Wednesday, March 18, 2009

One Tough Yellow Bird

It's dark — early morning in winter. Out here, in the Pacific Northwest, things are different.

I'm from snow country, and there, in winter, it never really gets dark. When there is snow the ground is white. And winter is a time of clouds. Light bounces forever between white earth and white sky, no matter what late hour the clock displays. It never really gets dark there.

Not here.

In the Pacific Northwest winter is a different beast. A wet one. A dark one. Winter brings rain and not snow to the lowlands. With rain comes wet. When things are wet (the earth, the trees, every building, each dead fern and fallen leaf), they go dark. Any light escaping upward to the clouds is bounced back and thrown into the black earth where it dies.

Here winters are darker than dark. Everything swallows light. You never really know what is happening around you.

So that's my situation now. I'm walking to work along an old railroad bed that no one else uses. I start work early, so during winter I'm part of the darkness as I go in to work. And as I come home again.

But I have something. A new toy. A light. A small one. It is yellow. I want to try it. To see how good it is.

So I point it down the trail, into the blackness ahead, and push the button.

I am nearly blinded.

Damn. This is one good light.

It is a Pelican L1. I like it.

A few years back, when they were new and still rare, I took a shine to LED lights. Everyone is getting familiar with them now. They are more common and cheaper than ever. Still, these lights are light. They are tough, and they can be tiny. That's what attracted me.

Rather than generating a lot of heat and a little light, as incandescent lamps do, LEDs make light in a more natural, less 19th century way. Instead of heating up a piece of wire to the screaming point as they pass through it, electrons in LEDs express illumination by jumping up and down among energy levels. This comes more naturally to them. Because of this light comes more easily, and thus more efficiently, so you can have one of two things.

More light for the same energy or the same light for less energy. Either way, we benefit. Happier electrons, happier hikers. Good all around.

So Pelican.

A well known company. A U.S. company. With a guarantee: "You break it, we replace it...forever. (This guarantee does not cover shark bite, bear attack or damage caused by children under five.)" They make cases. For memory cards, for laptops, for tools, for whatever. Good cases. Hard cases. Indestructible cases. The kind you can depend on.

And lights. Eighty-two different lights. Some incandescent, some LED, but all built like their cases. Well.

The Pelican L1 is tiny. It is 2.6 inches (7 cm) long. With batteries it weighs 0.9 ounces (30 g). That's small. Light. You can hold one in the palm of your hand and have room for an orange. You can have the light in a black body if you insist, but I like yellow. No use testing fate on a dark night. Even out here, in winter, in the dark, I can find it on the ground. The yellow one.

This light is also over driven a bit.

They say that LEDs last 100,000 hours. Some say half that. Even so, 50,000 hours would be 25 years of work time, eight hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year. Either number is enough. But push too much voltage (or current) through an LED and you break it. Like a fuse melting when all the appliances go on. Push just a little too much (not enough to cook it) and you get an extra bright light.

LEDs are getting better. Some are really bright these days, but still expensive. So the cheap way to extra light is to shove in extra voltage. That's what happens with the Pelican L1. It uses four LR44 batteries, little button cells, instead of the three it ought to have. Maybe the LED won't last quite as long, but it works. With a vengeance.

Look into the business end of this light, then switch it on, and you won't see much for a while. Just an afterimage. It's almost too bright to use around camp. You have to be careful. Using it ruins your night vision for a while.

The light's body is polycarbonate plastic. The switch is a rubber-covered button on the back end, and there is a plastic clip for attaching the light to a shirt pocket. Luckily, the light also has a lanyard hole in that clip, so you can hang the light around your neck. Too easy to lose otherwise.

The switch has two modes: temporary on, or full on/full off. You can use the light to blink a signal, or hold it in your hand and flick it on momentarily every few seconds as you walk. Having the switch on the butt end is awkward at times, and it is possible to pack the light away so the switch is depressed enough to turn on the light. Not great, but a bit of care helps, as with most things.

And as with most things the batteries are getting expensive, but if you buy a dozen or so at a time you can tone down the cost. Get them the wrong place and you'll spend $3 or more apiece. Be smart and you can come in under a buck. Your call, but you have to think ahead.

Besides using four LR44s, you can try two CR 1/3N lithium batteries. Much more expensive, but again there is the bulk purchase option. Maybe $10 each at a Radio Shack, or under $4 if you buy six at a time by mail.

Also, true waterproofing isn't part of the deal, though this light is water repellent. Normally you'll need a light only in camp anyway, when conditions are less demanding. But I've hiked along the coast before daylight, among wet rocks, surf, and seaweed, holding this light in my lips, protected by my hat, and it works. (I haven't graduated to headlamps, in case you haven't guessed.)

Is this my only light? No.

Is this my favorite light? No. Normally I use a Photon button light, and carry two. But this little gem is fantastic when I need lots of light, in a small package.

That's pretty good. And it's a nice, clean yellow too.


Intro to LED Flashlights at Equipped To Survive

Pelican L1 at Equipped To Survive

LED Museum

Pelican L1 at LED Museum