One thing we’ve learned in a crisis, now that we’re all still embroiled in pandemic hysteria, is how essential emergency lighting is. Toss in the recent rolling blackouts in California, and the need for emergency lighting is even more crucial. Construction sites, campgrounds, crime scenes, mines, garages, and workshops used to be the domains of flashlights and lanterns. They are now staples in every household, but for those who have yet to stock up on mobile lighting, which is the better option?
The choice between a flashlight and a lantern depends on your circumstances. If you want to focus on a specific area, are constantly on the go, and don’t have room for bulky gear, get a flashlight. If you want to light up a large area and have space to store, pack, and use the light source, go for a lantern.
Continue reading to identify the advantages of each lighting device, some of our examples of each, and to determine which option fits you best.
Flashlights shine in one direction (the traditional ones, at least). They are designed to cast a focused beam of light over a long distance. They utilize cone-shaped reflectors or specially designed lenses to focus all of the light emitted from the light source (bulb or LED) and project it in one direction. This creates a long beam of light, also called a hotspot of light.
Traditional flashlights are usually handheld devices. However, many flashlight accessory mounts have been developed to allow users to mount their traditional flashlights to their head, helmet, chest, arms, hands, etc.. They also come in clip-on formats that can be attached to packs, walls, and various structures. Magnetic ones can be attached to any metallic surface. Flashlights were invented after the electric bulb and have evolved to really powerful and essential tools.
Lanterns cast light in all directions. Unlike a traditional flashlight that focuses 100% of the light emitted by the bulb or LED in one direction, lanterns are designed to allow the light emitted from the bulb or LED to immerse the entire surrounding area in light. Conventional types have handles on top for easy grasping. A candle in a glass enclosure is still considered a lantern today, as it was centuries ago. Lanterns existed way before the electric bulb was conceptualized.
Lanterns’ power sources were formerly fuel-based, but now, like flashlights, are also powered by batteries, electricity, or even solar energy. Modern lanterns, like their flashlight equivalents, are now designed to emit light from an incandescent or LED source.
So, the primary difference between a lantern and a traditional flashlight is how the light is emitted from the bulb or LED. The power or intensity of that light is the determining factor in how bright the light truly is. In the past, luminous intensity was measured in candelas (candlepower). Now, it is measured in lumens. A flashlight and lantern can have the same lumen intensity, yet the visual output of the light will be much different. A 300-lumen lantern compared to a 300-lumen flashlight will be very different. However, how the light is used and the benefits of both are also much different.
A lumen is the unit of measurement for light output. The higher the number of lumens, the brighter the light. The lumen number is also shown for multiple light settings. It’s a great comparison tool when choosing a lighting device, but should not be the only determinant of its capacity. Intensity, distance, and beam type also influence a device’s effectiveness in various applications.
Also, be wary of cheap lights claiming high lumen levels. Many cheap lights and copy lights from unknown branded Chinese sources falsify their lumen-claims making people think they are getting a good light when in reality they are being tricked. Remember, in the lighting industry, you typically get what you pay for. Stick to known flashlight brands that are trustworthy and honor their warranties.
Fifteen years ago, the acceptable output for a tactical flashlight used in law enforcement was probably a Maglite with a typical incandescent blub emitting about 100 lumens. Those lights were amazing and paved the way to the modern tactical flashlight. Today’s tactical handheld flashlights are capable of outputs ranging from 100 to 1,500 lumens, thanks to LED light technology.
Some flashlights can produce even more lumens, but they get large in size due to battery demands, have short run times, and require large aluminum heat syncs to keep them cool. Many people think that LEDs don’t generate heat, but when dealing with this much power and lumens, they actually can generate a lot of heat. Keeping them cool is essential for proper brightness and longevity. LEDs that overheat will get damaged, so it is important to ensure the high powered flashlights you buy are designed to handle the heat generated by these amazing high output LEDs.
Flashlights in the thousand-lumen range operating at maximum power get hot fast and drain batteries quickly. That’s why it’s important to check if your desired handheld is properly designed to handle the heat. Most are made from aluminum, which is not only durable, but also great at dissipating heat. Also, be sure to find a light with several brightness modes or adjustable illumination levels. Use full power when needed, but otherwise use the lower lumen levels to prolong battery life.
Handheld flashlights are still the go-to for most people. Handheld flashlights are fantastic for instances when you want the strongest portable beam available, when accurate light manipulation is vital, when you need to do a task quickly, and when signaling is necessary. Flashlights have been used in this manner for their entire history, but over time, these demands gave rise to innovations in flashlight design, such as hands-free options, light output options including strobe and SOS, and even the spot beam and flood options.
When you want to inspect something right away or read something up close, get a portable flashlight. These small inspection lights are often called E.D.C. lights, which stand for Every Day Carry. Some people keep these in their pockets every day so they are always prepared.
However, if carrying a flashlight in your pocket every day is not realistic for you, it’s a good idea to always have a micro-unit (such as a penlight or EDC flashlight) in your bag, in your car, and readily available at home for emergencies. Some people simply rely on their cell phones these days, which is a great feature, but nothing beats the performance of a quality micro flashlight at the ready.
They are indispensable during a prolonged power outage. A lantern can illuminate an entire room or outdoor area, allowing you to read, cook, and do basic activities not possible with a flashlight’s directional beam. They are useful for lighting a wide area, such as tents or campsites. While flashlights direct all of the light in one direction, they leave the majority of the area or room dark. Lanterns will light a space similar to a typical light bulb would. This will allow users to go about their normal tasks without having to hold and aim a flashlight.
The best lanterns are durable, produce bright, powerful light, have longer run times, and endure tough conditions.
A lantern is essential in emergency circumstances where regular lighting is unavailable, such as first aid administration or power outage situations. Lanterns have a longer run time compared to most flashlights, which consume batteries quicker. When you are in an emergency situation or power outage, you never know how long you will need effective lighting, so a lantern with longer runtimes is crucial.
A lantern makes a cabin, tent, or campsite homier. Its light is softer and spreads out over larger areas compared to blinding flashlight beams that wash out the spots they illuminate while leaving surroundings dark.
A regular flashlight can be propped on a table but lanterns are more stable. They are also designed to reflect light back down onto a table, so you can effectively light your table surface. LED lanterns typically don’t produce heat and are not hot to the touch, so they are safe to be used around children and pets and in cramped spaces. Only the most powerful LED lanterns will produce heat, but a properly designed lantern will dissipate the heat properly and prevent the user from touching any heat syncs directly.
To find out which device best suits your needs, focus on reliability, quality, flexibility, and unique features. Also, consider your budget and how and where you’ll most often use it. For at home, you most likely will use it to look for something specific in which a flashlight’s mobility and beam direction are a good fit.
For camping, the lanterns multidirectional light, hanging design, and lower softer light make it the best match, however, they don’t do a good job of casting light a long distance. If you want to see what is making noise far off in the trees, you may want to consider a flashlight.
Check for warranties too. Many less than reputable, or non branded companies available on Amazon offer long warranties but don’t honor them. There is no real customer service and you have to send your faulty light back to China to have it repaired or replaced. Good luck. We recommend sticking with known brands that offer quality customer service local to the country you live in.
Note these features to narrow down your choice further:
Are you needing a focused beam of light, or do you want to fill an area of light? In outdoor situations, a light does not have anything to reflect against, and the area you are trying to light is often larger, so you may opt for more powerful lights with higher lumen counts. However, the tradeoff is battery size or runtime. If you need high lumens for a long time, you will need a larger light source. A product with a higher illumination output should also have adjustable brightness levels. Use the lower levels when possible to preserve battery life and extend run times.
Quality of Illumination
Some devices give you the option to choose the kind of Illumination, such as warm/soft/day/natural light. The Kelvin scale rating helps with this choice. A rating of 5,000K is neutral and similar to sunlight. This “color” of light is great to work by, but can be harsh when you want to relax. Anything higher than 5000K means bluish “cool” light; anything lower is a yellow “warmer” light.
This is the distance light will shine before its intensity decreases to the level of full moon illumination, considered safe for outdoor travel. This will vary depending on the brightness setting, and how focused your light beam is. The more focused a light beam is from a cone-shaped reflector, or lens, the further the light beam distance. A very focused light will travel a long distance, however, it is also not very useable inside a room, or doing tasks that are close to you because the “hot spot” of that beam will be very small and intense at short distances. The reflections will be very harsh on your eyes, and it will not light up much area at short distances. On the other hand, a lantern with 360° lighting will be nice to use indoors or to light up close contact areas, but will not have a very far beam distance. Match the beam distance of your device to your activity and the area you’re going to cover.
This is the number of hours it takes for the light output to drop to 10% of the rated output on new batteries, rounded to the nearest 25 minutes. Each light setting has its own run time. Run time is affected by the power output of the light as well as the size of the battery. Batteries are measured in Milliamp hours, mAh. A battery with higher mAh will last longer.
This is the capacity of a device to remain functional after accidental impact or drops.
water resistance is rated using the IPX system. An IPX of 0 has no protection from water, while the highest rating of IPX8 means it can be submerged to deep levels and for long periods of time with no water leakage or damage. Most users only really need to worry about their light being weather resistant, and not waterproof. However, if you use your light around water you may consider higher IPX ratings. For example, if you fish, boat, or work on swimming pools, you will want a light with higher IPX ratings.
Options for both hanging the device from a hook and having it stand on a flat surface are desirable. Some lanterns have removable shades. Other devices include lens filters and diffusers.
The device should allow you to change intensity levels. Some models allow you to turn on a strobe, view long distances, and vary the light color from red to white while transitioning from complete darkness. Flashlights on headlamps allow portable, hands-free operation. Some headlamps also have a red LED light for night vision.
Weight and Size
This depends on your intended activity and venue. A larger, heavier unit will have a longer run time because of greater battery capacity and therefore could also have the capability to support higher lumens for a longer period of time.
Portable models are more suitable for backpacking. This is where the flashlight shines. If you’re insistent on a lantern, choose a light, collapsible one, or a mini lantern. Some models weigh only 3 oz but output 100+ lumens.
Does it travel well and endure rough handling? Will its components remain intact after prolonged use? Can it stand up to cold and hot temperatures? Check the material. Aluminum is very robust and most quality tactical style flashlights are made of aluminum. Lanterns are typically made of plastic. Find quality manufacturers who design to drop test standards. A lantern with thick plastic walls will simply feel more quality.
There are a ton of cheaply made, think plastic lanterns on the market. Do your homework before buying, especially online or on Amazon. Consult forums, store techs if available, and read trustworthy reviews to verify the robustness of your chosen model. Typically stick with known lighting brands that value their customers and design products to properly suit their needs. The cheapest option is rarely the best option when it comes to durability and performance.
One setting is enough for general use. Most people just use “high”, but a multi-mode light source is helpful when traveling or working in challenging environments. Remember, though, that the brighter the output, the shorter the run time. Some devices have special modes like a strobe or SOS option, or even different colors. Others have programmable settings or mode sequencing built into the flashlight or integrated into an app.
On/off switches have come a long way. Thumb-operated sliders and push buttons are still standard, but remote operation is now possible with infrared, Bluetooth, WiFi, and IoT technology. Some models have rotating bezels. A safety lock preventing accidental switch-on is also beneficial.
Some devices have a silent Insta-beam function for quick activation without cycling through all modes—convenient in law enforcement.
If you pit the flashlight against the lantern in these situations, which will emerge the victor?
Activity: Search party
Objective: The ability to inspect a wide area, as well as scrutinize every nook and cranny. Portability paramount.
Winner: Typically a flashlight, but the ultimate solution would be both (multi-angle flashlights and compact lanterns with a high lumen output)
Recommended: The B.A.M.F.F. Flashlight series is a dual-LED tactical flashlight capable of simultaneously illuminating near and distant areas. It combines a powerful spotlight for long-distance visibility with a wide-angle floodlight for close-range area lighting. These two LEDs can be used together or independently of each other.
The BAMFF 10.0 is offered in a range of 200-1000 lumens and can be used as a gun-mounted flashlight or a handheld, providing an optimum field of view for activities like hunting, camping, hiking, equipment repair, and law enforcement. The police and the military use it.
Activity: Communal dinner at a campsite
Objective: Everyone needs light from the same source; they don’t care how heavy or big it is.
Recommended: STKR’sMobile Task Lightfor a full area floodlight. This packable light boasts 1,200 lumens and a 180° adjustable head, allowing you to aim light where needed. It has a strobe mode for partying.
Activity: Pitching tents and night cooking at camp
Objective: Hands need to be free for multitasking. The light source needs to be compact.
Winner: Headlamp flashlight
Recommended: The super-lightFLEXIT Headlamp (5.8 oz with batteries) is possibly the most comfortable headlamp on the market with its plush foam/felt backing.
It offers 250-lumen, 180° halo style LED lighting, directional spotlight, and side-mounted flood LEDs, including a red rear LED and flashing hazard. The spotlight illuminates your focal point, while the side flood LEDs allow you to see the sides of trails.
Activity: Lighting a tent, cavern, or an abandoned cabin in the woods
Objective: Illumination of a large area. Need a stable device that can be put up, set down, or attached to the ceiling, walls, or structures.
Winner: Lantern with a spot option
Recommended: TheFLEXIT Solar’s lighting solution features an embedded solar panel that charges by day and illuminates by night. Its CREE LED technology features 200 to 500 lumens. Its fully flexible LED body allows you to direct light where needed. It can be shaped to emit a lantern light array, and has a spotlight in the middle to light up distant objects. Its magnetic base and hang hook allows hands-free use. Its multiple light modes include a safety hazard option.
Activity: Evening kayaking or fishing
Objective: Illumination of waterways and companion boats. Waterproof imperative.
Recommended: TheIllumidome Mini Waterproof Lantern is unique in that it has a removable reflector that can be stored at the base of the lantern for more light. It’s also waterproof and it floats, making it the perfect light for kayaking, boating, fishing, etc..
The four-mode Illumidome produces 220 lumens with its Toshiba SMD LED technology. Choose between lantern and full-dome mode. Hang it upright or upside-down using its removable Velcro strap or the dual hooks on its base. It also has a strobe mode, which could be good if you are needing assistance on the lake, or are a small kayak trying not to get hit by larger boats!
Activity: Examining the engine or changing a tire at night
Objective: Need a hands-free device with a really bright light.
Winner: A headlamp plus two emergency lights in front of and at the back of the vehicle to act as early warning devices for oncoming traffic.
Recommended: TheFLEXiT Headlamp 2.5 on your noggin and twoFLEXiT Auto Lights for safety. The headlamp will give you plenty of work light while keeping your hands free and the two FLEXiT Auto flexible work lights will warn oncoming traffic while also illuminating your entire car, providing more work area lighting.
They are possibly the most flexible (quite literally flexible) LED lighting device on the market. Hang it from the hood of your car to illuminate the engine or bend it to light specific areas. As it is magnetic, you can even stick it to your vehicle.
Activity: Crime scene investigation
Objective: All hands on deck. Multiple light sources needed: mobile and fixed.
Winner: Both, plus all other formats.
Recommended: The B.A.M.F.F. Tactical Flashlight series offers dual CREE LEDs—spotlight and floodlight—that can be used simultaneously or independently. That’s why the police and the military favor it. Light output ranges from 200 to 1,000 lumens. Each waterproof flashlight illuminates both focal points and surrounding areas. You are also going to want to light the entire crime scene. STKR’s ConceptsMobile Task Lightwill do the job. It is one of the most powerful and compact area flood lights on the market. It also has a variable lens. It is always a floodlight, but one lens will focus the light more than the other.
Activity: Moonlight walk in the forest
Objective: Various lighting angles needed to see pathways and surroundings.
Recommended: One of the lower-endB.A.M.F.F. Tactical Flashlights. Choose from 200 to 400 lumens.
How to Turn a Flashlight Into a Lantern
What if you find yourself in a dire situation with only a small flashlight to keep you company in a blanket of darkness during a long power outage or emergency situation? The ‘flashlight versus lantern’ battle is now a moot point. It’s time to MacGyver it and use odds and ends from around the house to save the day!
Here’s how to create an emergency brighter light source in a pinch:
If you don't have a glass...
Voila! You now have an impromptu lantern.
If you can’t make up your mind, there is a middle ground: the hybrid. This functions as a lantern with flashlight capabilities. An example is theFLEXiT 4.0. It has an array of LED’s on a flexible surface, yet a CREE LED spotlight in the center of this flexible panel. You can shape the panel of wide-angle flood LEDs to light up an entire area like a lantern, or use the center-mounted spotlight to create a hotspot cast a beam of light into the distance.
Still can’t decide? The best option is to simply own both for emergencies.
Use a lantern for camping and a flashlight for backpacking. To go hands-free, have a headlamp handy. If you can only buy or pack one light, we highly recommend theFLEXiT Flexible flashlight Series by STKR Concepts. It is the most innovative and unique flashlight on the market.
It uses smart design which strays from the traditional flashlight and creates a modern solution that solves everyday lighting challenges that are effective while camping, at home, or on the job site. The FLEXiT Flashlight Series offers lighting options with flood and spotlighting, and can all be used handheld, or hands-free via hooking, hanging, wrapping, or sticking via powerful neodymium magnets.
Now that you know the variables for picking the perfect flashlight or lantern for your expeditions, you have the power to illuminate your world.
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