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Modern flashlights have brightness up to several thousand lumens which is great. However it's not clear how bright a flashlight I might realistically need.

Suppose I want to go on a search party such as for example when a person is lost in the terrain and police and volunteers move through the terrain and try to find that person.

How bright of a flashlight would be reasonable for such scenario?

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I just asked all the search-and-rescue people I know and they all said that night searches are rare, because they are dangerous. They also said they don't have standard equipment. Mostly, people just grab some 200-lumen head lamps and hope for the best. – theJollySin Sep 5 '13 at 16:27
@theJollySin - I asked my SAR mates and they said the same. They do have huge lights on the vehicles/helicopters though, and they all rate the LED Lenser torches. – Rory Alsop Sep 5 '13 at 17:08

For search party purposes, bigger is almost always better, both from the perspective of the lost individual - he/she may be able to see the light from a distance and make themselves more visible or move towards the light, and from the searcher trying to see their target, perhaps an unconscious individual - spotting clothing or non-natural material is much easier with a very bright light.

For this reason pretty much all search teams carry high intensity floodlights. This is a portable, high intensity torch rated at 1100 lumens:

enter image description here

But that may be impractical for a light team already out in the field, so SAR teams recommend head torches like these. Only 170 lumens, but very portable:

enter image description here

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Okay, so will brightness around one thousand lumens be enough for most cases? – sharptooth Sep 6 '13 at 12:59
I would imagine so, yes. – Rory Alsop Sep 6 '13 at 13:44
Equally (if not more) important as lumens is output regulation. A regulated output will put out (approximately) the same brightness for the duration of the battery life. An unregulated light will quickly drop in output until it's hardly useful. Always get a regulated light if you can. – nhinkle Aug 14 '14 at 20:56

I'd think that it will depend very much on what you search for:

  • do you expect the person to respond, e.g. put up whatever scrap of reflective material they have with them when they see your search-light?
    In that case, and open landscape a highly brilliant lamp would be good: you could sweep a large space slowly with such a light and look for reflections.
    E.g. I can see the reflective background in the eyes of the neighbour's horses across the valley (ca. 800 m, 1100 lumen light IIRC) without problem. You could similarly detect reflective material.

  • Do you have to seach in bushes where you anyways cannot see far?
    In that case, less brilliant but wide angle is probably better (but I'd guess that chances are pretty small to accomplish much before the next morning). Brilliant and tightly focused light in such a situation will possibly be more of a hindrance than a help: it can easily blind you enough to see nothing at all outside the narrow illuminated space, and even in the direction of the search light nothing but the bushes in the foreground.
    I guess the most sensible thing would be to try covering easily accessible and sensible places rather than going right through the bushes during the night: along roads/trails where the lost person is likely to be and where your light can actually help. If you can expect the person to be responsive, then acoustics may be your friend - better if organized: shout / whistle in a concerted fashion, then stop to listen.

  • Are you looking for someone who is hiding or unable to respond and cannot be expected to have anything reflective on him? You really need to search through the bushes?
    Then, maybe night vision gear would be better than search lights. Or search dogs. If you have to do with lamps, you'll need a massive group helping with the search to cover a decent area in one night.

I think that headlamps, torches and rescue lights (e.g. head lights of fire fighter trucks) are optimized towards a very different purpose: they are optimized to brightly illuminate a restricted space. Head lamps e.g. are useful to enable you to work, e.g. repair something or care about an injured person. But even though mounted on your head, I find them illuminating an uncomfortably small angle for e.g. hiking or in a cave. The torch I mentioned above is also good if you want to repair something, but it is useless if you want to search in bush terrain.

I find that head lamps are often a pain for a group: most people are polite enough to look into your face when speaking or being spoken to. Which will blind away your dark adaption over and over again...

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With regards to searching or SAR, I think @Rory Alsop, hit the nail on the head. You really want a brighter and wider field of light when searching for someone. However, as an avid backpacker, you don't need that many lumens. So... if you are searching for a path or night hiking, I use a 70 lumen headlamp that has worked fantastically well and when I need to 'search' a bit further, I use a 100 lumen flash light. With that amount of light, you are able to see the reflections of the trail markers on the tree. Hope this helps!

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Unfortunately the regions where I trek, there are no trail markers :D – Unsung Sep 27 '13 at 6:26

If you decide on something really bright, check out scuba diving lights. They are made extra tough, extra bright and are waterproof. And, you want to carry two: One bright one for searching and a smaller one for reading something, examining a person for injuries, etc. You also want the smaller one as a backup just in case something happens to the larger one.

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