How many straps do you need to hold the light onto your head? Do you want to see up close or far into the distance? What’s actually the deal with the red, green, blue.. why not just a simple white light? Is the strobe-light function really just for ‘dance-party-mode’? How can a person choose between disposable Lithium batteries, rechargeable nickel-metal hydride batteries, or sticking with solar power to re-fuel your headlamp?
Convenience, reliability and some degree of comfort are key not only when traveling in absolute darkness through chilly alpine terrain or the dense night forest, but also when you are stranded on the side of the road at 3am and need to change a flat tire. While I always recommend carrying a spare headlamp, the first step should be starting with a reliable, powerful headlamp in the first place!
So while I will try to answer all of your questions and make the arduous task of choosing a headlamp an easier one for you, let it be known – I’m not going to sell you to any one particular brand, my goal here is not to review a certain headlamp that I’ve used, but to review features that I have found helpful or even perhaps detract from the overall user experience; so if you have an allegiance to one particular brand, great! That’s a fantastic place to start and see what they are doing with the available technology, but I have found that when you really want to keep your options open to finding what works best for your needs, throw that brand-favoritism right out the window!
Where is a good place to even start? Fish around online – most companies have online sales going in rotation, so it’s actually hard to not find a deal these days! Try an outfitter such as REI.com, or visit a local store to check out your options in person!
The first thing to keep in mind is that as the price of a headlamp increases, this does not necessarily translate to ‘more-power’, ‘more-features’, or even that the headlamp will out-perform a cheaper headlamp – it really depends on what you need your headlamp for; some folks need a headlamp that is sealed to the highest standard for the roughest conditions, some need to see further or in a more broad are, while others want to know their headlamp will last for several nights of a multi-day outing or event.
Maybe you have heard the term ‘lumens‘ tossed around, this is a great start to figuring out if a certain headlamp is just right for your needs. Typically, a headlamp that is listed as higher in lumen power will illuminate a bigger area and give you a brighter light output.
This is good to keep in mind because if you are not running mountain tops in the darkness, you may do just fine (and save yourself quite a bit of that hard-earned cash!) with a headlamp lower on the lumen scale. If you dig around enough you can find headlamps ranging from 25 – which may be great for lighting up camp or reading in the tent, all the way up to a bewildering 1000 lumens – which may be great if you need to be spotted from the space station!
While you may think “bigger is always better”, one thing to keep in mind is that if you use a headlamp with higher lumens, your battery will be drained much faster than a lower light. One way to avoid this is to stay mindful while using your headlamp, if you don’t need the extra illumination.. think about dimming your headlamp by switching through output modes to conserve battery life, saving the full blast of power for when you really do need it.
Turning your light output down certainly helps preserve your night vision too; once switching from a bright light to complete darkness, for most people it takes the rods and cones of their eyes anywhere from ten up to thirty full minutes to completely regenerate and become sensitive to darkness once again.
One ingenious feature of the modern headlamp is the varying color modes; fortunately these red, blue and green filters are not just for your backwoods dance parties any longer!
- red light – excellent for reading at night or for seeing short distance like getting up to use the privy at night because the red does not dilate the pupils, thus preserving your hard earned night vision
- blue light – mostly used for map reading at night, but also great for seeing in foggy conditions
- green light – also excellent for night vision around camp and for those hunters out there, it has been said that the green light does not scare away fish and wildlife as easily, however, I have found that the green option is not as common the red or blue, so you may need to narrow your searches if green is a must!
Another feature that is finally common on most headlamps that you’ll want to keep an eye out for is a lock. Too many times I have been told that my pack is lit up while I had been walking down the trail at night, completely unaware! This is a great way to render your headlamp completely useless, if it turns on unintentionally draining your batteries – so I always make sure my headlamps can lock, and that I do actually set them to lock-mode when stashing them away in my packs!
Size & weight
The size and weight of a headlamp is an important element to keep in mind also – no one wants their neck to strain from having a weighty piece of metal and plastic on their heads, plus the heavier your headlamp is chances are you’ll have to keep your strap tighter just to keep it in place!
Do some digging if you are questioning why similar size headlamps vary several ounces in weight and it is not obvious why: perhaps the shell is thicker or made of different materials to absorb the impact of being dropped or smacked into overhead rocks while caving, maybe it has a regular (old school) light bulb instead of a newer LED bulb, perhaps the headlamp is designed to tolerate harsher conditions, or fully sealed to go diving with it!
Don’t be afraid to ask the “why” questions!
Headlamp straps & comfort
Whether you are in the market for your first headlamp or just an upgrade, you have probably seen the different strap set-ups available. This is very important because if you are going to wear a piece of equipment around your head for many hours overnight, you’ll want to ensure it is as comfortable as possible! Manufacturers offer headlamp straps made with different materials, greatly varying their elasticity.
I find that for wearing a headlamp on a climbing helmet, generally the one horizontal strap will suffice – especially if your helmet has the handy tabs to clip the headlight strap into! Lately, I have grown incredibly fond of a certain headlamp that has a strip of ‘anti-slip’ gel laced into its’ strap, helping to keep it in place while not needing to crank the strap super tight.
One downside to many one-strap headlamps is that during the use, and exacerbated by sweating, the headlamp will begin to slip down your forehead.. this can be infuriating, especially if you are trying to concentrate on critical foot or hand placement; one remedy for this is the addition of another strap that runs vertically over the head – all of these straps should always be easily adjustable.
But if you cannot find a headlamp that will fit your needs or budget with three straps, it never hurts to wear a beanie or Buff under your headlamp; while not perfect, this prevents the strap from sliding down your forehead – and adds a bit of padding to the whole set-up!
That brings me to the actual light source itself! The weight of headlamps has been greatly reduced since the proliferation of LED bulbs – which have a much longer lifespan and longer burn time due to consuming far less battery power than conventional light bulbs.
How many bulbs do you need? Each bulb is included in the headlamp for a reason, and most of the time numerous bulbs won’t fire up all at one time either; some are aimed for distance while some bulbs act more as a flood light for improved near-vision, you may even notice the red bulb off in its own dome of housing – it all depends on the R&D team at each manufacturer!
It has also become standard for headlamps to have some adjustability in aiming the actual beam housing, allowing the user to point the beam up or down without straining your neck constantly.
Here is where headlamps differ the most: how do you want to power your torch?
There is nothing wrong with a headlamp that strictly runs off a swath of AAA or AA batteries – in more recent years I have converted all of my standard headlamps to run on rechargeable AAA batteries, the only downside is that rechargeable batteries just do not last as long for one use as something like a lithium battery.
I have had lithium batteries last for a full year in the harshest of conditions (sub-zero winter frosts, roasting summer heat, drenching springtime rainstorms, etc.), these batteries certainly outperform most others in cold wintery conditions – so if reliability is what I crave.. lithium is more expensive but really an excellent choice.
Rechargeable batteries are great for my running headlamps where I know the duration should not be more than two or six hours of use, then I can put them back on the charger to top off – but honestly, taking them out and putting them back in every time I want to use them gets tiresome real fast!
Several companies now make headlamps that can be recharged via USB cable; I feel as if I had been secretly asking for this ever since doing my last 9-day thru-hike. Having the ability to top off batteries with an external battery pack is priceless (I charge the battery pack via solar panel while I hike or camp).
Or better titled: sequential button-pushing.
For me, simple is better. I have owned too many headlamps that require the user to commit a Morse code-like sequence of “hold that button and tap this button”, or “press three times quickly” – when my fingers grow stiff from cold temps, a series of button clicks seems like the most difficult task, and I’ve certainly been there in a panic because I had difficulty even pressing a button once!
While easy is nice – pressing a button once to turn a light on or off may be the preferred method for most, it goes without saying that having options of beam strength or light brightness is absolutely key to unnecessarily draining your batteries prematurely.
Not all headlamps give the option of picking your own brightness settings, some have a preset several options while others allow the user to press and hold to choose just the perfect setting.
I suppose what it really comes down to is taking your headlamp out before you set out on your adventure and get to learn its settings, play around with what the buttons do – and for those truly tech-savy nighttime adventure seekers – there are headlamps now on the market that allow you to set all of your headlamp settings via an app on your smartphone, which is great.. as long as you have the juice left in your phone to power all of these apps!
So is there really one best headlamp? No, not really – like I said, it depends on your intended use, your needs and what environment that you will be using your headlamp in.
I only hope this helps you make an educated decision on your next purchase – it is surely an important one – and a piece of equipment that will hopefully be in your pack for years to come!
Got a question about any of the headlamps that I’ve used or need any specifics?
Let me know! Email, IG, FB, or leave a comment on here and I’ll be happy to help ya!
Have fun, hike safe, climb smart and stay bright!