Photo: Christopher Mabey/Tandemstock

How To Choose the Right Lights for Running at Night

Your guide to shopping for headlamps and waist- and chest-mounted lights.

Running in the dark can be great: While others are tucked cozily in bed, you’re out trucking along on the road or trail with the cool and the quiet of the night, the moon and the stars all to yourself. But if you run at odd hours, you’ll need a good light to illuminate your path. This is also true if you’re lacing up for an ultramarathon, as you’ll likely be out in the pre-dawn or post-dusk hours for training and during the race itself.

Here’s your guide to getting the right lighting system for your running needs.

Where To Wear a Light

There are a few general types of lights suitable for running, and each has its own pros and cons.

Headlamps

Headlamps illuminate where you’re looking, which is usually at the ground a few feet ahead of you, and they have the advantage of keeping your hands free. They also work great for other activities, like camping and hiking (or even some household chores). Of course, wherever you point your head—at your watch, your running partner, a street sign, toward a sound in the woods—is where the light will shine, which can be both good and bad.

Waist- and Chest-Mounted Lights

A key benefit with these types of lights is that, like headlamps, they provide hands-free illumination. They also shine from a lower point on your body than headlamps, which can provide better visibility, and they won’t blind your running partner when you look in their direction (which can happen while wearing a headlamp).

Handheld Lights

These allow you to point the light exactly where you want it, which you can’t easily do with waist- or chest-mounted lights. They also minimize the tendency for blinding your running partner. The downside is that they’re not hands-free, and you have to keep one hand still in order to get a steady beam as you run.

Photo: pixfly

Weight

All lights intended for runners aim to reduce as much weight as possible, but some are heavier than others. You’ll have to balance a light’s features against its weight to find the best option for you. Some headlamps and chest- and waist-mounted lights have separate battery packs that you wear on the back of your head or on your back, which distributes the load.

Generally, the more powerful the beam (usually measured in lumens, see below), the heavier the system, though most lights reduce this by utilizing lightweight case materials.

Types of Beams

Most new lights utilize LED bulbs that shine in spot beams, wide beams, or both.

Spot Beams

This pattern creates a cone of light from you to the path, road, or trail ahead. They offer targeted light and are pretty much imperative for runners.

Wide Beams

These cast a broad swath of light that’s more dispersed than a spot beam. Wide beams are useful for lighting up large areas.

Variable Beams

Lights that can cycle between the two beam patterns are referred to as having variable beams.

Other Functions

A light may have other functions besides just plain white light. These include a flashing strobe setting, which can make you more visible to rescuers in an emergency, and a red light setting. The red light is most often used when looking at a running partner (the red light preserves their night vision). Some lights also have rear-facing red lights to make you more visible to traffic approaching from behind.

Brightness

The brightness of a light is measured in lumens. For road running under streetlights, you can likely get away with something as low as 150 lumens. For road running without streetlights, you’ll need a light of 200 lumens or more. For trail running, you’ll need something even brighter—at least 300 lumens or higher. Also keep in mind that you can wear a combination of lights, like a waist-mounted light and a headlamp, to get more total illumination.

Beam Distance

How far ahead the light shines is another key factor when comparing lights. Most models meant for running will have low, medium, and high settings. The light will illuminate the farthest at its highest setting, but the high mode will also drain the battery faster.

Battery Types

Battery life and battery type (i.e. replaceable vs. rechargeable) will vary between models. While battery type is largely a matter of preference (will you remember to keep buying new batteries, or will you remember to keep your light charged before each run?), long battery life is always a plus. And if you’re running long distances, it’s essential. Look for models that have a battery charge indicator so you can always know how much battery life the light has at a glance.

Other Features to Consider

Finally, today’s lights come with a few other features that can be helpful depending on where and when you run. 

Water Resistance

If you live in a wet climate or will be racing in wet conditions, make sure the headlamp or light you’re purchasing is water-resistant. 

Tilting

Especially if you’re running trails, make sure the light can be adjusted to tilt downward. A light that only shoots a beam straight ahead will have you looking down excessively.

Overall Ease of Use

Make sure the light’s buttons are easy and intuitive to use, especially if you’ll be running with gloves or mittens. You don’t want to be futzing with buttons as you run, especially during a race.

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.