Be sure to check our Gear Guide to LED Headlamps.
If your brain isn’t overwhelmed by all the variables in our primer on LED headlamps, it’s time to go shopping. Your first priority should be to define your needs, then come up with a list of headlamps (or handheld flashlights) that match them. Try to test them all before selecting. If you’re a fair-weather backpacker who hikes mostly in the summer, you might be able to get away with a button cell microlight such as the popular Photon II or III. Weighing mere grams, it will still provide enough light to rummage through your pack or stir a pot of food by, and can be modified to attach to a cap for hands-free use (use self-stick Velcro or a binder clip). However, if you’re caught on the trail after dark, only those with owl-like night vision will find it possible to navigate anything but boulevard-like trails using one.
For non-technical trail navigation, a photo cell headlamp such as the Black Diamond Ion or PrincetonTec Scout give a brighter beam and hands-free operation at a little more than an ounce or two.
One of the compact LED headlamps driven by three AAA batteries can be considered the next step up. The Petzl Tikka and Zipka series, the Black Diamond Moonlights, the Princeton Tec Aurora and similar lights are still lightweight, while giving plenty of light for non-technical nighttime navigation and in-camp chores, such as hanging a bearbag – tasks for which button cell lights are overmatched. Used prudently, a single set of batteries can last a season and the light, with batteries, only weighs about three ounces.
Bigger, brighter headlamps come in a vast array of configurations. If you’re a predawn climber, a nighttime explorer, or go on long hikes on short winter days, you’ll probably want a hybrid headlamp or a multi LED multi mode headlamp that puts out serious light for traveling and frugal (battery-saving) light for your time in camp. We’re in a transition period during which more-sophisticated and powerful voltage-regulated LED lamps (like the Photon Fusion) will likely displace incandescent and even hybrid headlamps as the backcountry standard.
Headlamps vary in layout. Here are some design options to consider while shopping.
Headlamps have either a single, adjustable elastic headband or a band plus a top strap. Some straps are only large enough to fit around the head, while others can be sized to allow fitting on a helmet. The top strap helps stabilize the light and keeps it from slipping while you’re on the move, but some folks find them annoying. In response, some headlamps have a removable top strap – perhaps the best of both worlds.
The Battery Pack:
The batteries sometimes are stored in front, inside the lamp unit itself, sometimes in a battery pack attached the back of the head connected by a cable, and sometimes kept in a remote battery pack that’s not part of the headlamp itself, also connected by a cable. Bulk, balance and battery warmth are all considerations when selecting which configuration. The simplest, smallest models have everything in the lamp unit. The Petzl Tikka, Petzl Zipka and Princeton Tec Aurora are all examples. These tend to be a bit front-heavy in use and, because they don’t have center straps, can slide down your forehead while you’re active. But they’re also the lightest and most compact available. Informal field observations lead us to believe that the batteries don’t stay as warm in these lamps as they do with back-mounted battery packs.
Back-mounted batteries are generally the standard configuration for larger, higher powered headlamps. With the weight divided fore and aft and with a center strap, the headlamp will tends to stay in place on your head. When it’s cold, you can keep the batteries warm by wearing the headlamp under a jacket hood, increasing their life. Some headlamps put as many as three AA batteries up front but use a combination headband and over the crown strap to solve the slippage problem.
Remote battery packs allow you to keep the batteries warm and out of the way inside your coat, pants pocket or backpack. Very large battery packs, such as those using multiple C-cells, are too heavy and too bulky to keep on your head. Routing the connecting cable so that you don’t snag it at an inopportune time can be a challenge, though.
The Lamp Head:
Lamp heads vary in design: some can be aimed by changing their angle, while others are fixed. The aimable (pivoting) ones are quite handy. Incandescent lamp heads generally have adjustable beams, focusing from spot to flood; LED lamps have fixed focus (unless they have switchable LED arrays). An LED lamp head that sits too close to the head can create annoying glare, especially for glasses wearers, because stray light can hit glasses lenses or even the eyes. Compare, for example, the Princeton Tec Aurora with the Black Diamond Moonlight. The Moonlight places the LEDs farther from the forehead, reducing the possibility of stray light hitting the face. Some headlamps are waterproof while others are open to the elements. While intruding rain won’t necessarily spell ruin to an LED light, sweat or saltwater certainly may – plus there’s the possibility of switch failure.
As noted earlier, LEDs come prefocused, so the lamp maker controls beam pattern by selecting and arranging them in the headlamp. Hybrid lights, whether LED/LED or incandescent/LED generally switch between a bright narrow high beam and a floodlight style low beam. With incandescent high beams, the beam itself is usually adjustable. Simpler lights – single or multiple LED with no options – have non-adjustable patterns that range from a spot to a circle to an oval, depending on model and maker. Also note that the beam thrown by a white LED generally has some intensity and color variation. It’s common to see a blue or purple fringe around the center white pool of light. This can be annoying for activities like reading. Some multi LED lights use a combination of focused and wide beam LED in combination with a reflector to have a lighting pattern that has a bright central beam but also good peripheral illumination.
There are pushbuttons, slide switches and twist switches. Lights having multiple modes may have one switch that does everything, or two switches – one for power and one for mode selection. Ideally, a switch will be easy to reach and use in all conditions, waterproof and won’t accidentally switch on in your pack. In practice, most switches are compromises from this ideal. It’s difficult to test switches in the store with cold, gloved hands, but you should at least keep the possibility in mind when shopping. (Editor’s Note: The true test of the usability of a winter torch? The ability to operate the switch while wearing mittens.)
How to Test?
The best way to decide which light is right for you is to borrow several and try them out. Next best is to read comprehensive, sometimes amusing, and sophisticated reviews online. In-store testing helps, but has its limitations. First, the store is brightly lit and your eyes will be daylight adjusted. Second, you have no way of knowing the battery condition in the various lights. Even so, playing with them in person means you can test whether they fit well, see their beam patterns and decide whether you can easily operate their switches, at least at 75 degrees. Be sure to move your head and bounce up and down to find out whether they stay put.
When REI first opened Gear Nirvana – their Seattle flagship store on Yale Avenue – they had the perfect solution: an enclosed diorama for their bicycle headlights. You stood at a rail in this darkened room and pressed buttons to switch on the various lights, illuminating the display (which had bushes, rocks, critters, etc.). The lights were powered by transformers, so that you knew you were comparing them all at full power. Something similar would be fantastic for comparing flashlights and headlamps. Retailers?