For many people, even hardened outdoor adventurers, night hiking can be scary. You can’t see, you're fumbling around in the dark, and strange animal sounds are all around. At times like these, it's easy for your mind to start playing tricks on you.
A flashlight for hiking and backpacking is the perfect way to tackle the dark. With a light source, you can quickly identify where a noise is coming from. Flashlights are also handy for setting up campsites, sifting through a pack, or navigating obstacles like stream crossings. Hiking and backpacking flashlights save time, tame fears and let you see what you're doing.
My Review Process
I’ve been hiking and backpacking for 25 years. Throughout that time, I’ve found myself hiking in the dark fairly often. Headlamps are great for a variety of scenarios, but I’ve really come to enjoy hiking flashlights as well.
Hiking flashlights are versatile, easy to hold and can illuminate areas much larger than traditional headlamps. Flashlights are fantastic for setting up camp in the dark or as a light source for groups of people. Because of their stronger output, flashlights can also act as a useful deterrent to wild animals.
This is my favorite flashlight for hiking. The Fenix PD36R isn’t the lightest option on the list, but it comes with the best features. This sweet hiking flashlight is easy to operate, has a fantastic 115-hour run time on the lowest setting and only requires one rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The light output is a whopping 1600 lumens, and the throw distance is a massive 309 yards.
There are only two small downsides to the flashlight. The first is the price, which is fairly high for a hiking flashlight. The lens also gets very hot very quickly on the highest brightness setting.
Still, the benefits of the Fenix PD36R far outweigh the negatives. Combined, the lumen output, red light filter, and throw distance are more than enough for hiking and backpacking needs.
The GearLight S1000 Tactical Flashlight is my budget pick. The price is nice, and it's a two-for-one deal, so you get two flashlights per package. The light beam can be focused to give more clarity, and these LED flashlights only weigh around 2.5 ounces each. The low weight makes it much easier to carry them on longer backpacking trips.
Buying a pack of these LED flashlights for backpacking adventures is great, but over time, efficiency issues tend to crop up. The rechargeable batteries won’t always hold a charge well, the on/off switch can pop off with repeated use, and the light level fades over time.
Still, for the low price, compact design and two-for-one deal, this is easily the best budget purchase. They also make great backup lights if you opt for a more expensive flashlight.
The Nitecore Thumb 85 is an excellent choice for extended trips. This lightweight hiking flashlight comes with a red light mode, has a tiltable head and weighs next to nothing. The compact design also comes with a strong metal clip. You can clip the light to a hit brim, chest pocket, or backpack strap and the light will stay put.
Unfortunately, the throw distance is negligible, and the light output isn’t very strong at only 85 lumens. Additionally, the light uses a USB-C charger which is notoriously finicky.
However, while the Nitecore Thumb won’t be illuminating entire hillsides, it's perfect for smaller campsite tasks. Clip the light to your hat for hands-free use while you're assembling cookstoves, setting up tents or rummaging through packs. For its versatile applications and low price, this compact flashlight is a winner.
The Coast Polysteel 600R is a burly, impact-resistant, and crush-proof flashlight with an easy twist feature that creates a focused beam. It also offers a good light output of 530 lumens. The flashlight accepts rechargeable batteries, but you can also use four AAA disposable batteries.
The biggest negative with this durable flashlight is the weight. Thruhikers or people on larger expeditions will not want to carry a 12-ounce flashlight on top of all their other gear.
If weight isn't an issue, this is the best flashlight for shorter hikes, setting up a basecamp or camping with a group.
In terms of sheer power, nothing beats the WOWTAC A5 3650. The maximum output is an astounding 3650 lumens, and the throw distance is around 230 meters. With this powerful flashlight, you'll be able to navigate dark areas on the trail or at camp with ease. The WOWTAC A5 3650 also has a waterproof rating and is more affordable than other options.
There are two noticeable downsides, the first being the finicky charging performance of the USB-C cable and port. The second is the power button being smaller than other models and can be difficult to turn on in the dark.
Despite the negatives, once you get the hang of this powerful flashlight, the light output of the WOWTAC A5 3650 is unbeatable.
The ThruNite Archer 2A V3 is an easy-to-hold flashlight for backpacking trips. I love the price, the compact size, and the 500-lumen output. This reliable flashlight also has a power button on the back, which is large and easy to find in the dark. The light has five different modes, including a red light, strobe function and multiple brightness settings, offering plenty of light.
Like other models, this flashlight gets really hot on the highest light mode. The button to switch modes is also small and located on the side, which can be frustrating to find in low light.
However, despite the negatives, the ThruNite Archer 2A V3 is a reliable backpacking flashlight. It also has a nice feature not commonly found in others: memory. The light will remember the last mode you had on, which saves unnecessary button cycling in the dark.
Hybrid designs are always interesting, and the Zebralight H600Fc Mk IV 18650 is no exception. The flashlight can be attached to straps to make it a headlamp or can function as a flashlight. It can produce plenty of light (1400 lumens), a throw distance of 173 meters, and has a waterproof rating. There are also multiple brightness levels, and the light only weighs 1.3 ounces.
Like other high-powered flashlights, the highest setting tends to get quite hot, and the lens glass is very thin. A drop will likely crack the lens, which makes the headlamp mode more attractive.
Fragile lenses aside, the light is great for night hikers and stargazers due to its design, hybrid functionality and power. If you’re looking for the best of both worlds, the Zebralight H600Fc Mk IV 18650 is an excellent choice.
Headlamps vs. Flashlights
Headlamps and flashlights both offer extra light for night hiking and backpacking adventures. They differ in a few ways. Flashlights for backpacking and hiking are mainly held in your hands, while headlamps attach to your head via straps.
In an outdoor context, headlamps are great for predawn starts, hiking after dark or setting up camp. In all of those situations, your hands may be occupied with hiking poles or tent components. Headlamps are great for providing extra light when your hands are busy.
While the gap is shrinking, flashlights still offer the most powerful light beams. Spotlight-style flashlights can shine as brightly as car headlights. Flashlights are also sturdier and can handle more abuse. Headlamps may also be uncomfortable or unwieldy, whereas holding a flashlight is intuitive and simple.
Another argument in favor of flashlights is the headlamp's position. When a backpacking headlamp is on your head, and you turn to face someone, the light beam shoots into their eyes. With a flashlight in hand, you can easily redirect the beam to avoid temporarily blinding someone.
Hiking Flashlight Buying Guide
There are a few things about hiking flashlights that you should know before buying them.
A reasonable price for a good hiking flashlight can be anywhere between $10-200. The lower the flashlight costs, the more basic the functions will be. However, expensive flashlights may not be the most reliable option either. The best thing to do if you're focused on price is to establish a budget and stick to it.
Flashlights are super handy for hiking adventures, but finding the right size is key. If the flashlight is too small, you could easily set it down and lose it. If the flashlight is too large, you’ll be less inclined to bring it with you on a backpacking trip. Ultralight options are nice until the flashlight slips out of your hands and it's too dark to find.
A lumen is the standard measurement of brightness levels in any light. For hiking flashlights, the range of lumens goes from about 100 to over 3500. Generally speaking, things over 1000 lumens can be considered very bright unless you’re new to hiking and backpacking.
1000 lumens or more will show things in bright detail but may blind fellow hikers. As always, be careful where you point the beam of light. The brightest light or brightest setting will drain the battery faster. Make sure to toggle through the brightness modes to find the best compromise between long-lasting and intense light.
Flashlights are usually compatible with rechargeable batteries, but sometimes you’ll need to use disposable ones. There are benefits to both. Rechargeable flashlights allow for repeated uses and cut down on waste. Disposable batteries have zero charging time and are easy to pop into a flashlight.
Make sure to check what disposable or rechargeable batteries a flashlight can handle. There are a few varieties. If you opt for rechargeable flashlights, check the charging duration as well.
Additionally, it may be helpful to bring spare batteries with you. When using disposable batteries, take note that lithium batteries perform much better than alkaline batteries in cold temperatures.
Run Time And Charging
Charging time is also an important consideration. Charging batteries can be time-consuming. After a hike, it's best to recharge the batteries right away so that everything is ready for the next outing.
Run time is important as well. While you might not plan to hike in the dark, unexpected things often happen in the outdoors. If you have to spend a few hours in the dark refinding a trail or treating an injury, you need a long-lasting flashlight or extra batteries. Bringing spare batteries in all scenarios is a proactive move.
Throw distance, or beam distance, is important because its range is the limiting factor to what you can see. If there's a disturbance, but you don't have the power to see that far, it could ratchet up your fear of what’s out there.
Flashlights with longer throw distances help give context to noises in the woods at night. When you can see what something is, you can stow fear and refocus on your hike or backpacking trip.
Flashlights, like many headlamps, often come with multiple brightness modes. Similar to regular car lights and high beams, you can toggle between them. Light on the lowest settings will save power, while the brightest settings will illuminate more.
If you know that you’ll be using a flashlight for at least a few hours, it may help to set the light mode to a lower power setting. If you hear something or need to handle an obstacle like a stream crossing, you can always switch it back to a higher power.
Some flashlights come with pocket clips, essentially giving them a “hands-free” mode. Others come with lanyards or holsters, which are handy to have. With hybrid flashlights, the attachments are the straps that can turn it into a headlamp.
It’s not a deal breaker if an option doesn't come with attachments. However, you’ll need to work a little harder to make sure you don’t lose it in the dark.
If you’re looking for a flashlight for hiking with the best overall features, the Fenix PD36R is an excellent choice. For budget shoppers, the Gearlight S1000 Tactical Flashlight, Nitecore Thumb 85, or ThruNite Archer 2A V3 are all more than capable.
Depending on your outdoor adventure, something burlier may be more attractive, like the Coast Polysteel 600R. If it’s your first time in the woods at night, a high-powered light that can quickly illuminate a large area, like the WOWTAC A5 3650, might be the perfect fit.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.