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.
Table of Contents
- Our Headlamp Picks
- Headlamp Comparison Table
- Headlamp Buying Advice
Weight: 2.6 oz.
Max lumens: 450
What we like: Rechargeable, bright, and lightweight.
What we don’t: Pricey and not super water resistant.
It’s 2021, 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 six-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
Weight: 3 oz.
Max lumens: 350
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. Importantly, BD recently updated the design with a higher max lumen output (350 vs. 325 for the previous model), lower weight (by 0.1 oz.), and more compact design, but the rest of the winning formula remains largely the same. The headlamp projects a strong 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 light for use around camp.
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 low-profile shape makes it easy to wear, and the lamp’s IXP8 rating means it can handle full underwater submersion, making it more weatherproof than most models here. All told, the versatile Spot 350 is a great choice for most outdoor adventuring, as long as you don’t mind that it’s powered by AAA batteries. It’s also worth mentioning BD’s Cosmo 300 here, which offers slightly less brightness but retains many of the Spot’s features for $10 less.
See the Black Diamond Spot 350
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. BD also released the $20 Astro 250, has the same output as the Tikkina and weighs less at 1.9 ounces, but has a shorter max beam distance (36m vs. the Petzl’s 60m). All in all, for the truly budget-conscious, the Tikkina gets the basics right in a compact and affordable package.
See the Petzl Tikkina Headlamp
Weight: 2.4 oz.
Max lumens: 330
What we like: Streamlined no-bounce design, rechargeable battery, and quality light output.
What we don’t: Middling battery life.
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 below), but our favorite model of 2021 is the BioLite 330, which packs all-around intentions into a lightweight and streamlined build. The lamp’s 330 lumens can reach up to 75 meters in spot mode, and 3.5 hours of battery life on high is more than enough for most runners’ needs (plus, the BioLite is simple to recharge via USB).
Our favorite feature on 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. Putting the battery pack at the rear also helps with the minimalist shape, and it’s very lightweight overall at only 2.43 ounces. It’s worth noting that serious trail runners, adventure racers, and those tackling ultradistances will likely want more battery life (or the versatility to use standard AAAs). If you fall into that group, check out Petzl’s innovative but pricey Iko Core below. But it’s hard to beat the simplicity of the 330, which is also just a great headlamp to have on hand around the house and at camp. And we’re big fans of BioLite’s 200 model too: it isn’t as bright or long-lasting, but will save you $15 and tips the scales at only 1.8 ounces.
See the BioLite HeadLamp 330
Weight: 6.1 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 still manages to be 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 (not listed here) has a maximum brightness of 1,100 lumens along with a beam distance of 650 feet, although you’ll pay a premium at a whopping $350. 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
Weight: 1.9 oz. (w/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 2021 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 and rechargeable via micro USB. We’ve also found it incredibly easy to operate (this is a common complaint among headlamp users), with one button for the white beam and one for red. All told, as a high-powered emergency light or for those who want to carry the least possible weight on their back, the NU25 is a bright and relatively cheap option.
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 terms of the strap, the included Nitecore option adds nearly an ounce to the equation at 1.9 ounces total, which is slightly heavier than the BioLite 200 mentioned above. But the Nitecore is the better performer, running for 5 hours on high (190 lumens) compared to the BioLite’s 3 hours at 200 lumens. And for true minimalists and thru-hikers, Litesmith makes a shoestring-style headband for the NU25 that clocks in at just .18 ounces (you can also DIY with a piece of shockcord), bringing the whole setup to 1.17 ounces total.
See the Nitecore NU25
Weight: 1.9 oz.
Max lumens: 250
Batteries: AAA (3)
What we like: Gets the job done for just $20.
What we don’t: Not compatible with a USB-rechargeable battery.
If you’re on the hunt for a simple headlamp that will come in handy both at camp and around the house, the Black Diamond Astro 250 delivers. For just $20, the Astro puts out a very practical 250 lumens—including dimming and strobe modes—and lasts for an impressive 14 hours on the brightest setting (200 hours on low). What’s more, at less than 2 ounces and with a compact shape, it’s light enough to go practically unnoticed on your head or in a pack, which makes for a great emergency backup too. You can spend a lot of money on a brighter or longer-lasting headlamp, but the Astro is a great value and fully sufficient for most campers, hikers, and backpackers.
The Astro 250 goes head to head with our top budget pick, the Petzl Tikkina above. Both headlamps are identical in terms of price and brightness, have IPX4 ratings, and come ready to run on three AAA batteries. Neither headlamp has a red light—which some might want for nighttime reading—but the Astro does have a lockout mode (helpful for preventing accidental battery drain) and is noticeably lighter and less bulky. But we give the edge to the Tikkina for its compatibility with Petzl’s USB-rechargeable Core battery—AAA batteries can be a pain to replace and dispose of, and we’ve grown to vastly prefer rechargeable systems. That said, if you’re going to stick with standard alkalines, the Astro 250 is arguably the better pick. And a final note: for $10 more, you can bump up to BD’s Cosmo, which has 300 lumens of light, more features, and an impressive IPX8 waterproof rating.
See the Black Diamond Astro 250
Weight: 4 oz.
Max lumens: 500
What we like: About as bombproof as it gets.
What we don’t: Battery drains fairly quickly in turbo mode.
For activities like high-altitude mountaineering, alpine climbing, and backcountry rescue, you’ll need a headlamp built to withstand significant abuse, and Fenix’s HM50R fits the bill nicely. This headlamp is rugged with a full aluminum casing, powerful with a 500-lumen max output and beam distance of around 260 feet, and dust- and waterproof with an IP68 rating, which means it can handle being submerged in up to 2 meters of water for 30 minutes. And the rest of the design is equally well-executed, including a single side switch that makes it easy to toggle between settings (the headlamp has four output levels), a reflective headband, and compatibility with cold-resistant CR123A batteries.
Not everyone needs the specialized features or ultra-tough build, but the good news is that the Fenix is reasonably priced for the amount of output and performance you get. Sure, you could step up to a more serious model like the HL60R above, but that will run you an additional $15 and tack on a bulkier design. Finally, keep in mind that with all high-powered headlamps, you’ll only want to use the brightest mode when it counts. The Fenix’s 500-lumen “turbo” mode will drain the battery in only 2.5 hours, while the lower settings range from 10 hours to almost 4 days respectively (and longer with the aforementioned CR123A batteries).
See the Fenix HM50R
Weight: 4.9 oz.
Max lumens: 500
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 330.
The Black Diamond Sprinter 500 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 most recent model features 500 lumens of light (almost twice as much as previous versions) and comes with Black Diamond’s Dual-Fuel battery system, which gives you the option of using a USB-rechargeable battery or AAAs (the rechargeable unit is included with purchase). Like Petzl’s Core technology, this is our favorite power system: you get the convenience of a lithium-ion battery along with the versatility of alaklines, great 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 running pick (the BioLite 330) the BD is twice as heavy, $20 pricier, and not quite as packable for space-conscious athletes. Finally, our experience with Black Diamond headlamps has been hit or miss, and (like the BioLite) the Sprinter’s waterproof rating is average at IPX4. But some runners will value the strong oval beam and red taillight in urban environments, and there’s no denying the security of the top strap system. And Black Diamond also makes the 2-ounce Sprint 225 for running, which has an average 2.5 hours of burn time and is priced at $45.
See the Black Diamond Sprinter 500
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 $27), 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 the same output, 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 280), 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 $27.
See the Coast HL7 Focusing
Weight: 4.8 oz.
Max lumens: 375
What we like: Purpose-built design for climbing at night.
What we don’t: Heavy and bulky.
If you’ve ever tried to climb at night, you’ll know it’s not easy. The world shrinks down to one square foot in front of you, and finding the way can be a challenge. But a good headlamp can make a night and day difference (no pun intended), and the Black Diamond Onsight 375 is purpose-built for the job. The standout feature here is the two, easy-to-toggle beams: in climbing mode, you get 300 lumens of disbursed light to flood the area in front of you, while route-finder mode offers a 375-lumen long distance beam for scouting the anchors or the route ahead. And operation is refreshingly simple, with one button to turn the lamp on and tap technology on either side to switch between modes.
In addition to the dual-beam design, the rest of the new Onsight 375 is well thought out for climbers’ needs. Like many of Black Diamond’s recent offerings, it comes with a rechargeable battery that can be swapped out for three AAAs, which is a nice option to have when you’re out for numerous days at a time. An IP67 waterproof rating means it’s fully submersible and dust proof (great for durability), and the SOS mode is helpful during an emergency. But at 4.75 ounces the BD is a lot heavier and bulkier than most headlamps here, and despite being climbers ourselves we’re not sure if it’s worth it for the extra features. If you plan to night climb (that was Tommy Caldwell’s strategy on the Dawn Wall, after all), the Onsight 375 is a great niche piece at a reasonable price, but we’ll stick with the lighter options above for emergency use.
See the Black Diamond Onsight 375
Weight: 2.8 oz.
Max lumens: 500
What we like: Trail runners will love the strong light, low weight, and versatile battery design.
What we don’t: Expensive; somewhat polarizing headband design.
Petzl has been pushing the boundaries on strap designs for years, and one of their latest creations is the unique Iko Core. This minimalist headlamp splits its weight between a battery pack at the rear and a low-profile lamp on the forehead, connected by a semi-rigid strap that tightens with a simple cinch. The design keeps weight in check, and with an impressive 500 lumens of light, the Iko is a standout for trail running. Additionally, you get Petzl’s Core rechargeable battery pack, which can be subbed out for three AAAs to keep you moving through the night during an adventure race or ultramarathon.
The Iko Core is somewhat pricey at $90, and we’ve had a hard time getting used to its rigid strap system (pairing it with a headband or hat helps). But you’ll be hard-pressed to find such a close-fitting headlamp that offers this much light, which is a winning combination for serious trail and mountain athletes (the 500-lumen Sprinter above is a full two ounces heavier). Further, the Petzl’s capability for both flood and mixed lighting is a big upgrade compared to the Sprinter’s single spotlight. But with a polarizing design that’s rather impractical for casual use (not to mention uncomfortable for some), the Iko Core is still a rather niche piece. In most cases, we’d stick with a headlamp like the Sprinter or the even more versatile BioLite above.
See the Petzl Iko Core
Weight: 3.2 oz.
Max lumens: 350
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 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, and we’ve found Petzl lamps to be the most reliable in terms of run time. Further, many users have cited durability issues with the ReVolt (we’re currently in the process of testing and will report back with our experience), making it an easy choice for us to stick with the time-tested, lighter, and brighter Actik for just $5 more.
See the Black Diamond ReVolt 350
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. It’s also worth checking out Black Diamond’s similarly intentioned Flare, which maxes out at 40 lumens, clocks in at one ounce flat, and is slightly cheaper at $25.
See the Petzl e+LITE
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 modern models like the Petzl Actik 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) Spot 350 above.
See the Black Diamond Storm 400
|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.||350||AAA (3)||86m||4/200 hours||IPX8|
|Petzl Tikkina||$20||3 oz.||250||AAA (3)||60m||2/120 hours||IPX4|
|BioLite HeadLamp 330||$60||2.4 oz.||330||Rechargeable||75m||3.5/40 hours||IPX4|
|Fenix HL60R||$75||6.1 oz.||950/400||Rechargeable||116m||.8/100 hours||IPX8|
|Nitecore NU25||$37||1.9 oz.||360||Rechargeable||81m||.5/160 hours||IPX66|
|Black Diamond Astro||$20||1.9 oz.||250||AAA (3)||36m||4.5/200 hours||IPX4|
|Fenix HM50R||$60||4 oz.||500||Rechargeable||80m||2/128 hours||IP68|
|Black Diamond Sprinter||$80||4.9 oz.||500||Rechargeable/AAA||52m||2/28 hours||IPX4|
|Coast HL7 Focusing||$27||4.4 oz.||305||AAA (3)||127m||1.5/70 hours||IPX4|
|Black Diamond Onsight||$60||4.8 oz.||375||Rechargeable/AAA||85m||3/100 hours||IP67|
|Petzl Iko Core||$90||2.8 oz.||500||Rechargeable/AAA||100m||2.5/100 hours||IPX4|
|Black Diamond ReVolt||$65||3.2 oz.||350||Rechargeable/AAA||80m||4/200 hours||IPX4|
|Petzl e+LITE||$30||0.92 oz.||50||CR2032 (2)||10m||9/12 hours||IPX8|
|Black Diamond Storm||$50||4.2 oz.||400||AAA (4)||100m||5/200 hours||IP67|
- 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 various settings that range from "eco" (5 lumens) to 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 "max 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 8-meter flood and a 50-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. Black Diamond also has their relatively new 1800 battery (used in the Onsight 375, ReVolt 350, and Sprinter 500), 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 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 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 HL60R 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 350 and sibling Storm 400 both carry the batteries at the front, but the 2.9-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 + (not listed here), 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 330) 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 a top strap for better security (the downside is that it’s a hefty 4.9 oz. 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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