Black Diamond Spot

Headlamp Buying Guide – Five Considerations

Buying a headlamp?  Not all headlamps are created equal.  In this article we breakdown five things you should consider when buying your next headlamp.

First things first…LEDs only!

Walk down your favorite store’s headlamp isle and you will see LED headlamps everywhere.  Where did all the incandescent bulbs go?  Into history.  Let’s look at the LEDs versus incandescents:

  • Brightness: Incandescents.  If you have unlimited power (eg. your car) and need lots of light (search and rescue) use incandescents bulbs.
  • Energy Efficiency: LEDs are significantly more energy efficient.  The lumens per watt runs 5-8x higher for LEDs depending on the model.
  • Durability: LEDs are both long-lasting and shock-resistant.  In fact I’ve never seen an LED go out – both personally and with thousands of customers at a backpacking outfitter.  No spares need to be carried – in fact they are not even replaceable.
  • Size and Weight: LEDs are smaller and lighter – Smaller power consumption typically means smaller AAA vs the larger AA batteries used in incandescents.
  • Low battery behavior: LEDs slowly lose brightness, not all at once.  We’ve all experienced incandescent bulbs go from fully on to a faint glow over the course of a few seconds, rendering them useless.  LEDs dim slowly over many, many hours, so if your caught out an extra hour or two with low batteries, you will still see, just maybe 20 feet instead of 25 feet.

Okay, now that we are set on LEDS, let’s get into the five considerations:

1.) Lumens and Beam Pattern

How much light do you need?  How should it be directed? A bright long-distance spotlight or a dim up-close reading light?  Before even looking at headlamps, figure this out.

  • General Campsite Use: The focus here is lots of even, spread out light.  Spotlights should be avoided…your fellow campers’ eyes will thank you.
  • Hiking at night: A mixture of spot and floodlight is needed to see ahead, but also what surrounds you.
  • Night trail running or biking: Definitely need a spotlight to shine well down the trail.
  • Backup light: Using this for backup only? A general purpose light should do the trick.

2.) Size and Weight

LED headlamps have become quite small and light (pun intended), but finding the right headlamp for you is a trade-off.  After all, the best headlamp in the world is useless if you leave it home because it was too heavy or too bulky.  Let’s break down four use types:

  • Heavy use: If you plan on using your headlamp significantly (caving, nighttime hiking, running, etc.), then do not let size and weight deter you from a larger, bright, long-lasting light.  The few ounces of extra weight pay off dividends when you see that stick you would have otherwise tripped over.  These typically have external AA battery pack and weigh about 11 ounces.
  • Moderate use: If you plan most of your activities during the day, and only need your headlamp for general campsite use, midnight walks to the outhouse, occasional pre-dawn hiking, then a good mid-range AAA headlamp with multiple features (spot and flood modes) will serve you well.  These typically use AAA batteries and weigh 3-5 ounces. Our pick: Black Diamond Spot
  • Light use: Hiking during the summer, where it is light past 9:00pm? Using your headlamp at a campground?  A light-duty, two-LED, flood-light style headlamp works well here since most of your activities (meals, setting up camp) is done under the sun.  These are typically inexpensive, lacking the range and multiple modes of the “moderate use” lights.  They use AAA batteries that will last a very long time and weigh 2.5-3.5 ounces.  Our pick: Petzl Zipka or Tikka Headlamps
  • Backup only: If you already have a primary headlamp and want to bring a backup, or are doing a day hike and expect to be back well before dark, an ideal backup/emergency light would be small and light so you always carry it, but also very reliable.  These lights will not have the brightness and distance of your primary, but should give you sufficient light to get home.  These can weigh under an ounce and generally use a watch-style battery.  Our pick: Petzl E+Lite

3.) Multiple Output Features

Another advantage of LEDs is that their brightness can controlled easily.  Nearly all headlamps have a “High”, “Medium” and “Low” mode.

Fully featured headlamps have both a spotlight LED (for long distance) and wide-angle LEDs for general camp use.  Combining the two popular uses (trail and camp) into a single headlamp will always keep you happy.

Red LEDs:  These are used for around camp and map reading in the dark, since red light does not degrade your night vision nearly as much as white light.  A nice feature, but you can live without it.

Strobe Light: The main use of the strobe light is for signaling.  It is easy for designers to include it, so they do.  With it, the marketing team also gets to include a useless battery life number — “batteries last up to 3 weeks!”  Ignore the number and just remember the strobe is there if you ever need to signal someone.

Expert Tip: A great use of the strobe feature is to signal friends who are meeting you after dark.  Turn on the strobe feature and hang your headlamp near the trail.  They will not miss it!  Include a note around the headband so someone walking by does not become concerned or take it thinking it was “lost”.

4.) Brand Name

Brands are often over-hyped.  Typically I’m not a big brand guy, but in the case of headlamps, I’ve seen too many off-brand failures.  I’ve bought and used many headlamps over the years (too many to count!) and I have never had a problem with my name-brand headlamps.  I cannot say the same about my off-brand experiences.

Case and point – Bass Pro Shops Ascend headlamp.  I was looking for a general around the house headlamp and I got a great deal on this (about $20 on clearance) – with both spot and flood lights.  Things started out fine, but after a month or two the light would randomly turn off in use.  Batteries were changed, no different.  It still happens to this day.  I do not trust it in the back woods and only use it around the house and for walking the dog.

Brands to look at are:

  • Petzl
  • Black Diamond
  • Princeton

These companies have spent R&D money creating reliable lights that will work when you need them to.  They cost a few dollars extra, but after you buy two or three of the others, you will be money ahead.

5.) Batteries and Operational Costs

Some newer, ultra-compact headlamps use watch batteries.  They are bright and make great occasional-use or backup headlamps, but get very expensive if you use them regularly.  There are three primarly types of LED batteries:

  • AAA Battery Cells — These are the most popular, and hit a nice balance of size, power and availability.
  • AA Battery Cells — Used on larger LED lights and newer single cell headlamps (only one battery).  A bit heavier, but readily available at any store and might also be what your camera/GPS uses.  The single cells are a nice compromise if you use AAs for your camera.
  • Watch Batteries — Small and lightweight, these are great for tiny LED headlamps, but they can get expensive, particularly given the shorter burn time.  Replacement batteries can be very pricey (~$6 for 2) while on the trail, but can be bought in bulk for significant savings (~$1 each).  I suggest these for backup lights only.

Caution: Be Wary of LED Marketing

LED headlamps are great, but marketing departments have pushed a few things too far.

  • Don’t believe battery times: “120 hours of battery life” – thats great right?  Not really.  Yes, the headlamp will still be “on” after 120 hours, but the light produced will be rather useless.  One of the benefit of LEDs over incandescent bulbs is that they are not an “all or nothing”.  They steadily become dimmer as the batteries die.  This is good since it means you will rarely be out in the woods with no light. The downside here is that marketers use 120 hours as their cutoff, since the light is still on.  To you and I, we would say the light was “dead” at about 20 hours or less.
  • Waterproof: Most headlamps are rated as water-resistant or waterproof.  LEDs are naturally reasonably water-resistant, but if you expect to be out in the rain, and your life will depend on the light, bring a backup.  I do not fear bringing a light out in the rain, but knowing a backup is at hand makes it a bit easier.
  • Durability: Light, small and durable do not always go together.  Most name brand lights are well made and of little concern here. Non-name brand lights are a different story, test the battery compartments and buttons before purchasing.  Typically they are the failure points, or at least eventually become an entry point for water, which in turn kills the light.
  • Red Lights: There are two types of red LEDs.  True red LEDs and white LEDs with a red filter.  The former are great for preserving your night vision while the latter leave a lot to be desired.  Most higher end companies use true red LEDs while the lower companies use red filters — don’t waste your money on these filtered LEDs as they do not preserve night vision, their intended function.

Now you have the facts, so get shopping.  My two personal favorites over the years has been the Black Diamond Spot and Petzl TIKKA lineup.  The former has a very strong spotlight (and flood option), but is a bit larger.  The latter is smaller but lacks the strong spotlight.

Have a question?  Ask it in the comments below or on Facebook.

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