If you’re planning on taking a camping or fishing trip, a headlamp is something you don’t want to forget. Even if you’re staying at home, they are useful for finding your way around your yard at night, making them a good thing to have on hand.
But with so many different types on the market, it can be difficult to choose the right one. Take some time to consider what you want, where you’ll be using it, and what features are most important to you. That way, you’ll be able to make the right decision, and you won’t get left out in the dark.
|GRDE LED Headlamp||Amazon||B|
|Black Diamond Spot Headlamp||REI / Amazon||A+|
|Petzl ACTIK||REI / Amazon||A|
|Fenix HL60R||REI / Amazon||B|
|Princeton Tec Apex||REI / Amazon||A|
How to Choose a Hiking Headlamp
What’s the most important feature of an LED headlamp? Its brightness, of course!
Hiking headlamps can range in brightness from about 100 to 1,000 lumens. The problem is that there’s not a strict definition of how to measure brightness, and most people don’t know what a lumen is anyway.
So don’t get too bogged down in whether one is, say, 30 lumens brighter than another. Just understand that there are rough categories of brightness, and that the majority fall somewhere in the 200-500 lumen range.
Most come with two types of beams: flood and spot, with various levels of brightness for each.
Which kind is more important to you? Flood lighting is great for when you’re setting up camp and need some diffuse lightning over a large area. Spot lighting is ideal for when you’re on the trail and need to look ahead for obstacles or something rustling in the bushes.
Red Light Mode
When you’re in the woods at night and your eyes have adjusted to the dark, turning on a regular light can be really jarring. Fortunately, most of the better quality LED headlamps have red light mode, which is much easier on the eyes.
This is a great feature to have if you like reading in the evening or you need to use a map in the dark, and your campmates will appreciate you not blinding them when you need to step outside the tent at night.
Most either require AA or AAA batteries or come with an integrated battery pack that can be charged with a USB cable. If you don’t want to have to buy batteries in bulk or purchase new ones every other week, a headlamp with an integrated battery pack is a good idea.
It also pays to remember that alkaline batteries don’t hold their charge as well when the temperature drops. If you think you’ll be doing any winter hiking, make sure your headlamp can take lithium batteries.
On general-purpose headlamps, the batteries and light are often in the same housing, which can be a more comfortable setup for some people. However, some that are designed to stay on longer or need a little more juice to keep them running have external battery packs. Instead of being attached to the light bulb housing, these battery packs are normally worn on the back of the head. They normally weigh a few ounces, and the top straps used to keep them secure can be cumbersome.
A headlamp’s burn time refers to how many hours it will stay on at a particular brightness setting before the battery runs out. One of the most important questions to ask yourself when choosing one is how long you’ll be going without access to fresh batteries or a place to recharge them.
Hikers who just want to go for an evening stroll won’t need anything with a burn time of more than a few hours, but long-distance trekkers will want one that can be used for a few hours a night for several nights in a row. That means the burn time will probably need to be around three hours for each day of your trek.
The vast majority weigh less than five ounces, and it’s unlikely you’d notice the difference of an ounce or two under that. However, some very bright ones have external battery packs that are worn on the back of your head, which are noticeably heavier.
But if you’re hiking in conditions that would require brighter light, it’s a necessary tradeoff.
If you’ll be doing high impact activities like running, be sure to purchase one with a strap that goes over the top of the head. You don’t want all the weight of the torch and batteries bouncing around on your head, and the extra strap will keep them secure.
All but the cheapest headlamps will tolerate a little rain. However, if you think you’re likely to get caught in a downpour or are worried about dropping yours in a river, consider choosing one that’s waterproof. IPX-8 is the gold standard when it comes to waterproofing, and allows for submersion in three feet of water.
Don’t judge GRDE’s Zoomable on its appearance, because yes, it looks a little funky. However, it’s also one of the brightest and most affordable on the market.
Let’s start with the beam – the Zoomable has three lighting modes: low, high, and strobe. Both the high and strobe put out 1,800 lumens (double or triple that of many others), and the low puts out about half that. The beam is “zoomable,” which means you can twist the lens to shift it between flood light and spot light, meaning you can stop at exactly the size of beam you need. The lens can also tilt 90 degrees to put the beam anywhere from just in front of your feet to straight ahead of you.
It does have a few issues, though, the first being that it’s relatively heavy at 5.2 ounces, not including the three lithium-ion batteries. The Zoomable also suffers from a lack of brightness options, with just two levels and a strobe, and no red light either. Despite its mostly aluminum construction, it’s not very durable if you drop it on a hard surface, though you can’t expect something this inexpensive to be very tough.
GRDE’s Zoomable is good for users who want something incredibly bright but are less concerned about durability and weight. However, buyers should be aware that it’s not suitable for activities like caving, where reliability is a priority.
- Very inexpensive
- Zoomable beam
- Extremely bright at 1,800 lumens
- Not very durable
- Few brightness settings
Black Diamond Spot Headlamp
The Spot is Black Diamond’s most popular and with good reason. It’s well-rounded and low-priced that can do a pretty good job with any activity.
It uses one button to switch between its six modes: proximity, distance, dimming, strobe, red light, and lock (for storage in a backpack, where it could be accidentally turned on). Cycling between all these different modes can be troublesome for new users. Simpler controls would have made this a much more user-friendly piece of equipment. The headband could be a little more comfortable, too, as the buckles dig into your skin a little after tightening. Since it only has a single-band horizontal headband, it’s also not the best choice for jogging.
Three AAA batteries power the Spot, and Black Diamond doesn’t offer a rechargeable battery. At full brightness, the headlamp’s burn time is about three hours, so you’ll need to bring extra batteries if you plan on needing to use it for longer than that.
The 200-lumen output is about average, and is enough for users who will be taking it on a trail where light can reflect off of nearby trees. But it’s not really bright enough if you’ll be using it in more open spaces, like a beach, or darker ones, like a cave. It does have a red light mode for illuminating the campsite without waking up your buddies.
Finally, the Spot is listed as being waterproof to about three feet, but Black Diamond says the lamp should be dried out after being submerged – suggesting it may not be completely waterproof. For only weighing 3.2 ounces, it’s still pretty durable, though.
The Spot is a good all-around headlamp; it’s not perfect for any activity, but it’s sufficient in most situations.
- Low price
- Mostly waterproof
- Mediocre battery life
- Hard to adjust brightness
- Not very bright
These days, the name Petzl is pretty much synonymous with headlamps; they produce some of the most reliable and, just as importantly, most affordable available right now. The Actik comes from their ACTIVE line and is one of the best general-purpose, lightweight headlamps for hiking and camping.
The Actik has three primary brightness levels: 5, 100, and 300 lumens. Additionally, it has a two-lumen night light for using around camp and a strobe function to use in emergency situations, which is visible from 750 yards away. It also has two beam patterns, wide and narrow, which are controlled by separate LEDs but can be combined for maximum brightness. The Actik uses three AAA batteries, but if you prefer a USB rechargeable option, the CORE lithium-ion battery pack can be purchased separately.
It does have a few problems, though, the first of which is its lack of a brightness regulator, which almost all modern headlamps have. As the Actik’s battery goes dead, the light will dim. It’s a nice reminder to change the batteries, but that kind of loss of performance is frustrating.
In addition, and contrary to some of the information on Petzl’s website claiming a 60-hour burn time, the Actik’s batteries only last for about 90 minutes at maximum brightness. Petzl also claims that the Actik is designed for “active sports,” but the minimalist headband slips off fairly easily, making it a poor choice for activities like running.
Petzl’s Actik is a good choice for consumers who aren’t sure how they’re going to use it. It’s not the brightest, most durable, or most secure, but with its various brightness levels and beam types, it’s a solid choice for the money and won’t disappoint in most situations.
- Two beams types and red light mode
- USB rechargeable (if you buy additional battery pack)
- Dims as battery goes dead
- 90-minute burn time on maximum brightness
- Can slip off during strenuous activity
Fenix is well-known for their ultra-tough tactical flashlights, and the HL60R continues that tradition, making for one of the most rugged on the market.
The HL60R has five brightness levels, plus a red light mode. On the turbo setting, it can put out 950 lumens, but be aware that the batteries will only last for 48 minutes at this brightness. The bulb can also get quite hot, so turbo mode should only be used for short periods of time. The four other modes put out 400, 150, 50, and 5 lumens, with the red light mode emitting 1 lumen.
At 4.3 ounces, it’s a little heavier than Petzl and Black Diamond. A bigger problem is that all of the weight, both the battery pack and bulb housing, are in the front, which can feel a bit unbalanced. However, it’s still light enough to be comfortable during sports like running, and it has an extra strap that goes over the top of your head to keep the light in its proper place.
The Fenix HL60R is good for those who need quite a bit of light in a rugged package. It’s not the cheapest option out there, but when you need reliability, Fenix is the right choice.
- Durable, waterproof construction
- Quite bright with 950-lumen turbo mode
- Five brightness levels, plus red light mode
- Somewhat expensive
- Bulb gets hot in high and turbo mode
- Not very balanced with all the weight in the front
Princeton Tec Apex
Princeton Tec is one of the best-known, made in America, outdoor lighting companies. They consistently produce great products for the military, police departments, commercial divers, and outdoor enthusiasts. The Apex is one of their more popular items, and it’s not hard to see why.
The Apex puts out 350 lumens in high mode (and about half that in low), which is less than some of the others reviewed here, but the beam extends about a hundred yards, which is enough for most outdoor activities. The beam control also allow for floodlight or spotlight illumination, perfect for switching between navigating a dark trail and reading a book at camp. The battery pack is conveniently located on the rear of the headband, which gives it a much more balanced feel.
The downsides to the Apex are almost all related to its battery pack. At full brightness, you’re looking at less than four hours of battery life, which is unfortunate for a headlamp that carries four AA batteries and weighs almost 10 ounces. The Apex also has a strange design that uses a power cord to connect the battery pack to the light. It frequently comes undone, and prevents the user from doing any strenuous activities where it could get jostled. The battery pack is also only slightly waterproof; it might survive a drop in a puddle, but you should leave it open to dry out afterwards.
Because of its weight, poor battery life, and lack of waterproofing, the Apex is mainly good for those who really just care about brightness.
- Balanced design
- Multiple beam types
- Beam range of almost 100 yards
- Heavy, and requires 4 AA batteries
- Poor battery life
- Not very waterproof
The Best LED Head Torch
For most hikers, the Black Diamond Spot is going to be the best option. It’s fairly waterproof, relatively inexpensive, and puts out a sufficient amount of light for most purposes. Other models, like the GRDE Zoomable or Fenix HL60R are brighter, but you probably won’t need that unless you’re going caving. If you need something more durable, though, the Fenix HL60R is a strong contender.
No matter where you use your headlamp, always make sure to carry a fresh set of batteries (or a rechargeable battery pack). Getting lost in the dark is no way to spend a hiking trip.
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