What Kind of Torch Should I Buy?
Last updated 15 May 2021
1. Modern Torches Are Much Brighter
If you haven’t bought a torch recently you’ll be amazed how much brighter LED torches are.
The 2 photos below were taken by a 15 year old Maglite model and a current version:
- Older Maglite 3 C-cell bulb torch: 45 lumen
- Current Maglite 3 C-cell LED torch: 611 lumen
The new model is dramatically more useful than its 15 years older relative.
Tip: If a torch description or packaging doesn’t say how bright it is in lumens, don’t buy it
2. Don’t buy a cheap torch
For those times when you actually need a torch, possibly in an emergency, you will need it to be reliable. Modern, powerful LED torches are a more sophisticated engineering challenge than older torches, due to heat & power management considerations.
Typical problems associated with cheap torches include not being as bright as they claim, overheating, being supplied with cheap batteries and chargers, or simply not being reliable.
Tip: Only trust established brands. If a torch looks too cheap don’t buy it.
3. How bright a torch do you need?
The brightness of handheld torches with conventional bulbs from about 20 years ago, was around 20 to 40 lumens. For comparison, the iPhone 12 flash is 50 lumens. A torch with less than 100 lumens is only marginally more useful than your smartphone’s torch function.
At 200 lumens, you have an increasingly useful torch, where you can clearly illuminate a person at 30 metres, all from a small torch you wouldn’t notice in a jacket pocket.
At 300 to 500 lumens, you have a quite powerful torch, that will let you see clearly much farther, particularly if it has a variable beam with a tightly focusable spot (see the LED Lenser TT).
However, I would put the sweet spot for a general purpose handheld torch at 600 to 1,000 lumens. At that brightness, with a reasonably focussed spot beam, you can see a good 100 metres across the park to track down your dog, across a field to see where the path exit is, or quite a way down the street from your 4th floor apartment window to check out that car alarm.
Tip: After a while, you start to take for granted the highest (sustainable) brightness setting of your powerful new torch. So don’t buy a less powerful torch, you’ll regret it.
Beyond general purpose handheld torches, if you need to light up large areas, or to see 500 metres or more in the distance, there are larger, more powerful ‘coke can’ torches or ‘search’ torches of 3,000 to over 10,000 lumens.
4. A word about ‘turbo’ mode
Many powerful handheld LED torches have a ‘turbo’ mode, more that twice the torch’s maximum sustainable brightness, that can only be sustained for a few minutes before a thermal cut-out drops the brightness to protect the LED and circuitry from heat damage.
Turbo mode is super useful, but I wouldn’t buy a torch to use in turbo mode all the time, as the repeated heating then cooling will ultimately affect reliability.
In our reviews, the headline brightness & runtime we quote, e.g. 750 lumens for 3 hours (Olight M2R Pro Warrior) is the maximum sustainable brightness, even though that torch has an 1,800 lumens turbo mode that it can sustain for 4 1/2 minutes before thermal cut-out.
5. Torches fall in to different categories
Considering the brightness and runtime you need from your torch and the size & weight you are willing to live with, we can divide torches in to a few categories to make it easier to make the right choice.
Small torches (keyring, handbag, etc.)
From tiny keyring torches up to small handhelds, arguably the torch you’ll likely have on you when you need one. Whether or not one of these will suit you is down to you figuring out how much brightness and runtime you actually need from your torch.
see our Best Small Torch
Around our ‘useful brightness’ of 600 to 1,000 lumens with a runtime of 2 or more hours, our general purpose handheld at around 150mm long and weighing some 150 to 250 grams is powerful enough for most applications.
See our Best Handheld Torch
Large handheld torches
Still mostly at 600 to 1,000 lumens but with a runtime of 10 hours or more, the traditional 3 D-cell torch (plus some alternatives) is the big house torch you might keep by the front door, or in your truck.
See our Best Large handheld Torch
Everything else above
Large, powerful, heavy and expensive search torches, including ‘coke cans’. From about 3,000 to over 10,000 lumens, and with very long ranges these are serious torches for law enforcement, search & rescue, but also anyone who wants to see a long distance in the dark. We’ll be covering these in the near future.
6. Design Matters
Lastly, we live in a time when design is important to many people. Some torches look better than others. Thoughtful design is also evident in the functionality of some torches.
- The knurled aluminium surface of the classic Maglite ML300L, with it’s recessed button that won’t accidentally turn on in a bag in the boot, this is a thoughtfully designed product.
- The soft startup of the LED Lenser MT14 so it won’t blind you, with it’s on/off switch that indicates the battery’s power level for a couple of seconds after clicking it.
- The thumb ridge on the head of the Coast HP10r that lets you change the beam from spot to flood with only one hand. And it’ll also charge your smartphone.
There are now more choices than ever before for the discerning, design conscious buyer, even when it comes to the humble torch.
What Kind of Torch Should I Buy
How powerful? How big? What’s turbo mode? We take you through a brief description of the range of torches on sale today to help you choose.
Best Small Torch
From keyring sized up to small handhelds, which is better for your commuting laptop bag keyring or bedside drawer?
Best Handheld Torch
Usefully compact and powerful, we test & rate 9 excellent torches in this category You’d be happy with any of them, but are some better than others?
Best Large Handheld Torch
With long runtimes, these reliable big 3 D-cell 'house torches' standing by the front door are great for an outage or other emergency and can also be used to bonk intruders on the head.
My Top Torch Recommendations
Having used and reviewed every torch here, take my personal recommendation on the very best torches you can buy.