results, you’ll need three D batteries for the lantern, and three AAA batteries for each break-off baton, for a grand total of nine batteries. That leaves you with an expensive device to keep up, and a heavy lantern to carry on a nighttime hike. That said, the pros definitely outweigh the cons here.
Foxdott’s $15 rechargeable headlamp is a fantastic device for the price. Its output wasn’t consistent, but it was much higher than other headlamps in the same price range. What’s more, the multi-light design allows for tons of settings. One button controls the standard LEDs, powering on two, four, six or activating a strobe effect. The second button activates two extra-bright LEDs, dims them, turns them red and makes them blink red. You can then use both buttons to choose any combination of the above effects.
I like that you can simultaneously run six high-powered LEDs with two blinking red safety lights, especially if you’re jogging on the road in the predawn dark. Or you can simply activate two dim LEDs for after-dusk exploration. It gives you flexibility and performance that other headlamps simply don’t offer.
How we tested
The two primary tests I conducted measured a given flashlight’s performance over time and the spread of its beam. For the first test, I affixed the flashlight to a tripod, pointed at a reflective screen 6 feet away. I then pointed a light meter at the reflective screen, and tracked the relative lumens over the course of 60 minutes.
Although I tested the lights in an almost completely dark garage, the light readings shouldn’t be understood as absolute. Instead, they give a window into how the flashlights compare to one another, and how their output changes over time.
The other test involved setting up a flashlight 6 feet away from a white wall, then measuring the diameter of the beam of light. This gave a sense of the general width you should expect from these lights — although it obviously only applied to some of the lights. Lantern style lights, for instance, provide much wider light coverage.
Beyond these two tests, I used the lights in a dark room and outside at night to get a general feel for each of them and the features they offer. Here I looked for light output options, extras like safety lights or strobe effects and a lightweight-but-sturdy body that felt intuitive to use, even in the dark.
The rest of the pack
Broadly speaking, most of the lights I tested weren’t great. They either produced little light, like theand (which only costs $6.50 for a two-pack), or they produced wildly inconsistent light across the 60-minute testing window. And while the best products, like the Olight, can maintain consistent output over hours, even good affordable options like the ThruNite and Rayovac units I recommend see either steady or eventual cliff-like drop-off within an hour.
Thebaton, however, is a solid product in its output. It starts with lower lumens than the ThruNite, for instance, but it maintains solid output for much longer — even after 90 minutes of running, it still maintained a higher output than the ThruNite after 40 minutes.
The problems with the MagLite are mostly due to its physical design: you turn it on by twisting the top, which if you continue twisting removes the head of the light. Yes, the same motion that powers on the light also takes it apart. You also don’t get any of the various settings the ThruNite offers, and the MagLite seems almost designed to roll of surfaces (I can’t tell you how many times I set down all the flashlights and had to catch the MagLite as it crept off the edge of the table).
As for lantern-style lights, I found most, including, and , to have low general output. LE’s lantern was the best of the bunch, thanks to its clever modular design.
Headlamps were surprising to test because of their erratic performance — particularly theand (selling two for $14), which bounced all over the map throughout their 60-minute testing periods. The was much more consistent, but it produced poor light compared to competitors. That left the steadily dropping output of the Foxdott headlamp in the lead, even before considering its superior feature set (such as charging and the aforementioned light arrangement).
Which light is for you?
After dozens of hours testing these 14 flashlights, part of what’s clear is just how different the needs of users might be — and thus how different the recommendations. These devices are great for casual users, but for those really interested in high-end flashlights, devices like the Olight (or any number of others) might be more appropriate.