STAY IN THIS MADNESS!
One should simply choose a headlamp.
Excessive research is futile.
Most Backpacking Headlamps are Created Equal
I’ve been backpacking for over 20 years, and in that time I’ve owned at least 5 headlamps.
Not a single one failed me. They were all reliable.
Most were only replaced because I wanted a shiny new toy.
Another succumbed to battery acid in storage.
Another headlamp was submerged too long on a rafting trip. It still worked okay, but… shiny! New! Things!
None of these products were truly sub-par. A headlamp is a simple device. Virtually all name brand (and even generic) models will serve you well. Remember this as you do your research and read reviews. It’s easy to get caught up in nuances like beam distance, lumens, and “reactive lighting.”
Reactive lighting? Huh?
Don’t you have better things to do with your time?
About 200 Lumens is Best for Hiking, Backpacking, and even Running
If you’re wondering how many lumens you need for hiking at night, well, you’ve probably ventured too far down the rabbit hole. At the end of the day, differences in lumens don’t matter very much. Outside factors like beam length, battery life, and spotlight vs. floodlight are more significant, but a minimum of 200 lumens is best.
The best budget (and even premium) headlamps can usually put out 200 lumens with a full charge. This level is especially ideal for thru-hikers considering battery output, weight, and ultralight design.
These 5 Factors Actually Matter
1) A Red Light Setting
If you don’t have a red light setting in camp, you’re the equivalent of the guy driving down the road with his high beams in oncoming traffic.
Okay maybe you’re not that obnoxious (unless you’re attending a star party), but it’s still just a little rude.
A red light setting provides a decent light in the dark, while still preserving your night vision. People in your immediate vicinity might have an interest in preserving their night vision… say, to view the stars.
Or maybe it’s a bright moonlit night, and most everyone can see without a light at all. Maybe you’re sitting around a fire, and everyone has a red light but you – you don’t want to blind everyone when you get up to go pee, do you?
Just don’t be that guy.
2) Rechargeable vs Replaceable Batteries
In the past it was standard to run an LED headlamp on replaceable batteries – most often 3 AAA’s. An LED will provide some light even when the batteries are weak – it just won’t be nearly as bright.
Nowadays it makes sense for most hikers to use a headlamp with a rechargeable battery. Since backpackers are carrying cell phones and therefore a power bank to recharge the phone, it’s logical to extend the power bank’s use to your headlamp. This is especially the case for thru-hiking. Using a USB headlamp can save a small bit of weight, too.
Using a rechargeable has a couple of caveats. Most of all, if you’re going to be doing extended night-hiking or trail running, you may have a need for sustained brightness for many hours. In this case, a rechargeable setup would be inconvenient.
Additionally, a USB headlamp’s battery will eventually lose its strength, especially when exposed to freezing temperatures (just like your phone).
3) A Locking Mechanism
I like to store my headlamp in my hip belt when I’m backpacking. This way I have easy access to it, should I get caught out at night. When I first began backpacking, I had that natural fear of the dark as most of us do, and I’d always imagined a fearful scenario of not being able to find my headlamp in the dark. So the hipbelt storage alleviated that concern.
The trouble with this is that my headlamp will inevitably get turned on in the middle of the day by accident. Fortunately the batteries can last for a very long time (so this wouldn’t exactly ruin my day), but it’s definitely an annoyance that I like to avoid.
So now, lo and behold, the manufacturers have invented locking mechanisms to prevent this. I consider the existence of such a feature to be very attractive in selecting a new headlamp.
4) Ease of Use (Limited Settings)
Once upon a time, we used these old things called flashlights (or maybe a torch for those of you across the pond). Press the button, and the light comes on. Press it again, and the light turns off. Ah yes, so simple.
Today it’s awesome that we have these fancy headlamps that can do so many different things, but the problem is that most still have just one button operate them with, in addition to a “tap” function on the headlamp’s side. Similar to a build-it-yourself piece of furniture from IKEA, your new headlamp will include a cryptic diagram that’s supposed to explain how to use all the settings.
You’ll find yourself having to enter a magical code to find your favorite light setting. For example, press 3 times, hold for 3 seconds – now press 3 times quickly. And you’ll have to memorize these codes. And Lord forgive you if you ever get stuck on the flashing SOS strobe mode (which nobody uses anyway), and can’t find your way out of it.
So yeah, a multitude of settings isn’t always a good thing. In the race to be able to advertise more “features,” the manufactures forget that simplicity is often best.
5) Cost & Weight
Let’s just combine cost and weight as single factor.
Most headlamps are 2 or 3 ounces, so lightweight backpackers aren’t going to save a great deal of weight here (though my top pick below can be cut to just one ounce). Otherwise, a true ultralight Nazi will skip the headlamp altogether and opt for a keychain light, or rely on the light from a cell phone.
Don’t Pay Too Much
A budget headlamp on Amazon is probably going to be fine. In some cases, the cheap ones can even be better, because they won’t have so many frustrating settings for you to learn (see “Ease of Use” above). Paying 10x as much for an LED light that straps around your head seems a little silly to me.
In my eyes, the only valid reason to spend more is if you plan to do a considerable amount of night-hiking or trail running, or if you’re a ranger or firefighter or something. Even then, the extra funds would probably be better invested in a lighter shelter, backpack, or sleep system.
The Nitecore NU25 Headlamp is Best for Ultralight Backpacking
One should be wary of the published specs for this device, but the Nitecore NU25 still looks like the best all-round headlamp for hiking at night.
The published weight of just one ounce refers to the headlamp itself, without the strap. The strap brings the total weight up to 1.9 ounces, which is still nothing to sneeze at. In focusing its published weight on just the headlamp, Nitecore inspires ultralight thru hikers to ditch the strap altogether. A basic hair tie, for example, can make a nice substitute.
Additionally, the published brightness of 360 lumens is misleading. It’s capable of such output, but only at short intervals of about 30 seconds. Its standard high setting is a consistent 190 lumens.
Otherwise, this headlamp certainly ticks all the boxes for me:
- a red light setting
- a SECOND BUTTON for ease of use (whoa)
- a locking mechanism
And it’s rechargeable via USB. As I stated above, I think it usually makes sense for backpackers to switch to this from removable batteries. You can operate the Nitecore NU25 while it’s charging, which is a nice bonus.
Some folks report that it can easily lose its charge while in storage. This shouldn’t be a problem for thru-hikers, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re an organized weekend warrior with a pre-packed “go kit.”
It’s generally priced around $35. So this isn’t exactly a budget headlamp, but it’s certainly reasonable compared to the leaders from Black Diamond and Petzl.
Honorable Mentions: Black Diamond vs Petzl vs Biolite
If you’re asking yourself which brand makes better headlamps (Petzl vs Black Diamond), well, they’re both very good. It’s similar to asking how many lumens is best – to ask which overall brand is better is simply asking the wrong question.
What you need to be asking, is what is the best model for your needs?
And if you’re reading this article, you should probably ask yourself “How much more time should I spend researching this?” Hmm?
Best for Lightweight Thru-Hikers
As mentioned above, I think the Nitecore NU25 looks best for ultralight thru hikers.
Legend has it, however, that a true ultralight badass will use a simple LED keychain light. Such a legendary figure primarily harnesses the power of sun and moon for his lighting needs. His diet, by the way, consists of nothing but kale. And he never purifies his drinking water.
Best Overall Headlamp: Black Diamond Spot vs Petzl Actik CORE
My vote for the next-best overall headlamp is a close call between the Black Diamond Spot 400 and the Petzl Actik Core. If pressed, I think I’d choose the Petzl. Here’s why:
The Black Diamond Spot 400
The Black Diamond Spot 400 is the latest version of the series that I’ve been using for over a decade. It’s an awesome all-round headlamp, but I do have a few complaints.
On my version (the Spot 300, to be fair), the beam creates a weird sort of orange halo in its center. It’s an annoying effect, particularly during the semi-hallucinatory state that encompasses most night-hiking.
My other caveat about the old version of the Spot was its control mechanism. With a single button on top of the headlamp to scroll through its various modes, it could get frustrating to zero in on my desired setting. Additionally, the Spot features a “tap” feature on its right side to activate a momentary strobe light. Its easy to trigger this accidentally, which can be a little jarring, especially for those who haven’t taken the time to study all its controls.
The ease of use issue seems to be solved in the latest version. Black Diamond finally incorporated a second button to make things less confusing (the “tap function is still included, though). Previously the Spot was limited to AAA batteries, but now they (finally) offer a rechargeable version under the “Spot” lineup. They differentiate these by offering 2 separate variations – the “Spot 400″ and the Spot 400-R.” The new model also has a thinner profile.
The Spot now has maximum versatility in its battery charging setup. I’ll break down exactly how it works, because its not immediately obvious that the regular version now has a rechargeable option too, sold separately.
- The Spot 400-R is your regular rechargeable headlamp. It has a built-in battery, which is charged by plugging a micro USB directly into the device.
- The regular Spot 400 functions with classic power via AAA batteries, but it now has a “dual fuel” option that allows it work as rechargeable headlamp, too. This sounds great, but the trouble is that Black Diamond sells the rechargeable battery separately (significantly increasing the price point of the setup), and that it requires an external charger – not a very good system for thru-hikers.
With that said, the Black Diamond Spot has been a rock solid, reliable all-round headlamp for more than a decade. It makes me happy to see these recent upgrades – they were definitely needed and welcome improvements (as opposed to the so-called “upgrades” we often see in other products as an excuse to sell a shiny new thing). The Petzl Actik Core, however, (below) reportedly still outperforms the latest Spot in its overall brightness and battery performance.
The Petzl Actik Core
The Petzl Actik Core is similar in quality to the Black Diamond Spot, but looks to be a marginal upgrade. Here’s a number of advantages that the Actik Core has over the Spot, even despite the Spot’s recent improvements:
- The Petzl offers the versatility of choosing AAA or rechargeable power in a single device, without the need for an external charger or anything sold separately.
- Its brightness is more reliable. Most headlamps get very dim near the end of their battery life, but Petzl regulates a “brightness to burn time ratio” to prevent its beam from getting especially faint.
- It’s easy to get a feel for working through its various modes, even though it limits the controls to just one button.
The Spot 400 is significantly more waterproof than the Petzl, but the Petzl is still splash resistant. Also, if you’re a fan of exclusively using AAA batteries, then you’ll find a better value in the Black Diamond.
Numerous “best of” lists point out the value to be found in the Petzl Tikkina. Be wary though – the Tikkina does not have a red light function.
Best for Trail Running, Caving, etc.
If you’re looking for a headlamp for running ultra-marathons, the Biolite 425 may be the way to go. I don’t have any personal experience with Biolite headlamps, but they seem to be more comfortable for all the jostling involved in trail running, while simultaneously providing more brightness for those sketchy moments at night.
The original 330 model caught my eye because of this REI article. The reviews weren’t very encouraging, but it looks like improvements have been made in the newest models.
The Biolite 800 PRO is the biggest, brightest, beefiest choice. It gets my nomination as the best headlamp for serious light needs that go beyond backpacking (Cavers, Search and Rescue Rangers, Firefighters… I’m looking at you).
Both models even have a rear red light (required for some ultra-marathons), a cool feature!
You’ll pay for the Biolite 800’s fanciness though, to the tune of $100 and 5.3 ounces.
The Best Budget Headlamp is Probably on Amazon
What’s the best budget headlamp?
The answer is simple – whatever is cheapest!
Like I said at the beginning, a headlamp is a simple device. There’s probably no need to fuss and dwell on it too much, especially if you’ve never owned one before.
The best selling headlamp on Amazon is made by a brand from California called GearLight. For $20 you get TWO identical headlamps (keep one in the car, yeah?). It weighs 3 ounces, runs on 3 AAA batteries, and it has a red light mode.
(Max to Min)
(Max / Min)
|Nitecore NU25||$45||1.9 oz||USB||yes||360/?||160 / 5|
|Black Diamond Spot 400-R||$65||2.6 oz||USB||yes||400/200/6||4/8/225|
|Petzl Actik Core||$75||3.1 oz||hybrid||yes||600/100/7||2/7/100|
|BioLite 425||$60||2.8 oz||USB||yes||425/5||4/60|
|BioLite 800 PRO||$100||5.3 oz||USB||yes||800/500/250/5||7/8.5/150|
All listed weights include batteries.
All listed headlamps have a red light setting.
Applicable Waterproof Ratings:
IPX4 = “resistant to water splashes from any direction”
IP66 = “dust tight” and “protected from powerful jets of water”
IPX8 = “can be submerged deeper than 1 meter”
Finally, 3 Random Factoids
Most headlamps with replaceable batteries operate best with Energizer AAA lithium batteries.
One Lumen is defined as the measured brightness of a single candle’s output.
For those of you doing trail running at night, try rigging your headlamp to your waist belt, or even holding it in your hand. Casting longer shadows increases your depth of field, and can be a game changer versus wearing the light on your head.
Reactive Lighting adjusts automatically to the distance of the object in view. Now you know.