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 2020, and for more information, see our headlamp comparison table and buying advice.
Weight: 2.6 oz.
Max lumens: 450
Batteries: Rechargeable (also compatible with AAA)
What we like: Rechargeable, bright, and lightweight.
What we don’t: Pricey and not super water resistant.
It’s 2020, and AAA batteries are so last year. Many headlamps have followed suit with USB-rechargeable designs, and the Petzl Actik Core is by far our favorite. In short, this headlamp is the complete package, featuring 450 lumens at maximum brightness, a long battery life with consistent performance across its burn time (some headlamps peter out but the Actik stays bright until the end), a sub-3-ounce weight, and an easy-to-use interface. France-based Petzl has been leading the charge with headlamp innovation for years now and their Actik Core is case in point.
USB-rechargeable designs have limited use for multi-day stints in the field (unless you bring a portable power bank or solar panel), but the Actik Core offers a brilliant solution in the form of a battery pack that can be swapped out for AAA batteries. It was a solid headlamp already, but this versatility brings it to the top of our list. And the Petzl is so long-lasting you might not even need to bother with a dying battery—one charge lasted us the length of a 6-day bikepacking trip in the San Juan Mountains (our BioLite 330 needed several charges). The Actik’s water resistance isn’t ground-breaking (IPX4 will protect against rain and splashes) and you’ll pay for all the high-end tech at $70, but these are small sacrifices for a reliable headlamp that will stand the test of time.
See the Petzl Actik Core
A Close Second
Weight: 3 oz.
Max lumens: 325
Batteries: AAA (3)
What we like: Bright, easy to use, and weather-resistant, all at a good price.
What we don’t: No USB recharge option.
The Black Diamond Spot is a solid all-around headlamp, and the latest version hits a nice balance of power, durability, and price. The headlamp projects a strong 325-lumen beam and has a touch-sensitive housing for quick brightness adjustments. You also get a full suite of lighting choices, from the long-range dual LED to a softer proximity LED and red LED for use around camp. And it’s worth noting that Black Diamond has greatly increased ease of use—our main complaint with the prior model—by adding a second button that switches rapidly between the various modes.
Black Diamond has stuck with AAA batteries for the Spot, which is a big downside for us. If you’re using your headlamp a lot, chances are you’ll find a USB-rechargeable battery to be much more convenient, plus it’ll save you money in the long run. But for those who don’t mind keeping it old-school, you’d be hard-pressed to find a higher quality lamp for $40. Further, the Spot’s updated, low-profile shape makes it easy to wear, and the lamp’s IXP8 rating means it can handle being under 1.1 meters of water for 30 minutes, which is a nice level of security to have. All told, the versatile Spot 325 is a great choice for most outdoor adventuring, as long as you don’t mind that its powered by AAA batteries (and it’s worth checking out BD’s 4 new rechargeable options).
See the Black Diamond Spot 325
Best Budget Headlamp
Weight: 3 oz.
Max lumens: 250
Batteries: AAA (3)
What we like: Easy to use and a good price.
What we don’t: Average light quality and no red light option.
For camping trips or use around the house, a simple headlamp like the Petzl Tikkina is a fine choice, featuring 250 lumens of maximum output from a single white LED. The center button is easy to find and operate, and the beam is ample for nighttime cooking and setting up tents in the dark. As with the Actik Core above, the Tikkina is compatible with Petzl’s Core rechargeable battery, although in this case it’s an accessory that is purchased separately (for $30). If you anticipate wanting the rechargeable battery, we’d stick with the Actik Core for $20 extra and a lot more lumens. But for the casual user, the $20 Tikkina hits a nice balance of performance, weight, and price.
What's not to like with the Petzl Tikkina? By today’s standards, the light is decent but not overly impressive, and you don’t get the dimming capabilities or red light function like the Black Diamond models. In most cases, we’d recommend spending the extra $20 for the Black Diamond Spot, which offers a significant step up in both output and versatility. But for the truly budget-conscious, the Tikkina gets the basics right in a $20 package, and the bump in lumens makes it a nice option. And if you’re really pinching pennies, check out the Energizer Vision HD below.
See the Petzl Tikkina Headlamp
Best Headlamp for Running
Weight: 1.8 oz.
Max lumens: 200
What we like: Streamlined no-bounce design that is rechargeable.
What we don’t: Not particularly bright and no red taillight.
When it comes to selecting the right headlamp for the job, running is in a category by itself. For such an inherently bouncy activity, you’ll want a lightweight lamp that sits close to your head and doesn’t shift as you move. Some headlamps are designed specifically with running in mind (like the Black Diamond Sprinter and Ledlenser NEO4 below), but our favorite model of 2020 is the BioLite 200, which packs all-around intentions into a lightweight and streamlined build. The lamp’s 200 lumens can reach up to 50 meters in spot mode, and a 40-hour battery life (on low) is more than enough to keep the trail illuminated through the night.
Our favorite feature of the BioLite is its no-bounce design, which integrates the light and strap into one low-profile unit for a sleek headlamp that sits flush to your forehead better than most. It also clocks in at only 1.8 ounces, which undercuts the competition by significant margins (the Sprinter is a whopping 4.1 ounces). Some runners will want a red taillight for better visibility, which the Biolite lacks, and those looking for a brighter beam might want to bump up to the BioLite 330 below ($60). But at just $45, the 200 is a great headlamp and a solid value.
See the BioLite HeadLamp 200
Best High-Performance Headlamp for Brightness
Weight: 5.9 oz.
Max lumens: 950 (burst); 400 (high)
What we like: Ultra-bright turbo setting, durable construction, and relatively affordable price.
What we don’t: Heavy and short battery life on turbo mode.
The headlamps on this list provide reliable illumination for a variety of activities, but for serious brightness and durability, the Fenix HL60R is the real deal. Its 950-lumen LED projects a 381-foot beam in “turbo” mode, and the all-metal housing and IPX8 waterproof rating (submersible up to 2 meters) keep the light on no matter the conditions. Such a bright headlamp is overkill for most uses, but for search and rescue volunteers or activities like night biking, spelunking, or hunting, it’s an important feature. And the good news is that the Fenix HL60R is a well-rounded headlamp overall, including five brightness levels, a red-light mode, USB-rechargeable battery, and a streamlined build.
The Fenix HL60R is the brightest headlamp on our list, but it’s not without competition. Petzl’s Duo S has a maximum brightness of 1,100 lumens along with a beam distance of 650 feet, and even their NAO + below has a 750-lumen LED that casts light up to 459 feet. But you’ll pay a premium for the Duo S at a whopping $450 and the NAO + will run you $200 (plus, many will find its tech, which includes a cell phone app, to be superfluous). On the other hand, the Fenix offers top-notch, reliable illumination for well under $100, making it a true standout in terms of value. Keep in mind that with all high-powered headlamps, you’ll only want to use the brightest mode when it counts. The Fenix’s 950-lumen mode will drain the battery in less than an hour, and the “high” 400-lumen setting nets you only 3 hours of use.
See the Fenix HL60R Headlamp
Best Ultralight Headlamp for Thru-Hikers
Weight: .99 oz. (without strap)
Max lumens: 360
What we like: Superlight yet still quite bright.
What we don’t: Not as much tilt as other headlamps.
For minimalists and true ounce-counters, our favorite ultralight headlamp of 2020 is the Nitecore NU25. At just a hair under 1 ounce for the lamp itself (more on the strap below), the Nitecore is surprisingly bright with a 360-lumen max output, easy to use, and rechargeable via micro USB. For thru-hikers and those who want to carry the least possible weight on their back, the NU25 is brighter and cheaper than the Petzl Bindi below.
Keep in mind that the Nitecore NU25 has four brightness settings: 360, 190, 38, and 1 lumen, respectively. There’s no dimmer, which is a bummer, but certainly something we can get used to. In addition, the NU25 tilts slightly downward but not as much as many of the models we’ve tested. In terms of the strap, the included Nitecore option adds nearly an ounce to the equation at 1.9 ounces total. But if you’re really trying to go ultralight, Litesmith makes a shoestring-style headband for the NU25 that weighs just .18 ounces, bringing the whole set-up to 1.17 ounces total.
See the Nitecore NU25
Best of the Rest
Weight: 2.4 oz.
Max lumens: 330
What we like: Rechargeable convenience, light weight, and low-profile shape.
What we don’t: Relatively short battery life and doesn’t fit over a helmet.
Black Diamond and Petzl dominate the headlamp world, but BioLite certainly is making waves. Launched through a very popular Kickstarter campaign, BioLite’s 200 (above) and 330 have earned spots high on our list with their signature low-profile designs, reasonable price points, and rechargeable batteries. These headlamps might not be the most powerful or long-lasting, but they’re incredibly comfortable, look great, and it’s no secret—we love the convenience that a USB charge brings. The BioLite 330 here is their brightest offering with 330 lumens, a feathery 2.43-ounce build, and streamlined rear battery for weight distribution.
Compared to the Petzl Actik Core above, the BioLite is $10 less and offers similar brightness on its standard 100-lumen flood setting. But with the chart-topping Petzl, you get considerably more battery life (130 hours on low vs. the BioLite’s 40) and the option of a much brighter spot beam when you need it (450 lumens vs. 330). Both headlamps charge via USB, but the Petzl offers the versatility of swapping out the battery pack for AAA batteries, which is a nice backup option when you’re in the field for days on end. In the end, the BioLite is a very comfortable headlamp and great for casual use, but Petzl’s Actik Core is a better backcountry performer for just $10 more.
See the BioLite HeadLamp 330
Weight: 3.2 oz.
Max lumens: 350
Batteries: Rechargeable (also compatible with AAA)
What we like: Versatile battery, great all-rounder.
What we don’t: Heavier and not as bright as the Petzl Actik Core.
Black Diamond’s redesigned ReVolt 350 is one of the most versatile lamps in their lineup. It packs a punch, with 350 lumens in a relatively lightweight, 3.2-ounce build (that’s a whole ounce less than the 400-lumen Storm below). Like most lamps from Black Diamond, you get a variety of settings—including proximity and distance modes, dimming, strobe, and a red-light mode great for reading at night—and their handy Brightness Memory feature, which allows you to program your light to power on at a certain brightness. But the most noteworthy thing about the ReVolt is its battery, which is now compatible with both an included USB-rechargeable unit and AAAs.
In many ways, the ReVolt is a direct competitor to the Petzl Actik Core above. Both headlamps feature two battery options (we love this versatility) and an IPX4 rating for water resistance against rain and splashes. The ReVolt has a longer stated battery life (200 hours on low vs. the Petzl’s 130), but keep in mind that these numbers are approximations (we’ve found Petzl lamps to be the most reliable in terms of run time). In the end, we’ll stick with the time-tested Actik for only $5 (and 100 lumens) more, but the ReVolt is a much-needed rechargeable addition to Black Diamond’s lineup and certainly worth a second look.
See the Black Diamond ReVolt 350
Weight: 4.4 oz.
Max lumens: 305
Batteries: AAA (3)
What we like: Amazing beam and easy adjustments.
What we don’t: Short battery life and bulky rear battery pack.
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. A shining example is their HL7 Focusing: with a retail price of $40 (on sale at the time of publishing for $30) the HL7 packs a healthy 305 lumens and an easy-to-use focusing ring that works just like a high-powered flashlight, twisting to adjust from flood to spot. Its simple functionality is absolutely painless in use (unlike some of the more confusing headlamps above), and there’s no need to cycle through various modes to swap between proximity and distance.
So why the mid-pack finish for the Coast HL7 focusing? Its major shortcomings are battery life and weight. For reference, the Coast will last you 70 hours on its lowest setting (4 lumens) compared to the Black Diamond Spot’s 200-hour life at 6 lumens, which is quite a difference. This isn’t great news for a headlamp with AAA batteries—simply put, you’ll be burning through Energizers faster than you can say “bunny.” Further, we find the bulky battery pack at the rear to be rather outdated. But the Coast HL7 offers a great long-range beam (over 400 feet compared to the Spot’s 260), and there’s no arguing with the price. For budget shoppers who don’t want to sacrifice performance, the HL7 is a bright and easy-to-use light for just $30.
See the Coast HL7 Focusing
Weight: 1.9 oz.
Max lumens: 160
Batteries: AAA (2)
What we like: Light and highly water-resistant.
What we don’t: Low on power for the price.
As the name indicates, Black Diamond’s SpotLite 160 is a trimmed-down and simplified variation of the popular Spot 325 above. Key differences include fewer max lumen (160 vs. 325), one less AAA battery required to run it, and a notable $13 drop in price down to $27. What they retained was the same quality look and feel and a standout IPX8 waterproof rating—something you rarely see in a budget-oriented design. Weighing less than 2 ounces and with a compact shape, the SpotLite is light enough to go practically unnoticed on your head or in a pack.
For those that prioritize features over all-out power, the Black Diamond is a solid option. But among the wider market, it’s undeniably down on lumens at 160. For reference, Petzl’s Tikkina above pumps out 250 lumens and undercuts the SpotLite in price by $7. But what you get with the extra money are useful extras like a red light option, dimming capabilities, less weight, and the aforementioned boost in water resistance. In the end, the lower output pushes it down our list, but the SpotLite remains a great choice for emergency use or around camp.
See the Black Diamond SpotLite 160
Weight: 6.5 oz.
Max lumens: 750
What we like: A super powerful and highly advanced light.
What we don’t: Very expensive and the technology hasn’t been perfected.
We’ll start with the obvious: for $200, you could buy a shopping cart full of headlamps. But what sets the Petzl NAO + apart from other models is its strong output and reactive technology. Designed to respond to the object you are looking at, the lamp automatically adjusts its beam distance and intensity, meaning it uses less energy and eliminates the hassle of switching back and forth between modes. And some might find it overkill, but the NAO + also has a compatible phone app where you can check power levels, store settings, and make adjustments to light performance.
Pumping out a maximum of 750 lumens, the NAO + is incredibly powerful and runs on a strong 2600 mAh lithium-ion battery. This alone makes it a great headlamp for those that demand the highest levels of performance, but the reactive lighting technology hasn’t been perfected. The sensor can be tricked by dust or rainfall, and the battery life is disappointing. At its price, the NAO + has relatively limited appeal, but continued improvements to the reactive design are promising.
See the Petzl NAO +
Weight: 4.1 oz.
Max lumens: 275
Batteries: Rechargeable (also compatible with AAA)
What we like: Oval beam is great for lighting up the trail and taillight offers visibility.
What we don’t: Heavier and pricier than the BioLite above.
The Black Diamond Sprinter 275 is purpose-built for nighttime runners, with a nicely balanced build, strong and consistent beam for seeing the trail ahead, and red taillight to increase visibility. The updated model is brighter (275 lumens vs. 200) and now comes with a rechargeable battery, which is a big bonus. And similar to the Actik Core above, the Sprinter also is compatible with AAA batteries, which offers a nice backup for long runs when you don’t want to carry the weight of a battery charger.
The Sprinter’s single LED provides a great balance of distance and proximity lighting, but without a dedicated flood light, its function is rather limited for use around camp. Further, compared to our top pick, the BioLite 200 above, the Black Diamond is over twice the weight, not as streamlined, and $35 more. But some runners will value the strong oval beam, and although we find the BioLite wildly comfortable, there’s no denying the security of the Sprinter’s top strap system. Keep in mind that Black Diamond also makes the 2-ounce Sprint 225, which has an average 2.5 hours of burn time and is priced at $45.
See the Black Diamond Sprinter 275
Weight: 1.2 oz.
Max lumens: 200
What we like: Lightweight yet fits well.
What we don’t: Expensive; short battery life.
Petzl’s most urban-focused headlamp offers 200 lumens of brightness while tipping the scales at only 1.2 ounces. With a thin and well-fitting strap, low-profile light, and tiny rechargeable battery, the Bindi is ideal for runners who need their headlamp to stay put on their head, and its slim design wears well around the neck too. The IPX4 rating isn’t anything special, but it should be enough to keep the light on while running in the rain.
What are our nitpicks with the Bindi? For one, the price. $60 could get you the 325-lumen Black Diamond Spot above with $20 in change, and the similarly light Nitecore NU25 is just over half the cost. Furthermore, the battery life of the Bindi concerns us—it only burns for 2 hours on full power, which is only 200 lumens. But for urban runners and other minimalists with daily access to a USB charger, this is a comfortable and well-designed headlamp that’s certainly worth a look.
See the Petzl Bindi Headlamp
Weight: 3 oz.
Max lumens: 200
Batteries: AAA (3)
What we like: 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 200 lumens but a distance rating of only 50 meters, the Vision is best for proximity lighting. For tasks like setting up camp, cooking at the end of a long day, or reading in the tent, it’s a fine tool for the job. This headlamp is powered by three replaceable AAA, is splash-resistant (with the same IPX4 rating as our chart-topping Actik), 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 has a basic beam and cheap plastic construction that is not tough enough to trust on serious backcountry outings. All that said, it’s a tremendous value and a great option to keep in your car or home.
See the Energizer Vision HD
Weight: 3.5 oz.
Max lumens: 240
Batteries: AAA (3)
What we like: An inexpensive running headlamp.
What we don’t: Not as streamlined as the BioLite 200 and not rechargeable.
The BioLite 200 and Sprinter 275 above are great options for dedicated runners, but budget-oriented shoppers should consider the Ledlenser NEO4. Designed specifically for running, the NEO4 has a sleek, well-balanced design and running-specific features like a reflective strap and red taillight for visibility on the road. Further, the its bright 240-lumen LED can illuminate up to 100 feet down the trail. For only $25 (compared to the $40 and $75 price tags of the aforementioned models), the NEO4 is a great value in a running headlamp.
Ledlenser packs a number of features into the NEO4 that we don’t commonly see in such a budget model. For one, the IP57 rating means the lamp can survive submersion for up to 30 minutes, which beats out both the BioLite and Sprinter’s ratings for splash resistance at IPX4. Plus, you get the option for a “Constant Current Mode” which regulates the light output throughout the life of the battery (we’re used to seeing this on high-end headlamps like the Petzl Actik Core above and BD Storm 400). But in the end, the NEO4 reveals its true budget colors in the form of weight (it’s twice as heavy as the BioLite) and battery style. All in all, we’d pay $15 more for a headlamp with a USB-rechargeable battery.
See the Ledlenser NEO4
Weight: 4.2 oz.
Max lumens: 400
Batteries: AAA (4)
What we like: Burly waterproof construction and impressive feature set.
What we don’t: Heavy and not rechargeable.
Black Diamond’s Storm and Spot (above) have dominated the headlamp market for years with well-rounded and reliable designs. And the Storm 400 still has its place as a true performer: you get an impressive IPX67 waterproof and dustproof rating, multiple proximity and distance modes, and a powerful 400-lumen beam that stretches over 300 feet. Further, the Storm has regulated lighting for constant output throughout the life of the battery, and a second switch in the newest version makes toggling through the myriad modes (including red, blue, and green-light settings) more straightforward. In the end, it’s no secret why Black Diamond’s Storm 400 is one of the best-selling headlamps year after year.
Why is the Black Diamond Storm 400 ranked so low? With lightweight gear on the rise, the Storm 400’s burly build is outdated in comparison to models like the Petzl Aktik and BioLite 330 above. We’ve used a lot of headlamps in our time, and these days when we don the Storm we’re amazed by how heavy and bulky it feels, even for hiking (and we wouldn’t even think about running with it). Further, we just can’t overstate the convenience of a USB-rechargeable battery. In the end, there’s a host of better options, even from within BD’s own lineup—particularly, the ultra-durable (IPX8-rated) BD Spot 325 and SpotLite 160 and the rechargeable ReVolt above.
See the Black Diamond Storm 400
Weight: 0.92 oz.
Max lumens: 50
Batteries: CR2032 (2)
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 were any heavier, this would lead to discomfort, but once you dip into fractions of an ounce, you can get away with such things. And as an ideal emergency light, the e+LITE is built to work when you need it, with an IPX7 waterproof rating and batteries that are designed to power on even after being in storage for 10 years.
Super simple to operate (which is great for an item that you might only use when you absolutely need it), just turn the switch on the face of the e+LITE to change between red and white lights and strobe modes. 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 stuff in your pack on an early morning or late afternoon hike.
See the Petzl e+LITE
Weight: 1.6 oz.
Max lumens: 150
What we like: A lightweight headlamp with a unique look.
What we don’t: Very short run time.
Many of the headlamps above are performance-oriented in nature, but there’s a time and a place for something a little more causal. The UCO Air is exactly that: this affordable headlamp weighs only 1.6 ounces total, making it the third-lightest model on this list, comes with a rechargeable battery pack, and even has a nice look to it that is less techy than the rest of the market. For $30, it’s a fun option for car camping, short backpacking trips, and to have in your drawer as a backup light source.
In terms of the actual capabilities of the UCO Air, it has its pros and cons. The run time of the battery is downright poor at under 1 hour on high and 5 hours on low, but when on, it actually outperforms other ultralight headlamps like the Petzl Bindi and e+LITE in terms of beam distance. Given that the UCO Air is half the price of the Bindi and considerably brighter than the e+LITE, it’s a viable option for casual use and particularly if you have an easy way to charge nearby. Keep in mind that the headlamp includes the battery but not a cord for charging, which is a curious omission—many of us have these cords from other devices, but not everyone.
See the UCO Air Headlamp
|Headlamp||Price||Weight||Max Lumens||Batteries||Max Beam||Run Time||IP Rating|
|Petzl Actik Core||$70||2.6 oz.||450||Rechargeable/AAA||90m||2/130 hours||IPX4|
|Black Diamond Spot||$40||3 oz.||325||AAA (3)||80m||4/200 hours||IPX8|
|Petzl Tikkina||$20||3 oz.||250||AAA (3)||60m||2/120 hours||IPX4|
|BioLite HeadLamp 200||$45||1.8 oz.||200||Rechargeable||50m||3/40 hours||IPX4|
|Fenix HL60R||$75||5.9 oz.||950||Rechargeable||116m||.8/100 hours||IPX8|
|Nitecore NU25||$36||.99 oz.||360||Rechargeable||81m||.5/160 hours||IPX66|
|BioLite HeadLamp 330||$60||2.4 oz.||330||Rechargeable||75m||3.5/40 hours||IPX4|
|Black Diamond ReVolt||$65||3.2 oz.||350||Rechargeable/AAA||80m||4/200 hours||IPX4|
|Coast HL7 Focusing||$30||4.4 oz.||305||AAA (3)||127m||1.5/70 hours||IPX4|
|Black Diamond SpotLite||$27||1.9 oz.||160||AAA (2)||60m||2/60 hours||IPX8|
|Petzl NAO +||$200||6.5 oz.||750||Rechargeable||140m||1.5/15 hours||IPX4|
|Black Diamond Sprinter||$75||4.1 oz.||275||Rechargeable/AAA||40m||4/100 hours||IPX4|
|Petzl Bindi||$60||1.2 oz.||200||Rechargeable||36m||2/50 hours||IPX4|
|Energizer Vision HD||$15||3 oz.||200||AAA (3)||50m||8 hours||IPX4|
|Ledlenser NEO4||$25||3.5 oz.||240||AAA (3)||30m||6/40 hours||IP57|
|Black Diamond Storm||$50||4.2 oz.||400||AAA (4)||100m||5/200 hours||IP67|
|Petzl e+LITE||$30||0.92 oz.||50||CR2032 (2)||10m||9/12 hours||IPX8|
|UCO Air Headlamp||$30||1.6 oz.||150||Rechargeable||47m||1/5 hours||IPX4|
- Brightness: How Many Lumens Do You Need?
- LED Types: Spot, Flood, Colored, and Strobe Lights
- Battery Types: AAA, Rechargeable, and Others
- Stated Battery Life
- Straps and Carrying Comfort
- Water Resistance and IP Ratings
- Cold-Weather Performance
- Running Headlamps
When buying a headlamp, one of the first questions you might be asking is, “how bright of a light do I need?” Brightness is measured in terms of lumens, and the lamps here have max outputs ranging from 50 (the Petzl e+LITE) to 950 (the Fenix HL60R). Most headlamps also have dimming capabilities or numerous modes that allow you to choose your level of brightness for any given situation—for example, the HL60R has five different settings between eco (5 lumens) and turbo (950 lumens).
When deciding on the proper number of lumens, it's worth considering that you shouldn't plan on using the light's maximum setting for extended stretches as it will drain the battery quickly, but it's sure helpful to have a strong beam just in case. In general, we’ve found that 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 200-plus-lumen category. And for extremes like spelunking, climbing at night, 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 distance or how well it will illuminate a trail or campsite (for more on this, see "LED Types" below). 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 relying solely on the lumen spec.
The average headlamp features a range of lighting modes, including spot, flood, colored, and strobe lights. The default setting for most lamps is their powerful LED spot beam, which focuses the light at a distance rather than casting it wide around you (the max distance these can reach is listed in the "beam" section of our comparison table). While not necessary in all circumstances, a long-distance beam can be helpful for looking far down a trail, trying to spot an anchor while rappelling, or even for extreme uses like caving.
Not all headlamps have a flood light option, but it’s a great function to have for proximity lighting. Best for around camp or in a tent, flood lights cast a wide beam and maximize the view right in front of you. Some headlamps will have two LEDs, one for spot lighting and one for flood lighting, while others (like the Coast HL7 Focusing) allow you to shape one single LED into a distance beam or an up-close flood. In their specs, most manufacturers will call out a lamp’s beam distance—for example, the BioLite 330 has an 16-meter flood and a 75-meter spot.
Many mid-range and high-end headlamps also include red (and sometimes blue and green) LEDs. We’ve found these useful for reading or hanging out at night as the soft light doesn’t blind your friends or disturb your tentmates. 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. Those with specific night needs will find that blue and green LEDs have their place (hunters, for example, will use blue for tracking as it allows them to differentiate between green foliage and the red blood of the animal). A number of headlamps also have some sort of emergency strobe function, which simultaneously is very visible and doesn’t eat into your batteries as quickly.
Most standard LED headlamps are powered by AAA batteries or a rechargeable lithium ion battery, housed in either the main body of the light or at the back of the strap. USB-rechargeable batteries have become more ubiquitous in the past few years and are our preferred style for their convenience and streamlined size. The main downside with rechargeable batteries is that reviving a dead lamp is not as easy as swapping out AAAs, meaning you’ll need to bring along a power bank or solar panel if you’re in the field for days on end. For all rechargeable options, you do pay a little price premium, but keep in mind that the cost and waste of AAA batteries certainly can add up. In the end, we recommend rechargeable headlamps for most people and uses, but if you’re looking to save money, want a cheap backup, or don’t anticipate using your headlamp often, a AAA model can be a fine way to go.
Some headlamps offer the versatility of both a rechargeable battery and compatibility with AAAs. Petzl leads the charge here with their USB-rechargeable Core pack, which can be purchased separately and functions with any of their headlamps that also run off three AAA batteries. In 2020, Black Diamond also released their new 1800 battery (used in the ReVolt 350 and Sprinter 275), which has the same functionality as the Core. This hybrid battery design is a phenomenal option for those wanting the benefits of a rechargeable headlamp but anticipate occasions when they’ll go a long time without a power source.
The majority of weight-conscious headlamps combine the LED and battery pack into one unit on the front of the head, but more powerful lights like the Fenix HL60R place their battery packs on the back of the strap. This is a bulky system, but it’s often the best option for distributing the weight. Further, to help carry the load, this style typically features an additional strap running right over the top of the head for support and a secure fit. Finally, some headlamps, like Petzl's NAO +, have a detached battery pack that allows you to carry it close to your body to keep it warm in cold temperatures (for more on this, see “Cold-Weather Performance” below).
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 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 (the 0.92-oz. Petzl e+LITE) to downright hefty (the 13.1-oz. Petzl Duo S mentioned in the Fenix write-up above). 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 325 and sibling Storm 400 both carry the batteries at the front, but the 3-ounce Spot feels much lighter on the head than the marginally heavier 4.2-ounce Storm. What seems like a minuscule 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 two-piece system that has an additional strap running over the top of your head. The two-strap style is popular for heavier lamps or more serious adventuring when you’ll be wearing a helmet like rock climbing, mountaineering, or caving. 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.
For serious outdoor use and extended exposure to the elements, you will want to consider the weather resistance of your headlamp. Some cheap headlamps offer little to no protection—as soon as the rain starts to pour, you’re best off covering up and heading for your tent. But most mid-range and high-end models bump up the protection. The weather worthiness of electronics is tested using the IP ratings scale: on the low end, IPX0 equates to no protection at all, while IPX8 at the high end means the item can sustain prolonged immersion. Our high-performance pick, the Fenix HL60R, gets an impressive IPX8 rating, which means that it should continue operating even after being underwater for 30 minutes. The majority of the headlamps on this list are certified to at least IPX4, which should be enough to handle most rain and snow. The bottom line is that if you plan on spending time exposed to the elements, check the IP rating of your headlamp before buying (it’s the right column in our handy comparison table above).
Taking care of your electronics in the cold and keeping them operating can be a challenge (we know this well from taking camera batteries into the backcountry). In terms of headlamps, the first consideration is battery type. Traditional alkaline batteries are the worst of the bunch at working in the cold, so it’s best to step up to lithium or rechargeable NiMH batteries for better performance. In addition, exposure to the cold can contribute to draining any type of battery, but there are ways to mitigate. Some headlamps, like the Petzl NAO +, are made with a removable battery pack that can be stowed inside a pocket while powering the headlamp. And no matter what model you have, you’ll want to keep your headlamp in a relatively warm place when you’re not using it (we like to pack ours inside of wool socks) and even sleep with it inside your sleeping bag at night.
If you’ve ever run at night, you know that a good running headlamp is worth its weight in gold. The best headlamp for running will have a lightweight and streamlined build for minimal bounce and a well-balanced beam that lights up both your immediate surroundings and the path ahead. Many have features like red taillights for visibility on the road and reflective markings on the band. Ironically, our top pick for night joggers (the BioLite 200) isn’t designed specifically for running, but its sleek strap design is by far our favorite for rigorous movement. The Black Diamond Sprinter, on the other hand, is a running-focused design that offers more lumens (275) and a top strap for better security (the downside is that it’s a hefty 4.1 ounces and not as comfortable as the Biolite). Keep in mind that by opting for such a running-specific light, you do give up some all-around versatility—the Sprinter’s one LED doesn’t switch between distance and proximity modes, making it less useful for around-camp use or spotting far-off anchors while climbing.
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