If you've ever gone camping, hiking, backpacking, climbing, mountain biking, trail running, or nearly anything else in the outdoors, chances are you've used a headlamp. While this handy piece of technology requires little introduction (everyone knows the benefit of hands-free illumination), the impressive leaps in headlamp technology over the past few years deserve some recognition. The industry is in the midst of a horsepower war, with one-upmanship seen in maximum light output (rated in lumens) and battery options, and we the users are the happy beneficiaries. Below are our top headlamp picks for 2016. For more information, see our handy headlamp comparison table and buying advice.
Weight: 3.2 oz.
Max lumens: 200
Lights: TriplePower LED, SinglePower white LED, red LED.
What we like: Bright, great functionality, unbeatable price.
What we don’t: Not the toughest build.
A personal favorite of the editors here at Switchback Travel, the Black Diamond Spot hits the sweet spot of brightness, durability, and price. The headlamp was updated for 2016 and now projects a strong 200-lumen beam and has a touch-sensitive housing for quick brightness adjustments. By tapping the side of the headlamp, you can swap between full brightness and dim for alternating between illuminating close up and distant objects. You also get a full suite of lighting options, from the powerful TriplePower LED to a softer proximity LED and red LED for use around camp.
It’s true that you can find more powerful headlamps on the market, but for most outdoor adventuring, this is the headlamp to get. More, an IPX-8 rating means it can handle being under 1 meter of water for 30 minutes, which gives you that extra level of security when you have to hike out in a downpour.
See the Black Diamond Spot
Weight: 3.4 oz.
Max lumens: 90 (rechargeable) / 130 (alkaline)
Lights: TriplePower LED, 2 SinglePower white LEDs, 2 red LEDs.
What we like: Leave your spare AAA’s at home.
What we don’t: Decreased output with rechargeable batteries.
One of the best technological advances in headlamps is the ability to recharge your batteries via USB. There are a number of rechargeable headlamps on the market today, but we like the Black Diamond ReVolt best. Between hikes, climbs, or rides, all it takes is plugging the USB cord into the car charger or solar panel for 90-lumen light (130 lumens with standard alkalines) that will last up to twelve hours.
In addition, the ReVolt features a backup alkaline battery case that adds another 70 hours on its own, long after the rechargeable batteries have died. Splash resistant casing protects against rain and other moisture and the dimmer mellows the light all the way down to 4 lumens. While down a little bit down on lumens at the price point, for our money, you’re more than making that up in battery convenience.
See the Black Diamond ReVolt
Weight: 3.0 oz.
Max lumens: 180 (boost mode)
Lights: 2 white LEDs, 1 red LED.
What we like: Constant lighting tech keeps lamp from dimming.
What we don’t: Not as bright and more expensive than the Spot.
For a time, Petzl was the industry leader in quality headlamps, and we’ve been the happy owner of a number of them. But they’ve slipped down the podium following a strong push from Black Diamond. Petzl’s core Tikka line remains a pretty good one, ranging from the basic Tikkina to the $100 Tikka RXP, which uses the advanced reactive lighting also found in the Nao below. The mid-range Tikka XP is our favorite, and is a solid option for night hikes or early morning summit pushes.
While overall performance falls short of the cheaper Spot above, the Tikka XP remains a great option because of its superior battery life and consistent lighting performance. Petzl employs a technology called Constant Lighting, and what it amounts to is steady light output over the lifespan of the batteries, rather than slowly dimming over time. Beyond the lighting tech, however, the Tikka XP is the inferior product compared with the Spot. It’s more expensive, has a lower water-resistance rating, and isn’t as bright—even in its temporary 180-lumen boost mode.
See the Petzl Tikka XP
Weight: 8.1 oz.
Max lumens: 320
Lights: QuadPower LED, 2 SinglePower white LEDs, 2 SinglePower red LEDs.
What we like: Bright and waterproof.
What we don’t: Overkill and overweight for backpacking and camping.
We are getting into summit territory with the Black Diamond Icon. This headlamp is designed to last a long time, shine brightly throughout, and handle the elements. It’s overkill for most normal hiking and backpacking trips, but for serious adventure, it’s a favorite among the outdoor community.
The Icon received an update for 2015, with the most notable feature being a boosted 320-lumen output, making it the most powerful Black Diamond headlamp on the market. You also get a healthy battery life that should last 8 hours or more at the highest setting, and a full waterproof casing that protects the headlamp up to a depth of 1 meter. The biggest downside of the Icon is that it weighs a hefty 8.1 ounces and the rear carrying case is bulkier than the non-waterproof options. But for a bombproof lamp that is up for just about anything, we highly recommend the Black Diamond Icon.
See the Black Diamond Icon
Weight: 4.8 oz.
Max lumens: 285
Lights: 1 white LED (adjustable).
What we like: Amazing beam, easy adjustments.
What we don’t: Short battery life, a little heavy.
Coast isn’t a household name like Black Diamond or Petzl, but they sure make up for it in performance for the dollar. With a retail price of $59—typically on sale for about $30 on Amazon—the HL7 packs a blazing 285 lumens. The focusing ring works just like a high-powered flashlight, adjusting from flood to spot. It’s simple functionality that is absolutely painless in use—there’s no need to cycle through various modes to swap between close proximity and distance. And in full spot mode, it projects a beam that exceeds 350 feet. For reference, the class-leading Spot maxes out at about 250 feet.
So why the mid-pack finish? Its main demerit is battery life. Most users report short lifespans for their 3 AAA batteries, even if you aren’t maxing out the lumens. Overall, the Coast won us over, just as it has hundreds (and probably thousands) others with its seamless and frankly amazing performance. It’s a mobile Maglite.
See the Coast HL7 Focusing
Weight: 9.8 oz.
Max lumens: 360 (spot & flood)
Lights: White spot LED, white flood LED.
What we like: Ability to run both beams in concert.
What we don’t: Not waterproof, short battery life.
With dual LEDs staring straight at you and tough aluminum housing, the Fenix HP25 doesn’t lack presence, resembling a pro level cycling light. Individually controlled, those two beams each have a unique job. One is a dedicated spotlight, pumping out a maximum of 180 lumens; the other is a floodlight with equal lumen specs.
What makes the Fenix unique is the incredible combined output when the two lights are switched on together. Don’t expect the fun to last long, however, as the turbo mode will drain your battery at a rapid rate – much faster than the listed 4 hours. Nitpicks? Outside of the short battery life, it would be nice for such a rugged looking item to be more water ready, with only an IPX-6 rating that amounts to being rainproof.
See the Fenix HP2
Weight: 6.6 oz.
Max lumens: 575
Lights: 3 Reactive LEDs.
What we like: No more fussing between light modes.
What we don’t: Well, it’s a $185 headlamp; technology hasn't been perfected.
I know what you're thinking—for $185 you should be able to buy at least 3 good headlamps. But what sets the NAO 2 apart from all other headlamps is how smart it is. Designed to respond to the distance of the object you are looking at, the NAO automatically adjusts its beam distance and intensity. Hence, using less energy and avoiding having to switch back and forth between modes. And that's not all; you actually can program this headlamp with free software provided by Petzl to regulate light intensity and distance based upon your activities.
Pumping out a maximum of 575 lumens, the light is incredibly powerful, but can also run on only 2 AAA batteries in case of an emergency. Standard power comes via a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, further justifying the price tag. For a headlamp this good, we'd consider throwing down the extra coin.
See the Petzl NAO 2
Weight: 9.8 oz.
Max lumens: 275
Lights: Maxbright LED, 4 Ultrabright LEDs.
What we like: Incredibly bright beam at a decent price.
What we don’t: Hefty even with the supportive strap
If you've ever been stranded in the dark at the end of a long day in the mountains, trying to find a trail or rappel anchor, you know the value of a really bright headlamp. The Apex's 275 lumens will throw light out more than 100 meters (easily surpassing the 60 meters away that rappel anchors usually are).
While the regulated light only lasts 1.5 hours on the high setting, a convenient low setting of 5 mm LEDs will net you 150 hours of illumination. However, taking the 4 AA batteries into account, this is definitely one of the bulkier and heavier of headlamps on the market, making it a tough sell for the weight-conscious alpinists who could really use it most, and we prefer its direct competitor, the BD Icon, overall. Still, the extra ounces are worth their weight in gold if you need brightness more than anything else.
See the Princeton Tec Apex
Weight: 3.0 oz.
Max lumens: 150 lumens
Lights: 2 white spot LEDs, white flood LED.
What we like: Very bright for the price.
What we don’t: Not for the serious outdoors person.
The Energizer Vision HD is a surprisingly powerful and kid-friendly headlamp at a great price. With 150 lumens but only a distance rating of 40 meters, the Vision is best for proximity lighting, perfect for setting up camp, cooking at the end of a long day, or reading in the tent. This headlamp is powered by three replaceable AAA, is splash resistant, and has both a spot and flood function. For the price, you inevitably have to give up a few features. Here, the Vision HD lacks a strobe mode and does not include a red LED. And despite a decent max output, the Vision HD is not tough enough to really trust on serious backcountry outings. All that said, it’s a tremendous value and a great option to keep in your tent, car or home.
See the Energizer Vision HD
Weight: 0.95 oz.
Max lumens: 26
Lights: White LED, red LED.
What we like: Great emergency light - ultralight and simple.
What we don’t: Low light output.
Sporting a very un-headlamp look, the Petzl e+LITE is the perfect ultralight backup light. Weighing less than 1 ounce, it even does away with a standard head strap, replacing it with a retractable cord. If the light was any heavier, this would lead to discomfort, but once you dip into fractions of an ounce, you can get away with such things. The retractable cord also gives flexibility in what the headlamp can mount to – a post, bike handlebar, or wrist.
Super simple to use, which is great for an item that might be stored for a long time, just turn the switch on the face of the light to change between red and white lights and strobe modes. Now, to be realistic, this light is a little pricey if you’re focused on max light output (only 26 lumens), but it’s the perfect headlamp for an emergency kit or to bring along on a day hike.
See the Petzl e+LITE
|Black Diamond Spot||$40||3.2 oz.||200||80 meters||50 / 200 hours||3 AAA|
|Black Diamond ReVolt||$60||3.4 oz.||90 (recharge)
|70 meters||12 / 190 hours (recharge)||3 AAA alkaline or 3 NiMH|
|Petzl Tikka XP||$50||3.0 oz.||180 (boost)||75 meters (boost)||2 / 100 hours||3 AAA|
|Black Diamond Icon||$90||8.1 oz.||320||100 meters||70 / 175 hours||4 AAA|
|Coast HL7 Focusing||$59||4.8 oz.||285||109 meters||5.75 / 76.5 hours||3 AAA|
|Fenix HP25||$70||9.8 oz.||360||153 meters||4 / 220 hours||4 AAA or NiMH|
|Petzl NAO 2||$185||6.6 oz.||575||135 meters||6.5 hours (reactive)||Lithium-ion or
|Princeton Tec Apex||$90||9.8 oz.||275||116 meters||1.5 / 150 hours||4 AA alkaline, lithium or NiHM|
|Energizer Vision HD||$19||3.0 oz.||150||40 meters||8 hours||3 AAA|
|Petzl e+LITE||$30||0.95 oz.||26||29 meters||55 / 70 hours||2 CR2032
- How Many Lumens Do I Need?
- LED Types: Spot, Flood, and Red Lights
- Battery Options
- Stated Battery Life
- Straps and Carrying Comfort
- Using a Headlamp for Running
This is a tough question to answer because manufacturers are pushing the max lumens higher and higher, making the headlamps of yesteryear (or even last year) look dull in comparison. Take the Black Diamond Spot as an example. A few short years ago, it was a then-blinding 90 lumens in the highest setting. The follow-up version jumped to a max of 130, and now it's 200 lumens. As an owner of the former 90-lumen model, I was downright thrilled with the performance at the time. Now, a side-by-side comparison gives me more than a twinge of light envy.
When deciding on the proper number of lumens, it's worth noting that you shouldn't plan to be in the light's max setting for most situations as it will drain the battery quickly, but it's sure helpful to have a strong beam just in case. As a general statement, we’ve found 25-50 lumens are great for around the house and as a backup for hiking, backpacking, and camping. For a navigational aid in complete darkness, you’ll want to jump into the 80-plus-lumen category. For the extremes like spelunking, or when you’ll be traveling at higher speeds, such as a night trail run or mountain bike ride, plan on starting your search at 200 lumens.
Your average headlamp features a range of lighting modes, and the default setting for most lamps is their powerful LED spot beam. The max distance these can reach is listed in the "beam" section of our specs. While not necessary in all circumstances, a long distance beam can be helpful while caving or for checking far down the hiking trail. And, as we've found, the spot mode in its max setting on a quality headlamp like the Black Diamond Spot works decently well as a backup option for mountain biking.
Picking up a headlamp with a flood light option is necessary for its wide-angle coverage. Best for around camp or in a tent, it’s not intended for distance, more to maximize the view right in front of you. Mid and high-end multipurpose headlamps also include red LEDs. We’ve found these infinitely useful for reading at night and the soft light doesn’t disturb your tent mates. Another plus is that these lights don’t make your pupils readjust when you turn them on, so they’re great for navigating a dark tent. A number of options also have some sort of emergency strobe function, which is simultaneously very visible and doesn’t eat into your batteries as quickly.
Most of your standard LED headlamps will run on AAA batteries housed in the main body of the light. They’ll be packaged tightly and accessed by a clamshell-style door. The size and weight of these headlamps become pretty noticeable once you stuff in 4 AAA’s. At this point, it becomes a little front heavy and you’ll see a greater tendency to flex the elastic strap while in use.
Separate battery packs that are built into the back of the strap can redistribute this extra weight well. This style will also have an additional strap running right over the top of the head for support and a secure fit. Lights with higher outputs that are designed for more extreme pursuits will utilize this design. The downside is extra bulk that will take up a larger footprint in a pack.
Rechargeable headlamps are gaining some traction due to the obvious benefits of not having to replace the batteries. Instead, use the USB plug-ins to recharge before heading out, in the car on the way to the trailhead, or in the backcountry with a solar panel or battery pack. You do pay a little price premium, but for some, it’s plenty worth it.
While we’re on the subject of batteries, let’s dive into a few thoughts on the stated battery life for these headlamps. We have listed the advertised specs from the manufacturers in our write-up, but to set reasonable expectations for yourself, be aware that the battery life listed for the highest lumen setting does not guarantee you’ll be pumping the maximum lumens for that entire time. Unless the light is regulated (like the Princeton Tec Apex or Petzl Tikka XP), where you’ll get a near constant light output before it drops off a cliff when the battery is spent, the numbers can be deceiving. No matter the guise, expect to see your once-impressive light’s max output become a shadow of its former self pretty quickly – often in as little as a couple hours.
Headlamp manufacturers are getting much better at reporting these specs, but it still sometimes takes some digging to get the full answer. Look for charts that list the runtime alongside the lumens level, or, if the light is unregulated, check and see if the manufacturer lists the maximum beam distance throughout the lifespan of the batteries. These will give you a better like-for-like comparison.
So how do you maximize your enjoyment of your still-impressive headlamp, outside of just a revolving door of battery changes? A simple tip to get more out of your battery is to only use the amount of light you actually need. Do you really require 275 lumens burning a hole in the side of your backpack as you search for your puffy jacket? Probably not. Dimming the light whenever possible will significantly extend battery life.
The weight of a headlamp varies from barely noticeable (0.95 oz. Petzl e+LITE) to downright hefty (9.8 oz. Fenix HP25). Typically, the more powerful the headlamp and the more serious its intent, the heavier the lamp. Lightweight headlamps are made with thin plastic casing and require fewer batteries, while heavier options use aluminum or thick plastic to better handle hard impacts. If you don't need the most extreme lighting options, it's a good idea to purchase a lightweight lamp. They're more comfortable to wear, don't inhibit movement and are easier to squeeze into a pack.
How the weight is distributed also plays an important role. The Black Diamond Spot and sibling Storm both carry the batteries at the front, but the 3.2-ounce Spot feels much lighter on the head than the marginally heavier 3.9-ounce Storm. What seems like a miniscule decrease in weight makes a big difference in use: the Spot is comfortable doing just about anything, while the Storm starts to bob up and down if you start running. Putting the battery pack at the back of the strap becomes necessary at anything above 4 ounces.
Tied directly to the weight of the headlamp, strap styles range from minimalist to strong and supportive. There are two primary strap designs: a simple elastic nylon that wraps around the sides of your head and a 3-piece system that has an additional strap running over the top of your head. The 3-strap style is popular for more serious adventuring when you’ll be wearing a helmet like caving, rock climbing or mountaineering, but the more secure fit can be beneficial even for casual use. And many headlamps make it easy to remove the top strap when it’s not needed. Most folks, however, still choose the simple around-the-sides design. They’re usually helmet-compatible, easy to adjust and plenty supportive for most uses around the house or in the outdoors.
None of the headlamps that made our list are dedicated running headlamps, but a number of them will perform well in a pinch. A lightweight headlamp like the Black Diamond Spot is a suitable choice for someone looking for an all-around option. If, however, you’ll be exclusively running with your headlamp, we recommend the Black Diamond Sprinter. This headlamp falls short in specs and performance compared with multi-purpose units, but its good weight distribution (with rear battery pack), excellent short-distance beam, and rear facing strobe light are all standout running features.