Updated December 2021
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Buying guide for best emergency light sticks

Emergency light sticks are tools that provide illumination when it’s needed urgently or unexpectedly. They can be used as a beacon in a crisis situation, to light a dark area to make repairs, or to provide much-needed light to read a map. Some people keep them in stock for power outages or natural disasters.

A variety of energy sources are used to illuminate emergency light sticks. Some are a natural fit for nautical emergencies; others perform better in chilly climates. Different colors are better suited for specific tasks. The wrong emergency light stick may hamper your efforts or make it harder for a search party to spot you. In a crisis situation, you need a product that performs reliably. Only the best will do.

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Most emergency light sticks can’t be turned off once illuminated, so keep this in mind before activating them.

Key considerations

Energy source

Emergency light sticks generally use one of three energy sources: chemical, battery, or solar. The best fit depends largely upon the environment and temperature at which it will be used.

Chemical: These light sticks are illuminated by a combination of compounds that glow brightly when blended together. To activate them, you shake or bend the stick until you crack a small, thin vial inside, allowing the fluids to mix. These are similar to the glow sticks you enjoyed as a child, except they’re much brighter and longer lasting. Some glow for up to 12 hours after the initial chemiluminescent reaction.

Chemical light sticks are a good choice if you’re out on the water, where leaks can ruin batteries or solar charging is a challenge. They’re the safest alternative in disasters that can cause gas leaks because they don’t generate sparks or heat. Chemical lights glow more brightly — but for a shorter time period — in temperatures above 79°F. They’re dimmer when the mercury dips below 41°F, but this meager light will last longer than at higher temperatures. At 18°F, they may stop working, so consider the climate in which you’re likely to use them.

Battery: Battery-operated LED light sticks perform better than chemical light sticks at low temperatures. Sticks powered by lithium-ion batteries can operate when the mercury dips to -13°F, so look for ones that run on these rather than alkaline batteries. Alkaline batteries use some water-based ingredients, so they may perform poorly if temperatures dip below freezing. Water can react negatively with lithium if the batteries become damaged, so keep your environment in mind when ordering.

Battery-operated light sticks will shine until the battery dies, which is highly dependent upon the size of the light and strength of the battery. LED light sticks powered by lithium-ion batteries operate continuously from 12 to 36 hours, depending upon the stick and battery size. With battery-operated lights, you have the option to pack extras to lengthen your illumination time.

Solar: Most solar-powered light sticks aren’t bright enough to use as a beacon, but they’re a natural choice for tagging your gear or marking a path. Their soft glow and waterproof design make them a natural fit for divers. Most solar-powered lights are designed to glow for up to 10 hours, but their duration and brightness can be unpredictable. Solar lights are best for illuminating a shelter rather than for use as a beacon.

Since they’re charged by the sun, solar light sticks are reusable. However, the charge tends to drain during storage, and the sticks take time to recharge, so don’t plan on using them to respond to a crisis.

Time considerations

Timing is everything, especially in an emergency. You need a light stick you can depend on for both the length of time it shines and its shelf life.

Illumination: Most manufacturers clearly indicate how long each stick will glow. Different colors of chemical lights have varied durations due to the compounds used to activate them. Some deliver a short, intense glow meant to mimic a flare. Most other chemical lights last for 8 to 12 hours. Outdoor search-and-rescue emergencies require the longest-lasting, brightest light available. In other cases, 8 hours of light is often enough to get you through until morning.

Shelf life: Your emergency light stick’s unactivated shelf life is another important consideration. Having a dud stick can be dangerous when you need it to come through in an emergency. Many chemical light sticks have a shelf life of several years. Many battery-powered brands clearly list their expiration date, too. Solar-powered lights are reusable for many years, but they don’t always store energy well. Most are designed to discharge when the sun sets, so they may not be prepared and fully charged when disaster strikes.


Different sizes of emergency light sticks lend themselves to different situations.

Standard: Standard glow sticks measure about 6 inches long, a good size for general visibility. Most chemical glow sticks of this size shine for about 8 hours. Shorter sticks glow for shorter periods since they contain smaller amounts of chemiluminescent compounds.

Long: If you’re directing emergency traffic, look for glow sticks that measure around 15 inches. This size provides enough length to hold while leaving a significant portion visible to drivers and pedestrians. For marking trails, consider sticks in the range of 10 to 12 inches long.


The right features can help you make the most of your supplies in a serious situation.


Chemical and solar light sticks are either on or off, but battery-operated products may include several attention-getting modes. Flashing or strobe options can help catch eyes from a distance or on the horizon.

Government agency approved

Government organizations, such as the United States Coast Guard, may recommend specific emergency glow sticks that their search-and-rescue units can spot most easily. If you’re undertaking a rigorous boating or hiking trip, check with local authorities for tips, especially if the area is unfamiliar to you.


Emergency light sticks come in a rainbow of colors, each of which has advantages in different situations. Here, references to brightness mostly apply to chemical light sticks, but color advantages are relevant across all energy sources.

Blue lights can illuminate large areas and be seen from a mile away. They’re not the best for using to read maps.

Green lights are reliable classics that glow longer than most other colors and can be seen from a mile away, depending on the brand. It’s a good choice for nautical emergencies and reading maps, but it’s not ideal for use near roadways and traffic lights.

Orange chemical lights often burn extremely brightly for around 5 minutes and can substitute for flares. Check the specific packaging to verify.

Red lights are good for providing personal illumination when you don’t want to be spotted by other humans or by animals. But if you want to light a large area or read a map, choose another color.

White lights brighten large areas and can be used to provide light to complete tasks.

Yellow lights add considerable brightness to larger areas and can draw attention in roadside situations.

In most emergencies, every pair of hands helps. Most emergency light sticks come ready to attach to a lanyard, so you can hang them around your neck, foliage, or a rope pathway. Others come equipped with a clip. Clip-on sticks are especially helpful in nautical emergencies, where they can be clipped to a life jacket.

Reusable sticks

Emergency light sticks powered by solar energy or LEDs and batteries can be used over and over again. They may not glow as brightly as those powered by chemical reactions, though, so consider whether one of these options will work for your situation.

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Did you know?
Emergency light sticks are a staple in law enforcement and military tool kits.

Emergency light stick prices

It’s hard to put a price on safety, but emergency light sticks are well worth their modest investment, especially given their long shelf life.

Inexpensive: The lowest-priced emergency light sticks cost around $0.75 per stick. For this price, you can get chemical light sticks that shine considerable light.

Mid-range: The next tier of emergency light sticks costs $1 to $2 per stick. You’ll still find mostly chemical lights at this price, but they’re more likely to have a longer length of illumination and shelf life.

Expensive: The most expensive emergency light sticks cost $3 to $5 per stick and sometimes more. If you’re paying this much for chemical sticks, they should come with well-designed holders to free up your hands. You’ll also find battery-operated LEDs in this top tier, as well as solar-powered lights, which can range from $5 to $20 per light stick, depending on size.


  • Guard against chemical emissions. If you need to cover the emissions from a chemical light stick, wrap it in a polyester film such as Mylar.
  • Prolong battery life. Flashing a battery-operated glow stick can help prolong the battery life.
  • Pack a lanyard. If your emergency light stick comes with a lanyard hook, be sure it includes a string or lanyard as well — or find one yourself — before you head out for an adventure.
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Chemical light sticks designed for emergencies are much more powerful than the wands designed for glow-in-the-dark fun for children.


Q. Who should carry emergency light sticks?
They’re a good idea for anyone who participates in outdoor activities where becoming lost or needing to signal for help is a possibility. Boaters should always have several on hand to draw attention in search-and-rescue situations. Hikers and campers can also use them to draw attention in emergencies or as lights after sunset. Recreational divers can use them to illuminate dimly lit depths or mark designated areas. Drivers can use them to draw attention when they need roadside assistance. Some homeowners even stock them as a backup to flashlights during power outages. 

Q. Are chemical light sticks dangerous?
Most compounds in chemical light sticks are non-toxic, but that doesn’t mean you should bathe in them. If the tube ruptures, the chemicals can still burn and irritate eyes and skin. Glass from the interior vial — which you break to activate the stick — can cut your hands, too. Most aren’t hazardous to a child, but they could sting the mouth and throat if chewed or swallowed. Keep emergency light sticks away from children under the age of five. If you have an incident and need more guidance, be sure to call your local Poison Control center.

Q. How I dispose of chemical light sticks?
Chemical sticks are energy efficient, but they still leave a footprint. At this time, there’s no special process for disposing of spent sticks. The plastic tubes aren’t recyclable, thanks to the chemicals inside, and puncturing and cleaning the tubes isn’t recommended. Most manufacturers recommend disposing of tubes in the garbage. Double-bag the sticks to prevent leakage if they’re punctured. If these options bother your conscience, it might be best to purchase battery-operated or solar-powered lights.

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