How to Choose a Headlamp

Photo: Scott Kranz/TandemStock

How To Choose the Best Headlamp: 6 Things You Should Consider Before Buying a Headlamp

You don’t need us to tell you how important it is to have a light after dark. But not just any light will do. You don’t want to be stuck night-hiking with a beam better suited for reading a book, so use this guide to lumens, features, and power to zero in on the best headlamp for you.

What will you use it for?

Answer this question before you start your search. If you need a headlamp for camp chores and reading, don’t get tempted by expensive features you won’t use. If you’ll be starting a summit push at 2 a.m., don’t cut corners on brightness and beam distance. Trail running after dark? You want low weight and stability.    

Brightness (Lumens)

Almost all headlamps use LEDs, because they're durable and efficient. But they differ considerably in brightness, which is measured in lumens. Technically, lumens measure the amount of light output at the source, so headlamp design can affect how bright and focused the beam looks, but lumens are the best measure to start with. If you just need a headlamp for camp—cooking, reading, etc.—then something in the lower end of the range will work great (100 to 150 lumens), but if you’re doing something more technical, like mountaineering, you’ll want to look for something higher (300 lumens or more). Many headlamps let you choose between high, medium, and low brightness settings to dial in what you need while saving power. No surprise: Price goes up as lumens go up.   

Beam Distance 

If you’re doing something active in the dark, like trail running, you’re going to want a beam with a greater distance so you can actually see where you’re going. Backpackers and campers don’t need a huge beam distance if they plan to do basic things like set up camp at night. Best of both worlds: Brightness settings let you adjust beam distance to illuminate whatever scene you're in. Just remember that the highest advertised beam distance (100 meters is common) will be for the brightest beam setting, which drains batteries fast. The lowest setting could reduce beam distance to 10 meters or less, which is fine for camp and greatly improves battery life.   

Beam Type

Wide or flood: This is best for camp chores and general use. As the name implies, the beam is spread out to light a larger area. 

Narrow or spot: This type of beam focuses the light on a narrower area, for a brighter effect where you need it most.

Combo: Some headlamps let you switch back and forth between the two.

Battery life

Run time: Most manufacturers call battery life run time, and it measures the amount of time you can expect to have “useful” light. As most headlamps start to run out of power, they become noticeably less bright—the light fades over time. Some models have a regulated output, which means they’ll maintain consistent brightness until the battery dies and then go dark abruptly (they usually have a battery life indicator so this shouldn’t catch you by surprise). You want to understand the run time of each mode in order to avoid losing light when you need it. The difference between each mode can be great, such as 2 hours on high versus 100 hours on low. 

Power source: Lithium batteries are better than alkaline batteries in cold temperatures, and if you use a rechargeable battery bring a set of regular batteries as backup, since a spare rechargeable will lose power over time while sitting in your backpack. Always carry extra batteries (best insurance: carry them in an extra headlamp); you can also bring a battery pack or solar panel for rechargeables. Some headlamps have external battery packs, to boost power, but these models are heavier and more bulky than other options and overkill for folks who aren’t caving or doing other activities that require max brightness for extended periods. 

Features

Brightness modes: As mentioned above, the ability to change brightness is a great feature, and it’s fairly common on new headlamps. 

Strobe: Some headlamps also have a strobe option for emergencies. 

Red light: This mode is great for moments when you’re relying on your night vision but need a little extra light (like for reading a map). Red light doesn’t dilate your pupils, so it won’t disrupt your night vision. (Headlamps for fishing often have blue and green light options to avoid spooking the fish.)

Tilt: This lets you direct the beam where you need it without having to move your head. For example: pointing the headlamp down to illuminate the few feet of trail ahead of you.

Lock: This feature lets you lock the headlamp in off mode and it’s crucial––you don’t want to pull your headlamp out at dusk only to find it’s been lighting up the inside of your pack all day. No lock mode? Remove the batteries or turn them around so your headlamp can’t accidentally turn on.  

Waterproofing: Many headlamps are water resistant, and some are actually waterproof. If you want waterproof, look for an IPX7 or IPX8 rating, which means the light can be submerged (check the manufacturer’s claims for details on duration and depth).  

Senors/programming: Some higher-priced headlamps use sensors to automatically adjust output and brightness. Others let you program your preferences.  

Weight 

Finding a lightweight, compact headlamp is not a challenge. Most models weigh from 1 to 4 ounces and pack neatly away (specialty headlamps, like ones for caving or canyoneering, have more power and features and can weigh as much as 12 ounces). About 3 ounces is the sweet spot for a versatile headlamp that balances brightness, efficiency, features, and weight. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.