How To Buy a Headlamp

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.