Your headlamp will fit snugly over your skull to manifest the perfect yin-yang relationship, one in which you get to do the running, cycling or climbing, and it simply illuminates the way. Like any good partnership, finding “the one” is essential. There are a lot of options out there: some excel at helping you to see the big picture while others are better suited to playing twilight card games. Our guide will help you learn how to choose the best headlamp for your needs.
Best Types by Activity: Like people, no two headlamps are the same. You want to choose the right one for you based on the activity for which you’ll be using it. Finding your match is easiest when everything’s on the table, so be clear about what you need and choose a headlamp that has the qualities you’re looking for. Here’s what we mean:
Running: prioritize the weight, fit, and beam distance of your headlamp.
Backpacking/Hiking: prioritize the weight, battery life, beam distance, and mode options of your headlamp.
Climbing: prioritize the light output and beam distance of your headlamp.
Cycling: prioritize the light output and beam distance of your headlamp.
Paddling: prioritize the fit and light output of your headlamp.
Travel/Camping: prioritize beam width/area, battery life, and price of your headlamp.
Weight: Headlamps come in all shapes and sizes, so here’s an easy equation to remember: the more jarring the activity, the less you want your headlamp to weigh. Consider trail running to illustrate this fact. If you’re running with a headlamp that’s too heavy or too bulky, it will unapologetically bounce up and down in mockery of your every move. Conversely, if you’re cycling a relatively smooth paved road, the weight of your headlamp will be considerably less noticeable as it will stay put.
Headlamps are measured in either grams or ounces and can range anywhere from around 12.5 ounces to just under 2 ounces. If you’re looking for a lightweight headlamp, you’ll want to find one that’s in the 2 to 3 ounce range. External batteries and top straps can add or redistribute weight, so take this into account when looking for the right one.
Fit: If you plan to be in it for the long haul, make sure you not only like, but love, the way your headlamp fits and performs. Some headlamps offer unique weight distribution by placing the battery pack on the back of the head.
Other headlamps provide added support with a strap that stretches from front to back across the top of your head. While a top strap may be the key to stability for one adventurous type, it could be the source of irritation for another. Many headlamps also come with the option of tilt, meaning that the light itself can be moved manually up and down so that you can see different areas around you. Tilting headlamps can give you a bit more sense of control.
Your headlamp is going to do a lot of work for you, so start off by trying to understand it inside and out. Learn about what your headlamp has to offer in terms of all of the following categories.
Bulb/Beam Type: Most headlamps today are made with LED bulbs because they are more durable, long lasting, and energy efficient than conventional bulbs. When it comes to bulbs, what you really want to decide is whether you need a headlamp with a spot beam or wide beam.
Spot Beam: A spot beam will light the path far ahead of you, which is essential for covering dark, uncharted territory while running, hiking, cycling at dusk, dawn or any of the darkest hours in between.
Wide Beam: Many headlamps will produce a dispersed light in a wide angle for illuminating close objects and campsites.
Variable Beam: A nice feature is the variable beam, which can be switched between a spot and wide angle throw in a single headlamp.
Beam Pattern: High quality headlamps will create a uniform beam without dark rings or splotches. This is achieved with quality lenses and reflectors.
Light Output: It’s imperative that you speak the same language as your headlamp, so forget watts and start thinking in lumens. In Latin, ‘lumens’ literally translates to ‘light’, and is a unit of measurement from a light source in all directions. Lumens define how brightly your headlamp will glow. You’ll find that number on the packaging of your headlamp. The power range of headlamps varies widely, from about 50 lumens for a compact model, to 1,000 lumens or more for large high power units.
Light Beam Distance: Universally measured in meters, when you look at the number of beam distance displayed on your headlamp packaging, what you’re reading is the length of meters it can project “usable light,” which is defined as being just about the brightness of a full moon. This means that at the very end of the path that your headlamp illuminates (the edge of the beam distance), the brightness will be just about that of the full moon on a clear night.
For those running, hiking, cycling and climbing in low light outdoor settings, the longer the light beam distance, the better. Sure, you won’t be able to see exactly what your future together holds, but you’ll be grateful for being able to see as far ahead of you as possible.
Brightness Levels/Mode Options: If you believe variety is the spice of life, you’ll appreciate a headlamp that offers a range of brightness levels. The good news is most of them have settings for both high and low brightness, which comes in handy when you’re alternating between looking your hiking partner in the face and down at the trail. Some headlamps offer three settings, while others have a strobe and red light setting as well. Here’s what you need to know about each:
High: Good for the darkest of places, this setting allows you use the brightest light possible. This setting also uses more battery power than mid and low.
Middle: While only offered on some models, this middle level of brightness can be just right.
Low: If you hit the tree-covered trail on a gloomy evening, the lowest level of light may be all you need to keep trekking on. This is typically the most energy efficient light setting.
Strobe: The option of a flashing light can come in handy in emergency situations when you need to get the attention of any passersby. Whether you’re thru hiking solo, running at night by yourself or even climbing a tough route with a companion, being able to turn your headlamp into a distress signal is something you’ll forever appreciate if you ever have to use it.
Red light: A red light mode helps the user maintain night vision. Red light doesn’t cause pupils to shrink while providing a small amount of illumination.
Average Run Time: This is an indication of the amount of hours your headlamp battery will last and is often displayed alongside a clock symbol on the packaging. If just one number is displayed, that will be the average run time of your headlamp on its most energy efficient setting (typically, at low). Some headlamps will display average run time for low, middle and high settings, it just depends on how the brand chooses to do so.
Battery Type/Rechargeable: Headlamps are powered by standard batteries, and the one you choose will specify the size it needs. The most important thing to remember when it comes to batteries is: bring an extra set whenever you’re going out with your headlamp. This way you’ll never get stuck in the dark.
Rechargeable batteries are a great option, as they can be reused many times over. That said, rechargeable batteries can lose power if sitting unused for some time, offering an unwelcome surprise if they’ve been neglected for too long. Recharge batteries (or use them) every one to two months.