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OUTDOORS: Let there be light: Beams go high-tech

Humble no more, these flashlights are strong and almost last forever
June 3, 2004


When we consider the advances in outdoors gear in the past 20 years, we tend to think of things like $100 hand-held GPS units that are superior to the $10-million navigation systems they had on nuclear submarines in 1980.

We think of electronic fish-finders that can spot a single perch in 100 feet of water, outboard motors that produce twice the horsepower on two-thirds the gasoline, and weatherproof clothing that keeps us comfortable in everything from a tropical hurricane to a 30-below blizzard.

Yet few think of a product that has undergone perhaps a revolutionary change and promises even-more dramatic changes in the future.

I write of the once-but-no-longer humble flashlight, a gadget that has become so efficient that a lot of people are happily dropping $100 or more on the highest-tech models.

Like many outdoors people, I have a couple of dozen flashlights scattered about my gear for various activities, and I'm always looking for new ones that burn brighter and last longer.

The remarkable improvement in flashlight technology came home the other day when I walked by a display at Bass Pro Shops in Auburn Hills. (I hate to visit those big outdoors shops because I walk in to get $3.49 worth of fly-tying materials and walk out with something that costs at least $69.95.)

Dozens of lights were available in various sizes. There were LED (light-emitting diode) models like the Streamlight Stylus I bought four years ago. It's the size of a pencil but with the luminosity of a foot-long incandescent light that needs four D cells. Some of them sell for less than $15.

Another LED model, the Inova 24/7, can send an automatic SOS signal or flash white or colored strobe lights to display your position. It would be handy for kayakers, small-boat owners and campers. It sells for $40.

The hottest things in flashlight technology are the incandescent lights from SureFire, which are nearly indestructible and can light up an area half the size of a football field with a couple of three-volt lithium batteries.

Most of them offer focusing beams, long burning times and colored filters for various purposes. The blue and green show blood almost is if it were fluorescent, useful for tracking deer and other animals.

The SureFire lights start at about $34 and top out at about $150. For a while some models were hard to come by because the company was selling 60,000 a month to the U.S. military for use in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots.

If you want to talk flashlights, a great source is Russ Becker, manager of the new Gander Mountain store in Novi. But don't even think of raising the subject unless you have some time to kill because Becker, a self-described "flashlightaholic," owns a couple of hundred and can explain their operation in excruciating detail.

"I think I'm a little mentally ill," he said. "I own 85 of the SureFire models alone. But once you start to learn about flashlights, you begin to realize what incredible technological changes we're seeing now and what it might lead to in the future."

Take digital video cameras, for instance. You might wonder what they have to do with the infrared filters sold with many modern flashlights.

"Most of those cameras claim to work in the dark in zero-lumens mode," Becker said. "And they will pick up stuff 20, 25 yards away, although not very well. But if you use that same camera with a good flashlight with an infrared filter, it turns your backyard into daylight. You can see details at 100 yards. No wonder. When you put the infrared filter on the light and shine it on someone's face, they can feel the heat 10 feet away.

"A seven-inch SureFire M6 is brighter than a modern car headlight. It can turn off streetlights because they think it's daytime."

For Becker, the most amazing feature of the new flashlights is that they can sit unused in a backpack, hunting coat, car glove box or drawer for 10 years and still produce full power when they are turned on. And even if the lithium batteries fail, they won't burst and destroy the light as older batteries did, because there is no acid in the lithiums.

Some lights are so bright that they are being promoted as personal protection devices. (An attacker can't look at them even with his eyes closed.) The U.S. government is rumored to be testing lights so bright they induce nausea and helplessness in enemy troops without causing long-term injuries.

I wouldn't be surprised if much of this is true. I'm someone who grew up in an era when you were lucky to get two hours out of four D cells before the flashlight grew too dim to read a map.

Yet I can see a day when a flashlight is an indispensable part of a device that combines the functions of a cell phone, GPS and personal digital assistant, and can be used to provide heat and even light a fire.

God help me if I'm still walking through outdoors stores when that becomes available.

Contact ERIC SHARP at 313-222-2511 or [email protected] Order his book "Fishing Michigan" for $15.95 at or by calling 800-245-5082.

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