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 2017. For more information, see our handy headlamp comparison table and buying advice.
Weight: 3.2 oz.
Max beam: 80m
What we like: Bright, great functionality, unbeatable price.
What we don’t: The controls can be a little fussy.
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 2017 and now projects a strong 300-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 QuadPower 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. The numerous modes and dimming options do make the controls a little fussy and hard to understand at first, but once you get it down, the Spot stands apart as the best all-around headlamp on the market.
See the Black Diamond Spot
Weight: 4.5 oz.
Max beam: 172m
What we like: Crazy bright; focusing ring works really well.
What we don’t: Heavy, drains batteries on high.
Oregon-based Coast Products flies a little under the radar compared to Black Diamond or Petzl, but they have a strong lineup of quality headlamps. Our favorite is the FL85, which has an impressive 540-lumen maximum output from a single beam, along with an easy to use focusing ring for adjusting between proximity and distance modes. The light simply blew us away with its phenomenal brightness and maximum distance of over 550 feet (the Spot above reaches about half that distance), but the lower power modes still are plenty strong for use around camp and lighting up a trail. What gets the FL85 such a high ranking on our list is its price. At the time of publishing, you can get the FL85 for $51, which is a great value for the light quality.
The penalties in getting such a powerful lamp are weight, bulk, and battery life. At 4.5 ounces, the Coast feels heavy sitting on your forehead and takes up quite a bit more space than the Spot in your pack. More, at full power you’ll quickly burn through your AAA batteries. But if you save the maximum output only for the times when you truly need it, the FL85 delivers amazing power at a reasonable price.
See the Coast FL85
Weight: 3.9 oz.
Max beam: 80m
What we like: Bright, fully featured, and waterproof.
What we don’t: Heavier and a little less comfortable than the Spot.
Updated for 2017, the Black Diamond Storm sits above our #1 rated Spot in both performance and price. The Storm packs just about every lighting feature you can imagine: a spot lamp, proximity lights, and 3 night vision colors (red, blue, and green). More, the light is sealed against dust and water, is easily dimmed, and has a lockout mode to prevent accidently turning on while inside a pack. The extensive feature set does make for a surprisingly steep learning curve to understand all of the functions (for a headlamp at least), but we’ve gotten the hang of the BD system over time.
The Black Diamond Storm and Spot above are two of the most popular headlamps on the market. To parse out the differences, the Storm has 50 more lumens, a higher waterproof rating, and costs $10 more. It’s a close call, but we ended up ranking the Spot higher because the Storm’s 4 AAA batteries add weight and bulk compared to the 3 AAA’s in the Spot, making the former a little less comfortable and versatile for activities like running. But the Storm’s jump in output and sturdy construction makes it one of our favorite headlamps nevertheless and a great choice for wet conditions.
See the Black Diamond Storm
Weight: 2.9 oz.
Max beam: 110m
What we like: Rechargeable battery, bright, and lightweight.
What we don’t: Limited brightness levels and lower water resistance rating than the BDs.
For a time, Petzl was the industry leader in high-end headlamps, but Black Diamond, Coast, and others have since surpassed them in light output and functionality. The good news is that Petzl is back on track with their mid-range Actik line. The standard model pumps out 300 lumens and their new Actik Core is even stronger at 350 lumens between the 2 white LEDs. The big news with the Core is the inclusion of a rechargeable battery, which offers competitive burn time (7 hours with standard power) and the convenience of being able to power up on the go via the micro USB port.
The new battery makes the Actik Core a top performer among rechargeable options, but overall it still falls short compared to the picks above. For $60, you get similar maximum brightness as the cheaper Spot and Storm but without the dimming function (the Actik Core only has 2 preset brightness levels). More, the Petzl has a relatively low IPX 4 water resistance rating, which doesn’t protect from submersion. But the rechargeable feature, sub 3-ounce weight, and recent jump in output should put Petzl back on the map for backpackers, runners, and climbers.
See the Petzl Actik Core
Weight: 8.1 oz.
Max beam: 125m
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 2017, with the most notable feature being a boosted 500-lumen output, making it the most powerful Black Diamond headlamp on the market. You also get a healthy battery life even on 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 less powerful 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: 4.4 oz.
Max beam: 119m
What we like: Amazing beam, easy adjustments.
What we don’t: Short battery life, a little heavy.
Similar to their FL85 above, Coast delivers a lot of performance for the dollar with the HL7 Focusing. With a retail price of $59—on sale at the time of publishing on Amazon for $36—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 and weight. Most users report short lifespans for their 3 AAA batteries, even if you aren’t maxing out the lumens. And not everyone loves the bulky battery pack at the back of the strap. Overall, the Coast won us over, just as it has many others with its seamless and frankly amazing performance. It’s a mobile Maglite.
See the Coast HL7 Focusing
Lumens: 1,000 (burst); 350 (high)
Weight: 9.8 oz.
Max beam: 187m
What we like: Ability to run both beams in concert.
What we don’t: Very heavy; short battery life.
With dual LEDs staring straight at you and a second strap for securing over the top of the head, the Fenix HP25R 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 1,000 lumens in burst mode (the standard "high" level is 350); the other is a floodlight also with 350 lumens.
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. Nitpicks? Outside of the short battery life, it would be nice for such a rugged looking (and heavy) item to be more water ready, with only an IPX 6 rating that falls short of the waterproof Black Diamonds above.
See the Fenix HP25R
Weight: 1.9 oz.
Max beam: 40m
What we like: Very lightweight; rechargeable design.
What we don’t: Only one light.
Black Diamond’s new Iota headlamp combines rechargeable convenience in an ultralight package. The feathery 1.9-ounce weight makes it the second lightest headlamp on our list (only the emergency Petzl e+LITE below is lighter), giving the Iota a minimalist feel that remains comfortable over long stretches of time. The beam puts out 150 lumens, which is plenty of power for lighting up a trail or path for running. And just like other BD products, the dimming features are excellent and the headlamp has a lockout mode to avoid accidentally turning on and draining your battery.
As with the Petzl Actik Core above, you do pay a premium for the Iota’s rechargeable design. But taking into consideration the replacement costs of batteries, it’s a small price to pay over the long haul. Other downsides are that the beam doesn’t work as well with objects that are close-up, and the light has quite a bit less power than Black Diamond’s Spot. As a result, the Iota doesn’t crack the top half of our list, but if you’re looking for something light and compact, it’s a nice option.
See the Black Diamond Iota
Weight: 6.5 oz.
Max beam: 140m
What we like: No more fussing between light modes.
What we don’t: Well, it’s a $200 headlamp; technology hasn't been perfected.
I can guess what you're thinking—for $200 you should be able to buy 4 good headlamps. But what sets the NAO + 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 you actually can check power levels and make adjustments to the light performance via a mobile app.
Pumping out a maximum of 750 lumens, the NAO + is incredibly powerful and runs on a strong 2600 mAh lithium-ion battery. It's true that the reactive lighting still hasn't been perfected and the price limits its appeal, but we love the concept and are happy to see Petzl has spent the time to continue to refine the technology.
See the Petzl NAO +
Weight: 10 oz.
Max beam: 120m
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 350 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 will net you 14 hours of consistent 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 Black Diamond 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 oz.
Max beam: 80m
What we like: Easy to use, good price.
What we don’t: Not a standout in any category.
For the occasional camping trip or use around the house, a simple headlamp like the Petzl Tikka is a fine choice. The very popular Tikka has been updated for 2017 with a stronger 200-lumen maximum output from a single white LED. We’ve found that the center button is easy to find and operate, and the beam is great for nighttime cooking and setting up tents in the dark. For $30 and with a comfortable strap and lots of exterior color options, the Tikka hits a nice balance of performance, weight, and price.
What are the downsides of the Petzl Tikka? By today’s standards, the light is decent but not overly impressive, and you can’t find the Petzl on sale as often as the more powerful and similarly priced Coast HL7 above. The Tikka is quite a bit lighter than the Coast, however, and easier to store in a car or pack for backup or emergency use. In most cases, we’d recommend spending the extra $10 for the Black Diamond Spot, which has a night and day difference in output and versatility, but the Tikka gets the basics right and the recent bump in power earns it a spot on our list for 2017.
See the Petzl Tikka
Weight: 3.7 oz.
Max beam: 50m
What we like: Great beam for runners.
What we don’t: Not our preferred choice for general use.
Most of the headlamps above are designed for general use—hiking, camping, climbing, or as an emergency lamp around the house or for changing a flat tire. And while many of these lamps can be used for running, dedicated nighttime runners are better off getting a model designed specifically for the sport. Our favorite running headlamp is the Black Diamond Sprinter: it puts off a strong beam for seeing the trail ahead, is nicely balanced with the battery on the back of the strap, and has a red taillight on the rear housing to increase visibility.
The Sprinter’s intended use also happens to be its biggest downside. The single beam along the front is ideal for running or hiking on a trail, but the lack of a proximity beam makes it far less useful around camp. And the additional strap over the top of the head and separated battery pack add a little weight and bulk relative to the lamp’s output and price. If we were to choose a single headlamp, it would be one of the options above. But for serious runners or those that will value the strong oval beam, the Sprinter is an excellent option.
See the Black Diamond Sprinter
Weight: 3.2 oz.
Max beam: 78m
What we like: Complete feature set.
What we don’t: Down on power and less reliable than the competition.
The Vizz is Princeton Tec’s answer to the versatile Black Diamond Spot, Petzl Actik, and Coast FL headlamps above. The Vizz has a dedicated light for close-up work, 165-lumen beam for distance, and a sturdy IPX 7 waterproof rating. The single button at the top of the lamp isn’t as easy to find as the Spot, but the operation is pretty intuitive and doesn’t require as much research to master as the somewhat confusing Black Diamond. And impressively, the Vizz is still made in the United States.
For a long time, the Princeton Tec Vizz was a top competitor in the $40 to $50 price range, but the current model just doesn’t stack up. The total output of 205 lumens falls well short of the new designs from BD, Petzl, Coast, and Fenix, and the lamp doesn’t have as strong of a reliability record as the top models. At its current price of $50 and without any big leaps in power, the Vizz falls towards the bottom of our list.
See the Princeton Tec Vizz
Weight: 3 oz.
Max beam: 40m
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: 0.92 oz.
Max beam: 10m
What we like: Great emergency light - ultralight and simple.
What we don’t: Low light output.
Sporting a minimalist look, the Petzl e+LITE is the perfect ultralight backup light. Weighing less than 1 ounce, it even shrinks the standard strap down to a diminutive size. 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 light is made to last with an IPX 7 waterproof rating and batteries that are designed to work even after being in storage for 10 years.
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 e+LITE 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 50 lumens), but it’s the perfect headlamp for an emergency kit or to bring along on a day hike.
See the Petzl e+LITE
|Headlamp||Price||Lumens||Weight||Max Beam||Run Time||Batteries|
|Black Diamond Spot||$40||300||3.2 oz.||80 meters||25 / 180 hours||3 AAA|
|Coast FL85||$51||540||4.5 oz.||172 meters||2 / 17 hours||3 AAA|
|Black Diamond Storm||$50||350||3.9 oz.||80 meters||22 / 160 hours||4 AAA|
|Petzl Actik Core||$60||350||2.9 oz.||110 meters||2 / 160 hours||Rechargeable|
|Black Diamond Icon||$100||500||8.1 oz.||125 meters||50 / 200 hours||4 AA|
|Coast HL7 Focusing||$34||285||4.4 oz.||119 meters||1.5 / 70 hours||3 AAA|
|Fenix HP25R||$80||1000||9.8 oz.||187 meters||1.5 / 150 hours||Rechargeable|
|Black Diamond Iota||$40||150||1.9 oz.||40 meters||2 / 40 hours||Rechargeable|
|Petzl Nao +||$200||750||6.5 oz.||140 meters||6.5 / 15 hours||Rechargable|
|Princeton Tec Apex||$90||350||10 oz.||120 meters||1.5 / 90 hours||4 AA|
|Petzl Tikka||$30||200||3 oz.||80 meters||60 / 240 hours||3 AAA|
|Black Diamond Sprinter||$80||200||3.7 oz.||50 meters||4 / 42 hours||Rechargeable|
|Princeton Tec Vizz||$50||205||3.2 oz.||78 meters||1 / 110 hours||3 AAA|
|Energizer Vision HD||$18||150||3 oz.||40 meters||8 hours||3 AAA|
|Petzl e+LITE||$30||50||0.92 oz.||10 meters||9 / 12 hours||2 CR2032|
- Brightness: 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, then 200 lumens, and now it's at 300 lumens. As a one-time owner of the former 90-lumen model, I was downright thrilled with the performance at the time. Now, a side-by-side comparison shows a striking difference.
When deciding on the proper number of lumens, it's worth considering 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 25-150 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 150-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 250 lumens.
It's important to note that lumens do not perfectly represent the brightness and quality of a headlamp. What a lumen actually measures is the amount of visible light that these lamps can generate, which doesn't always translate to how well it will illuminate a trail or campsite. The good news is that the picks listed above are quality headlamps with advanced optics (and we call out any exceptions), so lumens remain a helpful indicator of how bright your headlamp will be. Just be sure to also take into consideration beam distance, beam type, and brand reputation as opposed to solely relying on that single spec.
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 Storm 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 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 often 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 like the Black Diamond Icon 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 Actik Core), 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 HP25R). 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 as the weight continues to climb.
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 2-piece system that has an additional strap running over the top of your head. The 2-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.
Only one of the headlamps listed above is specifically designed for running, 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.
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