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.
There wasn’t a single one that “wore out” or unreasonably failed. They were all reliable.
Most were replaced only because I wanted a shiny new toy.
My first headlamp didn’t have an LED light.
Yeah, it had tiny little replaceable light bulbs, like a Christmas tree.
Unfortunately I left it behind one morning, in an Appalachian Trail shelter.
Another headlamp succumbed to battery acid while in storage.
Another was fully submerged for too long on a rafting trip. It still worked, but it was never quite the same.
My point is that none of these products were truly sub-par. A headlamp is a simple device. Virtually all name brand (and even generic) models are ultimately going to 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 doing a search for how many lumens you need for hiking at night, well, you’re probably too far down the rabbit hole. The short answer is that 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 come in to play.
If you dive too deep into the details, it’s enough to make you pull your hair out – you could spend hours upon hours trying to work out what’s best for your needs. This is when you’ve passed beyond shopping, and in to the realm of acquiring useless knowledge – where even the designers of these products probably wouldn’t spend their energy.
So generally speaking, a minimum of 200 lumens is best. The best budget (and even premium) headlamps can consistently put out about 200 lumens from a full charge. This level of output is often most ideal for your battery life, weight, and design factors for ultralight backpacking, too.
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 proximity 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. These will still provide some light, even when the batteries grow weak. It just won’t be as much as you’d see with a fresh set of batteries.
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. You can save a small bit of weight with a USB headlamp, 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 such a desire for brightness that a rechargeable source won’t cut it. You’d probably rather pause to replace a few AAA’s. Additionally, a USB headlamp 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 the hip belt of my backpack for overnight trips. 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 of them still have just one button to do so. Similar to a build-it-yourself piece of furniture, your new headlamp will likely come with 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 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.
5) Cost & Weight
Cost and weight are negligible enough factors in headlamps to just lump them together here. Besides, any backpacker worth his salt is inherently going to be considering weight and cost without having me remind him to do so.
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, as they won’t have so many frustrating settings for you to sort through (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. Even then, the extra funds would probably be better invested in a lighter shelter, backpack, or sleep system.
So Which is Best?
Before I continue, it’s worth noting that I don’t own any of the specific headlamps that I’m going to list below. In fact, I haven’t even tried any of these specific models. I do, however, have decades of experience with their predecessors.
What you’re getting here is the choice I’d make for my next headlamp purchase, if so inclined. I presently own 3 headlamps. One stays in my vehicle, the other is for use around the house, and the third is for hiking.
They’re all outdated versions of the Black Diamond Spot. Upon discovering that the Black Diamond headlamp I wanted to review was a relative fossil, I soon drowned in an infinite amount of data and specs regarding lumens, beam length, battery life, IPX ratings, and so on.
I spent hours wading through all of it through it, and came up with what would be best for my next purchase (if I so desired).
And the winner is…
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. Also, 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 makes sense for me to switch from removable batteries to a rechargeable USB headlamp. 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), I fear that you’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole. It’s similar to asking how many lumens is best – to ask which overall brand is better is to simply ask 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 best overall headlamp is a toss-up between the Black Diamond Spot 350 and the Petzl Actik Core.
The Black Diamond Spot 350 is the latest version of their Spot series that I’ve been using for over a decade. It’s an awesome all-round headlamp, though I do have a few complaints.
Most worthy of mention is that 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. It’s so annoying over time that it’s the main factor that has me looking elsewhere for a new headlamp.
My other caveat about the Black Diamond Spot is its control mechanism. In particular, there’s a tap feature on the side of the headlamp that’s sensitive to being triggered on accident. If you don’t take the time to do some hard studying of the Spot’s user manual, the controls can cause plenty of confusion, and even frustration if you’re not familiar with the tap feature.
With that said, the Black Diamond Spot is a rock solid, reliable all-round headlamp.
The Petzl Actik Core is similar in quality to the Black Diamond Spot, and looks to be a marginal upgrade. The main difference between the two models is that the Petzl has a rechargeable USB option, whereas the Black Diamond does not. Additionally, this Petzl is less waterproof than the Black Diamond.
A big selling point for the Actik Core is that it includes a rechargeable battery, but you can also swap it out for traditional AAA batteries.
Otherwise, the Petzl Actik CORE seems to be an overall better headlamp regarding brightness, burn time, and usability. It’s 3rd downfall is that it’s one of the pricier headlamps I’m listing in this article.
The original Petzl Tikka was my first LED headlamp, back in the early 2000s. It was a few years later (2008?) when I replaced it with a new version of the same model. Both were solid products, yet I was swayed to switch over to the hype surrounding Black Diamond in the early 2010s.
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 ultramarathons, the Biolite 330 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 providing more brightness for the sketchiest moments at night.
The 330 model caught my eye because of this REI article, but the reviews are not altogether encouraging. After some further research, it looks as though the Biolite 750 may be the better choice. In fact, the Biolite 750 gets my nomination as the best beefy-style headlamp for serious light needs that go beyond backpacking (i.e. caving). It even has a rear red light (required for some ultramarathons, a cool feature!).
You’ll pay for the Biolite 750’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 Beam |
|Black Diamond Spot 350||$39.95||3oz||AAA||yes||350/4||200/3.75|
|Petzl Actik Core||$69.95||2.8oz||hybrid||yes||450/100/6||130/2|
All listed headlamps have a red light mode.
All listed weights include batteries.
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.