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How to Select the Right Headlamp

There are now hundreds of different types of backpacking headlamps. Finding what is right for you can be frustrating. By following these five basic steps you should be able to find a headlamp that works for you.

Paul Bodnar      Educational       6/16/2021
Paul Bodnar
Educational
6/16/2021

Selecting the right headlamp can be overwhelming. There are hundreds of different headlamps to choose from. However following these 5 simple steps will make it easier for you to decide what headlamp will work for you.

 

STEP 1

Do you want a headlamp for emergency use only?

If you don’t plan on using a headlamp then a lightweight emergency headlamp might be the best choice. Lightweight emergency headlamps put out about 50 lumens of visible light or less and are the lightest type of headlamp you can carry. They provide just enough light to navigate around camp and read. Emergency headlamps are not designed for hiking in the night. If you have to hike at night the illumination will be minimal and you will likely hike a lot slower than normal.

Most long-distance hikers eventually find themselves in a situation where they want to hike in the night. This could be to avoid the daytime heat or to make it to camp. Hiking in the night with an emergency headlamp is not ideal. For this reason most long-distance hikers select a headlamp that produces more illumination. However, if you don’t plan on using a headlamp then the lightweight low lumen headlamp is probably the best choice for you. Just remember to carry some spare batteries and you should be ready to go!. I recommend reading the remaining steps because you might change your mind. Using an emergency headlamp as your only source of light is a big commitment.

Petzl e+LITE ,26 Grams or 0.9 ounces, uses two CR2023 batteries

STEP 2

What headlamp functions do you want?

Power Modes

Most headlamps have at least two power modes, maximum and low power.  A headlamp that has three power modes, maximum power, mid power and low power makes it easy to dial in the exact illumination needed for the situation. This will save a lot of battery power.

Red Light

Another feature that is nice to consider is the red light function on your headlamp. A red light will allow you to maintain more of your night vision and does not attract bugs like the white light.

Strobe Mode

Some headlamps offer a strobe function that would be good to have in an emergency. When a headlamp operates in strobe mode it uses a lot less power than in continuous power mode and is more visible by search and rescue.

Beam Width

A highly focused light will provide more illumination in a concentrated area. This is typically better for hiking. A wide beam will provide a wider area of illumination and this will be better for camp activities. A wide beam light will rapidly dim with distance.

See blog on how distance from the light source impacts illumination.

Tilt

Most headlamps allow for you to tilt the headlamp up and down from the head strap mount. This makes it easy to adjust where the beam focuses while you are walking.

Runtime

It is important that you have a headlamp that will operate for the time you need. Different headlamps have different runtimes. You should always carry spare batteries.

Weight

It is important that you select a headlamp that fits your desired weight criteria.

On/off Switches

Make sure you like the switches that cycle through the different light modes. Some switches have a lock mode so you can’t accidentally turn your light on in your pack.

Water resistance

Most headlamps can withstand some degree of exposure to rain.  Some headlamps can tolerate immersion in water.

STEP 3

What  power level in lumens do you want in your headlamp?

There are three general power ranges.

Less than 100 lumens 

A headlamp that produces less than 100 lumens will not provide enough illumination to hike on a trail without hiking really slow. A headlamp that produces less than 100 lumens is typically the light given off by a lightweight emergency headlamp.

100 to 200 lumens

A headlamp with 100 to 200 lumens will likely provide enough illumination to safely hike well groomed trails at a slow to normal pace.  A headlamp that produces 100 to 200 lumens is typically powered by two AAA batteries and is lighter than brighter headlamps that require three AAA batteries. The 100 to 200 lumen headlamp is best for the hiker that will only occasionally hike during the night. A 100 to 200 lumen headlamp is far superior in illumination to an emergency headlamp that produces less than 100 lumens of visible light.

250 to 500 lumens

A headlamp with 250 to 500 lumens will likely provide enough illumination to safely hike at a normal pace. These headlamps are typically powered by three AAA batteries or a USB rechargeable battery. A 250 to 500 lumen headlamp would be best for a hiker who plans to hike at night. The higher illumination headlamp is also better for hikers that tend to hike fast at night.

STEP 4

Do you want to use disposable batteries or a USB rechargeable battery to power your headlamp?

Headlamps that use disposable batteries weigh about 2.8 ounces (79 grams) and are about 0.3 ounces (9 grams) lighter than headlamps that use a USB rechargeable battery.  The typical cost of a headlamp that uses disposable batteries is around $28 and is about $31 cheaper than a comparable USB rechargeable battery headlamp. The cost difference between the two types is essentially the cost of the rechargeable battery pack. It might seem that choosing a headlamp that uses disposable batteries to be the clear winner. But the long term cost of using disposable batteries can add up. I recommend answering the questions on the Headlamp Battery Calculator to estimate how many disposable batteries you will use on your hike and the approximate cost. Knowing how many batteries you will likely use for your hike and the cost will help you make a more informed choice.

If you decided a USB rechargeable battery headlamp is the best for your hike I still recommend carrying spare disposable batteries for your headlamp.  It is very important to always carry backup batteries while hiking because it is very difficult to know how much charge you have left.

You should never hike in the night without having spare batteries or an alternative light source.

STEP 5

Prioritize Needs, Research and Purchase

You should now have a good idea what you need and what you are looking for in a headlamp based on your personal needs. Create a list of your desired functions (STEP 2), lumen range (STEP 3) and battery type (STEP 4). Now it is time to research the customer reviews of the headlamp that meets your requirements. It is important to keep an open mind and look at both positive and negative comments.

If you are happy with the headlamp features and customer reviews it is time to make the purchase.

 

After your list is complete you should be ready to find the perfect headlamp for your hike.


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A lake reflects a nearby wildflower meadow and trees.
Showers Lake Vista, Tahoe Rim Trail
Photo courtesy of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association

Trail guides that get you to places you’ve dreamed of.

As the makers of Guthook Guides, Bikepacking Guides, and Cyclewayz, we help you navigate the most popular trails around the world on your smartphone. Our hiking guides and biking guides work completely offline. Let Guthook guide your next adventure!

Download our popular hiking and biking guides!
About the Author
A man wearing an Arizona Trail baseball cap stands in a field in front of a mountain.

Paul Bodnar

Paul has always liked hiking and thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 1997 after college. After years of working in chemistry, he wanted to create a career involving the outdoors, so he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail again in 2010 to do research for his guide book Pocket PCT. He realized that creating a smartphone app for navigating the outdoors would make it easier to keep the data current and provide a better way to navigate. While hiking with Ryan (aka Guthook) in 2010, they decided to work together to create the first comprehensive smartphone guide for the Pacific Crest Trail. Now with the help of a team of great people they have created over 50 guides for trails around the world.