How to Choose the Right Headlamp

Text by: Kelsey Begg

Black Diamond, Petzl. How to Choose the Right Headlamp

Whether you’re finishing the last stretch of a hike or cooking at basecamp, having enough light to see what you are doing without busying up both hands is definitely luxury which is why the headlamp was created. They even come in handy at home where holding a flashlight could pose as an inconvenience. 

Like any piece of gear or equipment, headlamps have evolved over the years and today most use LEDs for their light source due to the fact that they are energy-efficient, robust and have a long lifetime. Now that you’ve decided you want to add a headlamp to your outdoor adventure collection, the next step is deciding which one.

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What Do You Need the Headlamp For?

First things first, what are you going to be using the headlamp for? This initial usage will give you a better idea of how technical the headlamp needs to be. If you are using it simply for cooking dinner in the dark after a long hike, you won’t need the cream of the crop in performance. If you are using the headlamp for cycling singletrack at night, climbing, caving or other adventures where you are in the dark quite often, you will want to invest in a headlamp with a larger lumen count and a headlamp with an adjustable beam.

Everything You Need to Know About Headlamp Beams

the headlamp beam as it sounds is the beam of light which is produced. As the models range so does the strength of the beam and its technical abilities. Choosing the right type of beam will either make or break your headlamp experience so choose wisely and don’t opt for the cheapest model just to save money.

  • Flood Beam: Most general use headlamps will have a flood beam which provides a wide beam of light. These are often the most common types o beam after adjustable beams. They are great for reading in the dark, general tasks around camp or tasks where you need to work up close.

bl;ack diamond stride headlamp

Black Diamond

Stride Headlamps – 25 Lumens

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petzl tikkina 150 lumens

Petzl

Tikkina – 150 Lumens

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  • Spot Beam: Headlamps with a spot beam will provide a focused or narrow beam of light. These are ideal for people who are looking for a style of a headlamp that will work for seeing in the dark for long-distances, for example, cycling at night or following a trail in the dark.

black diamond iota headlamp

Black Diamond

Iota Headlamp – 150 Lumens

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  • Adjustable Beam: If you’re looking for a headlamp that will be ideal for a variety of activities, an adjustable beam is what you want. These headlamps are the most versatile and have settings that offer a flood beam as well as a spot beam.

petzl tactikka headlamp

Petzl

Tactikka + RGB – 250 Lumens

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petzl reactik 220 lumens

Petzl

REACTIK 220 Lumens

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Along with the different beam types, there are also different brightness levels and modes on most headlamps. More advanced headlamps will have multiple modes so you can adjust your beam to accommodate your needs. 

  • Strobe: This is ideal for the cyclist who may ride on roads at night. The strobe mode can also be used as an emergency blinker if you are in a serious situation and need to signal for help or be easily visible.
  • Low: All headlamps will have their standard mode which is the low mode that can be used for general tasks or easy walks in the dark.
  • Mid: Mid-range headlamps will offer the mid mode which simply gives users a second option.
  • High: When you need ample lighting, you need the high mode. This is more commonly found in the higher range or top-level headlamps.
  • Boost: This particular mode isn’t commonly found on all headlamps as it only lasts a few short second and easily drains the headlamps charge. This can be useful for those with that extra bit of curiosity as the boost mode provides and extra-intense beam so you can see whats making that little shadow off in the distance.

Everything You Need to Know About Headlamp Output & Run Time

Headlamp beam output is calculated in Lumens which is the amount of light that is emitted per second by the light source. The higher the lumens, the stronger the beam of light. It is important to understand that the lumens relate to the brightness of a headlamp whereas the distance relates to how far a headlamp can project usable light. This distance is measured in meters and can usually be found in the product descriptions and specs.

Keep in mind that a headlamp with a higher lumen count will consume more energy at a higher rate compared to a headlamp with a lower lumen count so if you are relying on the headlamp for hours on end, you may want to bring backup batteries or a means of charging. The runtime of a headlamp is generally calculated until the headlamp can no longer produce light brighter than a full moon at 2 meters. It’s good to recognize this point so that you don’t unexpectedly end up in the dark. 

Rechargeable VS Battery-Powered Headlamps

Next thing to think about is whether you prefer rechargeable or battery powered. I personally prefer rechargeable because remembering to pack extra batteries is easily forgotten when I’m amidst a packing frenzy. Keep in mind though that if you opt for a rechargeable headlamp, you will need a power source to charge it if you are in the backcountry. There are portable chargers available from brands such as Goal Zero but it is important to remember 1. to pack and . to ensure the charger is juiced up before you leave.

For an extended backcountry adventure, a battery-powered headlamp may be the best and most reliable option but if you only use your headlamps for short trips at a time, a rechargeable one can easily do the job. 

If you choose a battery-powered headlamp, ensure that you are aware of what type of batteries and how many batteries the headlamp takes before you head to the stores. This little tidbit of information will keep you from making multiple trips trying to get the right kind.

For those who are on the fence and like the idea of a battery-charged headlamp but not the waste, you can operate your headlamp with rechargeable batteries so you get the best of both worlds. Again, you have to keep in mind that you will need to keep the batteries charged while in the backcountry. This also eliminates excess waste from finding it’s way into landfills.

Other Cool Features to Look For

When you’re shopping for a headlamp there are multiple features that will influence your purchase based on your immediate needs. Other features such as a red light mode are simply added features that can only make the purcahse that much easier. Below are a few great features to look out for when shopping for a new headlamp.

  • Red Light Mode: This feature is especially handy for those looking to do general tasks at night in close quarters with fellow adventures. The red light has a lot less harsh impact on your eyes and doesn’t cause your pupils to shrink like white light does.
  • Tilt Option: Some headlamps will have a tilt option which allows you to tilt the headlamp to meet your needs. Others are set in place and can be inconvenient for specific tasks.
  • Water Resistance: If you’re going to be doing a fair amount of exploring near water sources or traveling in the rain, opting for a waterproof headlamp is an ideal choice.

At the end of the day, all headlamps have their perks and are certainly a convenient tool for adventures in the backcountry or even just small chores around the house. 

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