Review: To the Arctic Circle and back with the Coast G20 inspection beam penlight
For $17, can the Coast G20 light your way without lightening your wallet?
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During my time in the Air Force, having a solid, reliable flashlight was crucial. It provided security, comfort in the dark, improvised as a weapon, and was often the only thing standing between a smooth mission and a total disaster. I used it for reading maps, catching fluid leaks, spotting damage outside the plane in emergencies, finding problems on the jet if the lights failed, finding exits when power failed on the ramp, and more mundane things like checking fan rotation on engine starts. I always had a flashlight, and most of the time I carried two of them. It’s such a simple thing; a metal tube, some o-rings, batteries, bulb, and lens, but it makes a huge difference in the field or on the flightline.
Technology jumped forward during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and it trickled down to the tools we relied on. Congress had poured money into the defense budget and we started getting cooler toys. For me, the standouts were a pair of Oakley sunglasses, some Oregon Aero upgrades to my headset and helmet, Danner boots, a Benchmade knife, a SOG Tool, a Bianchi shoulder holster, and a Surefire flashlight. It was all overkill and Gucci as hell, but that Surefire C2 changed the way I saw flashlights forever. My buddies and I used to joke about not needing sidearms while swinging our four-cell D Maglites (or “flashclubs”) around like baseball bats, but when the C2 hit the market, we suddenly had more light than in something that fit in the mini-maglite pocket in our flight suits.
Editor’s note: the Coast G20 inspection beam penlight also made Task & Purpose’s roundup of the best EDC flashlights of the year.
For all the light they put out, the C2 unfortunately put out an insane amount of ridiculously expensive dead batteries. The battery life issue probably would have been fine if they were AAs like the mini-mags, but they were CR123As. If supply ran out of batteries, we’d have to buy them on our own or go without a light. I only needed to buy them once to realize an E-4 couldn’t afford to own a flashlight like that. My squadron must have felt the same, because after a year or so we switched to a Smith & Wesson model that took AAs. The battery issue is still a big one for me these days, and I’m sure it is for you, too. I don’t want proprietary or expensive batteries, and if I never see another CR123A, it’ll be too soon. I’m scarred for life by paying $25 for two of them and having the light last two hours.
As a veteran (read: civilian), my needs are a bit different. I no longer worry about blowing up Pratt & Whitney turbofans on a nightly basis or finding where the smoke is pouring from in an avionics bay. I worry about power outages and resetting breakers, changing a tire in the dark, finding that last bolt in the bowels of a Duramax exhaust, seeing metal flakes in motor oil, searching for the path to the outhouse from my tent on camping trips, and finding my dog’s turds on a pitch-black abyss of a rainy night.
The only non-rechargeable flashlight left in my arsenal is the Coast G20 penlight, and there are two of them in the house. I’ve lived with this orange one for more than a year now and it’s traveled more in its short life than most of the people I now work with. I say that with confidence because this particular flashlight came with me on the Alcan 5000 rally and survived minus 90 Fahrenheit temperatures, braved the Arctic dark to help diagnose a terrifying oil leak, and came back with me on the flight from Anchorage to Seattle like a war prize.
Back home in Seattle, we had a couple of power outages, and I trust a Coast G20 in my nightstand to guide me through the dark. It’s small, easy on batteries, water-resistant, and bright. It’s extremely basic and you’ll never have to worry about parts breaking.
The Coast G20 came in the standard blister packaging that has annoyed everyone forever. I can’t say for certain, but I might have opened it with my Mora Companion. There’s nothing much to unbox.
The first thing I noticed was the feel. The G20 has a pleasant weight to it. The light has light knurling and two flat sections for a grip. There’s a removable all-metal pen clip if you want to stick it in a pocket. Size-wise, it’s a little thicker than my fattest pen, the Levenger L-Tech 3.0, and very easy to manipulate with just your thumb and forefinger.
Then, of course, comes the orange anodized finish. The G20 is available in a bunch of colors, including everyone’s favorite tactical black. Had the G20 been available while I was flying, I’d have had the black one. As a civilian, orange is my best friend, and NASA agrees. The orange version of the G20 was known as the “Crew” version, which meant upgraded seals for saltwater use and Coast’s signature orange anodizing with black trim.
The on switch has a great tactile click to it and is stiff enough not to activate when thrown in a bag. It’s covered by a black rubber seal with an embossed “C” for Coast. There’s a matching C stamped out of the pen clip. The only other decorations are a “COAST G20” in silver on one of the grip flats, and a silver trim ring that tells you where the battery compartment is. Overall, it’s a handsome piece of kit and looks as good as it works. If it doesn’t, Coast flashlights come with a lifetime warranty. You might not care, but it was a selling point for me. I like to buy products from companies who stand by their work.
How we tested the Coast G20
This flashlight got more than its fair share of brutalizing. While our participation in the Alcan 5000 from Seattle to the Arctic was highly planned, testing the flashlight was not. We had a power outage a few weeks before leaving for the starting line, and I found this orange chunk of machined aluminum easily in the night. I dropped it onto the hard floor after tripping over the dog, and the light never wavered. I may have cussed a bit but the G20 didn’t care. I took it out on a rainy dog walk and it didn’t care about getting wet either. The only thing I did before chucking it into my rig before leaving was making sure I had a spare set of batteries just in case.
The G20 got plenty of use during the rally. When it was dark and the navigator needed to read a map without blinding me, the light’s sharp beam didn’t spill onto anything but her lap. After the transits or stages, we’d pull into that night’s lodgings dead tired and inevitably forget something in the back of our rig (named Gomi, which is Japanese for “trash”). We’d have to trudge out to dig through the back of our rig for a charging cable, clothing item, or electronic device (action cam) that we either couldn’t live without for the night or that the cold would destroy. That action cam was a lost cause.
On day seven or so, north of the Arctic Circle, the low oil light lit up the dash. We had a couple of quarts extra just in case, but there’s nothing quite like having a crippling mechanical problem somewhere that remote and with that level of danger. It’s not the wildlife that’ll get you, it’s the cold. The locals we met along the way all had stories about how the cold will kill you in minutes. Most of the guys I talked to were visibly missing fingers. Some were missing toes (and yes, I drank the fabled cocktail). “Frostbite,” they all said. It’s inevitable, and if your vehicle quits, you pretty much just die along with it unless someone happens to drive by. No one drives by. It was minus 40 Fahrenheit at the time, which turned out to be mild. We hit minus 90 Fahrenheit with wind chill on the road to Tuktoyaktuk.
We made it to Inuvik about 10 minutes after the oil light came back on and bought all the 5w-30 we could fit in the back. We found a garage we could use, and I used the light to poke around the engine bay. It was hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit in the garage thanks to an oil stove, and the G20 fired right up. It was easy to use wearing insulated work gloves with just that button on the back and flat spots for gripping. I poked around and saw oil was dripping on the catalytic converter. The sharp, concentrated beam didn’t bounce around or create distractions. It was the rear main seal. Not the greatest news, but not catastrophic either if we had enough oil.
The next day we took careful notes and figured out that we lost a quart every 140 miles. Some careful back-of-napkin math by flashlight, a stop in Eagle Plains for fuel, oil, and a surprisingly tasty Reuben, and we had three quarts more than we needed to get to Dawson.
The flashlight was critical at every phase here, and it didn’t let us down once. We’re even still on the factory batteries. The flashlight held up great to the cold, poking around in the dark, being dropped, rattling around in a race SUV doing 80 plus MPH over frost heaves and an ice road (yes, the one from the show), the grime and oil, and the nervous poking around in an engine bay. While dirty from the trip, the Coast G20 cleaned up with a simple wipe-down. The only evidence of abuse is the Coast logo itself, which now looks a bit dirty. I chalk it up as battle scars and like that it has character now.
What we like about the Coast G20
In design language, the way a product feels when you touch it or hold it is called “the hand” — and Coast got it exactly right. The knurling is soft and doesn’t rip into your hands like a Smith and Wesson M&P’s aggressive stipple, but allows a good grip when your hands are wet or cold or gloved. The grip cutouts themselves are nicely scalloped and the edges are broken. There are no sharp, uncomfortable edges to snag on or dig into your fingers.
The switch that Coast chose for the G20 is a dream. It has a low-enough profile not to get knocked around or switched accidently, fully sealed with the rubber cover, and tactile with just the right audible click. The G20 isn’t fiddly at all. It’s purpose-built and has no adjustments to get out of line or small parts to break or lose.
As I mentioned above, proprietary or expensive batteries are a hard pass for me. The G20 takes AAs, which are ubiquitous. You can get enough AA batteries to run a Coast G20 for two weeks straight for under $10, and you can do that just about anywhere in the world. The battery life with AAs is great, too; while I don’t use this flashlight every day, I pull the G20 out more frequently than I expected to. After a year, I’m still on the included batteries. The only way this could be better is with a rechargeable battery.
The quality of light is something else. The Coast G20 was my first “inspection” light and I didn’t know what to expect. The light it puts out is different from what you’d think of with a more generalized flashlight. The G20’s beam has a sharp edge where it just stops, and the light in the beam is very even.
When you hit that tactile switch, you’re rewarded with a circle of light where the brightness is the same across the entire circle. It’s been super handy because whatever you’re looking at gets the same amount of light. You’re not moving the beam around to hit something with the bright spot like you have to with some flashlights.
This is also the G20’s biggest weakness.
What we didn’t like about the Coast G20
I’m used to flashlights that bleed some light outside of their “spot” zone. Think of it like peripheral vision. You get a bright spot and the light falls off gradually, giving you a wide area where you can see in the dark. The G20 doesn’t do that. It has a very strictly defined circle of light that is basically either on or off, and the light within the “on” part is extremely even.
There are upsides to a fixed beam, like how there’s no need for focus adjustment or other fiddly parts. The downside for the Coast G20 is literal tunnel vision. It’s like using a scope instead of a red dot, where you just see what’s in the circle and not what’s going on just out of frame. Like the scope, though, it has its purpose and gives that very even lighting exactly where you want it.
The lack of focus or beam adjustment simplifies the Coast G20, but has limitations too. The illumination circle grows and weakens with distance and can’t be refocused. I didn’t have any issues with this and found the lack of spill really useful, but I can see how others might feel about it. My issues came from getting too close to what I’m trying to see. There’s no way to make the beam wider, and the inverse square law means that the light is going to be a lot brighter up close, and with a much narrower beam.
The Coast G20’s build quality is extremely solid and has some detail work that is surprisingly good, like the little machined-in battery diagram on the inside of the cap. At the same time, because everything about the G20 is so good, it’s disappointing that the battery spring is loose enough to barely let the batteries rattle. It doesn’t affect operations or give rise to any reliability concerns, but it’s something to note.
My last gripe might ring a bit hollow. I wanted a USB rechargeable version of the G20 after having seen that feature on the Coast HP8R I have. I’ve had zero problems with batteries with this flashlight. Then again, reliability (including battery life) is probably my number one issue with most flashlights. Coast must have been reading my mind because they’ve since created the HP3R, which solves most of my issues. The new light, however, has its own clear disadvantage: cost. While the G20 comes in at either $10 or $17 shipped depending on options, the HP3R will set you back around $60. The price difference buys a lot of AAs.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect inexpensive flashlight for light duty use than the Coast G20. The light is small, sturdy, and bright. It doesn’t turn itself on in your kit, takes AA batteries, and lasts forever on two of them. Even the G20’s weaknesses aren’t very weak. Coast’s G20 was well-designed and executed. As purchased, the light runs under $20 shipped, and if you want the standard black one, you’re now looking at under $10. I love mine and relied on it in extreme conditions. I can easily recommend the G20 as an EDC light.
Are you an E-3 in need of a small field flashlight? This is your boy. It fits your ruck, your lifestyle, and your budget better than just about anything else out there. If your life throws something at the light that it can’t handle, there’s always Coast’s lifetime warranty to fall back on.
- The flats machined into the sides are great and a natural place to keep your fingers.
- The pen clip was a nice touch.
- I’m a sucker for hi-vis orange EDC gear.
- It comes with a lifetime warranty.
FAQs about the Coast G20 Inspection Light
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q. How much does the Coast G20 cost?
A. The tester bought this flashlight with his own money for $17 shipped.
Q. Are Coast flashlights waterproof?
A. Most Coast flashlights are water-resistant and some are waterproof. The Coast G20 is water-resistant and weatherproof.
Q. How many lumens does the Coast G20 put out?
A. The Coast G20 outputs around 9 lumens, which is plenty for a penlight.
Q. Where are Coast flashlights made?
A. Coast flashlights are designed in Portland, Oregon, and manufactured in China.
Got questions? Comment below & talk with T&P’s editors
Drew Shapiro served two enlistments in the Air Force riding around on C-17s. Thanks to the GI Bill, he now rides a desk in the Pacific Northwest. When he’s not wearing a suit, Drew’s usually out getting his hands dirty. He tests gadgets the hard way so you don’t have to.