Who has two thumbs and doesn’t want to hold a flashlight? Me. I love the idea of handsfree illumination but finding a headlamp that performs well in multiple conditions and scenarios at a decent price can be tricky.
Will those cheap ones keep working? Are the more expensive headlamps worth the money? We’ve reviewed the best headlamps for various outdoor activities and conditions. We’ve focused on performance, battery life and special features of each model.
So whether you’re hiking, backpacking or trail running here are the best headlamps to light the way.
- Best headlamp for General Purpose Use: Black Diamond Spot
- Brightest Headlamp: Fenix HP25R
- Top Headlamp for Performance: Petzl NAO+
- Best Waterproof Headlamp: Black Diamond Storm
- Top Budget-Buy: Petzl Tikkina
- Best Rechargeable Headlamp: Black Diamond ReVolt
- Best Ultralight Headlamp: Petzl e+LITE
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon
What You'll Learn
- Best Headlamps for Hiking Reviews
- How to Choose a Headlamp
- Headlamp LED types and Modes
- Headlamp Battery Options and Specs
- Other Considerations
Best Headlamps for Hiking Reviews
Best for General Purpose Use: Black Diamond Spot
- Simple, no fuss design
- Lightweight – 3.1oz
- Brightness memory – turns on at the setting you had before switching off
- Seven lighting modes – including red light
- Very comfortable strap
- IPX-8 rated but battery compartment isn’t
This low profile head torch offers great performance and will cater for various activities. It’s light and comfortable enough to use while running but offers good floodlighting and close proximity illumination too.
The 3 LEDs and 7 lighting modes give you plenty of versatility, including a red light night-vision mode. We love that it has a brightness memory. This means that when you switch it on you don’t have to cycle through the modes to get back to the brightness setting you had before.
This isn’t the best headlamp to use in heavy rain. Although it’s IPX-8 rated, the battery compartment isn’t, which rather defeats the purpose.
The 300-lumen output and 80-meter beam distance coupled with plenty of versatility and a good price make this a great general purpose headlamp.
Brightest: Fenix HP25R
- Extremely bright – Up to 1000 lumens, 187 meters
- Rechargeable via micro-USB
- 60-degree tilt mechanism offer versatile aiming
- IPX-6 rated – will withstand heavy rain
- Heavy and bulky
In Turbo mode it puts out 1000 lumens and will shine a beam almost 600 feet. The insane brightness comes at a weight and battery runtime cost.
It’s pretty heavy at 8.4 ounces and has a rather average quoted battery life of 2.5 hours on high. Still, that’s not bad considering the high output, and the 4 brightness levels give you a good degree of battery management options.
We like the fact that you can recharge the battery without removing it via a micro-USB port. It uses two separate LEDs for the spot and flood with the flood offering pretty good close-proximity performance.
You wouldn’t want to drop it in water but the IPX-6 rating means it’ll be fine in persistent rain.
Top for Performance: Petzl NAO+
- Reactive lighting technology eliminates manual mode settings – true handsfree
- Excellent close up and long distance illumination – 140 meters max beam
- Extremely bright – 750 lumens max output
- 2600mAh rechargeable battery offers good battery life
- High price tag
- Reactive lighting technology not quite perfect yet
The Reactive Lighting technology senses when you need long distance spotlighting or close up illumination. It automatically adjusts the angle and brightness of the illumination for true handsfree illumination.
Besides eliminating the hassle factor it also means you’re never using more battery than you need. It’s a cool idea and, when it works, it offers a level of convenience that other headlamps don’t.
The technology isn’t foolproof yet and sometimes it will switch modes if the sensor encounters some dust or rain. This model is also ridiculously bright with a max output of 750 lumens. It’s powered by a strong 2600mAh battery that offers above average run time.
It has loads of brightness and light cone settings that you can even adjust via Bluetooth using the Petzl phone app. The app will also let you know how much luminous time you have left before the battery dies.
We like that you can use the app to tell the head torch that you need it to last for a certain amount of hours. It will then manage the brightness for you.
If you’re an early adopter and are happy to pay for above-average performance then you’ll love the Petzl NAO.
Best Waterproof model: Black Diamond Storm
- IPX-7 rated – excellent waterproof performance
- Robust, durable design
- Decent battery life
- Bright – 350 lumens, good beam and close up performance
- Red, green and blue modes
- Lockout mode prevents accidental activation
- Easy dimming and instant bright setting with PowerTap
- A little heavy at a smidge over 4 ounces
It uses Quad Power and Double Power LEDs to deliver a maximum 350 lumens output for equally good trail-finding and close-proximity illumination.
It offers decent battery life but because it uses 4 AAA batteries but that makes it slightly heavier. The extra weight is worth it though as you’ll get around 5 hours of high mode operation and about 40 hours in low mode.
We like that the red, green and blue modes have dimming and strobe settings that you can select without having to cycle through the white light mode. This is great for retaining your night vision.
Holding the mode select button in adjusts the brightness and a quick touch on the PowerTap sensor gives you instant max brightness. Touching it again takes you back to your previous brightness setting.
There may be better performing torches out there but the excellent waterproof performance makes this an above average option for wet weather hiking.
Top Budget-Buy: Petzl Tikkina
- Great value at a good price
- Great for close proximity use
- Three brightness settings – easy push button selection
- Adjustable lamp angle
- Lightweight – 3.03oz
- Not bright enough for trail finding
There are no bells and whistles but the simplicity and ease of use add to the appeal of this light. Petzl quote a 60 hour run time on the high setting but in reality, you’ll get around half that which is still pretty good.
The wide beam offers great campsite performance and will give you an illuminated area about 5 feet across at an 8-foot distance. It’s not bright enough to shine a beam much further than 60 meters but that’s still pretty good considering the budget price.
So you’re not going to be heading up any search parties with this headlamp but it offers above average performance around the campsite.
Best Rechargeable: Black Diamond ReVolt
- Convenient charging via micro-USB
- Can also use disposable batteries
- 3 level power meter for easy battery monitoring
- Lockout mode prevents accidental operation
- IPX-8 rated, durable casing
- Beam distance is below average
You can even use other brand rechargeables but the internal charger won’t work with them. The batteries it comes with have a 1000mAh capacity but will only give you a below-average hour or so at the high setting.
The micro-USB charging port means you can connect your solar panel or power bank to charge it up again. We like the 3 level power meter that gives you a good idea of how much battery life you’ve got left in the tank.
At 80 meters the beam distance is not great but it offers good close-up illumination. If you’re tired of the cost of constantly replacing batteries and want decent performance then this is a solid option.
Best Ultralight: Petzl e+LITE
- Extremely compact and light – weighs less than an ounce
- IPX-7 rated – good waterproof performance
- 3 easy to select modes – red, white, strobe
- Low light output – only 50 lumens
- Uses 2032 batteries – hard to find, expensive
This headlamp is ultralight, not ultra-bright. The 50 lumens max output is fine for in the tent and around the campsite but not much more. The low light output does mean that the battery life is above average.
Also, you can leave the batteries in for years without any issues. It uses 2032 batteries which are a little harder to find and more expensive than AAA but they are a lot smaller and lighter.
When it’s off, it’s properly off, with no drain on the battery like you get with some models. The rotating switch makes it easy to select the different lighting modes.
We like that you can go from the red light mode straight to “off” without having to go through the white light settings.
This headlamp is so lightweight and comfortable to wear that you’ll probably forget you’re wearing it.
How to Choose a Headlamp
Understanding the specs
When you read manufacturers’ descriptions or headlamp reviews there are a few common terms and specifications that you’ll come across.
There’s no need to get all scientific about it but a basic understanding of the different specs will help you choose the best for your needs.We’ll get into these in more detail below but here’s a quick look at some specs:
- Brightness Quoted in lumens, this figure gives you a rough guide for brightness comparison. The higher the number, the more light it delivers.
- Beam type The headlamp beam is either a spot beam (narrow, long distance) or a flood beam (wider area, short distance).
- Beam distance How far the beam will shine
- Adjustable focus Some headlamps will have an adjustable focus ring to change the beam type from spot to flood. A lot of the best torches have dispensed with the focus ring and rely on 2 or 3 separate LEDs for different illumination distances and angles.
- Mode Different brightness, color or strobe settings that you can select
- IPX rating Indicates the level of water resistance of body and casing.
- Runtime How long the batteries last before the light output drops to 10% of the maximum brightness
- Battery type Does it use disposable, rechargeable or can it use both?
While you do get general-use head torches, it’s worth buying one that has the features you need for your specific activity. If you’re going to be trail running then low weight and a secure, comfortable strap will be more important than a myriad of functions or adjustable focus.
For alpine use or spelunking, durability is going to be crucial. Will you be using it around the camp, night trekking or both?
You’ll need to take that into consideration when selecting a beam distance and the ability to vary it.
For night time summit attempts (eg. Kilimanjaro) you’ll want good battery life as they drain quickly in the cold.
Headlamp vs Flashlight vs Lantern vs Phone App
Do you really need a headlamp? The ability to have hands-free illumination is great but will you need it that often? Will a flashlight do instead?
A small flashlight may not offer the hands-free capability but often delivers brighter light, a longer run time and easier maneuverability.
A decent camping lantern will deliver far more light to a larger area. Even the LED on your phone will be plenty bright enough in a pinch.
That said, if you’re running, climbing, caving or even cooking on a campfire, a headlamp can be useful.
Brightness: How Many lumens do I need?
Every year LED manufacturers make significant improvements to the light output their products produce.
Some of the cheaper ones available put out double or triple the lumens you got from the best ones from a few years ago.
But how bright is bright enough? That all depends on the range of activities you’ll need the light for as well as the conditions.
- Around the campsite and for close-up illumination you’d be fine with an output of between 25 and 150 lumens.
- As soon as you need to see further down the trail to plan your route you should be aiming the other side of 200 lumens.
- The faster you move, the further ahead you’ll need to see. If you’re running or biking then you’ll want your lower limit to be no less than 250 lumens.
- If you’re heading into complete darkness or exploring a cave then you’ll need to compensate and aim above 250 lumens.
At 250 to 350 lumens maximum output you’d cover most scenarios. Anything more than that may give you bragging rights but you’ll pay the price in weight and a shorter battery life.
You should only use the lumen output as a rough comparison guide. Lumens refer to light output in any direction. The optics and how you focus the beam determines how effectively that light works to illuminate the area you need to see.
Headlamp LED types and Modes
Even the cheaper models have multiple modes of operation. In its simplest form it will use an LED that will either deliver either a spot or a flood beam.
The optics and brightness of the LED will determine how much light you get, how much area it illuminates and how far ahead the beam can shine.
Additional colors and a variety of operating modes give you extra versatility.
Spot vs Flood Beam
The spot beam is a narrow, focused beam that uses the maximum brightness setting to illuminate as far down the trail as possible.
This is great if you’re running, cycling or trying to plan your route. The flood beam offers a wider distribution of light, illuminating an area, rather than a spot. This is more suited to close proximity use around the campsite.
Some headlamps will have a focus ring so you can vary the beam width and throw. Others use separate LEDs to give you the option of beam or flood by switching between modes.
Sometimes referred to as the “throw”, the beam distance gives you an idea of how far ahead you can illuminate. The figure quoted in the specs refers to the distance at which the beam would offer the same illumination you’d get from a full moon.
The longer the beam, the narrower it will be and the less suited to closer proximity illumination. Being able to shine a light 300 feet is great if you’re running at night but not great if you’re trying to set up your tent in the dark.
Decide what the maximum distance is that you need and don’t get taken in by the hype that further is necessarily better.
Also, note that they measure quoted beam distance with a full battery and this will lessen as the battery discharges.
Most headlamps only put out a white light while the better ones will also have red, green or blue light modes and filters.
Even on its lowest setting the white LED light can be too bright and uncomfortable to look at directly. If you’re sitting around the camp talking to your fellow backpackers the red light offers enough illumination without blinding the person you’re speaking to.
The red light also works well as a comfortable reading light while hunters use the blue light. The other advantage of a red light mode is that it puts less strain on your eyes.
Because the red light doesn’t cause your eyes to dilate, you retain your night vision when you switch off the light.
Having a strobe mode that flashes continuously gives you a great way to signal in case of emergency without running your battery down.
Some trail-running headlamps will also have a rear-facing strobe light for additional safety when running along a road.
Headlamp Battery Options and Specs
Runtime / Battery Life
When quoting the runtime, or battery life, of a headlamp pretty much every manufacturer is more than a little liberal with the truth.
When a spec says that it has a beam distance of 200 feet, puts out 300 lumens and a has a battery life of 30 hours it does not mean that it will shine a 300 lumen beam for 200 feet for 30 hours.
If the manufacturer quotes the battery runtime according to the ANSI FL-1 standard then the runtime is the time measured from maximum brightness to 10% of that brightness.
The fact is that most manufacturers have abandoned this standard so they can keep giving misleading battery life figures.
Nowadays, battery runtime quoted refers to the time from maximum brightness to a point where it would produce the same brightness as a full moon at a distance of 2 meters.
A full moon producing that kind of light all around you is great. A head lamp producing a small spot of that light is pretty useless and you probably would have turned it off long before it got to that point.
As a rule of thumb, take the quoted battery life and divide by anywhere between 2 and 10, depending on the reputation of the manufacturer. This will give you a better feel for the useable amount of operation time you can expect.
A rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery pack will extract maximum brightness from your headlamp for the longest time. These packs can be pricey and heavy.
Regular Alkaline AAA or AA batteries are lightweight and inexpensive but don’t offer the same performance. If you’re not going to be using it that often, and you don’t need blinding light then go for a cheaper AAA battery powered option.
If you need maximum brightness and reliability then a rechargeable battery pack is the way to go. Some models have a hybrid battery system that allows you to use either the rechargeable battery pack or AAA cells.
If you’re going to be using your headlamp in cold conditions then it’s worth spending a bit more to get a lithium powered one. Lithium batteries perform far better in the cold than Alkaline ones do.
Battery level indicator
Having a battery level indicator, even a simple 3 level one, helps to manage your battery life and avoid any surprises. If you see the indicator showing a half or a third remaining you’re likely to be more frugal with the brightness!
Headlamp Weight Considerations
The biggest contributor to weight will be the headband and the battery pack. If you’re looking to shave a few ounces then here’s what to do:
- Opt for a single strap rather than dual-strap
- Choose a 2 or 3 cell battery pack, or even coin cells if the reduced brightness is acceptable
- Skip the multi-function headlamps and go for simplicity
Single button operation is great but if the headlamp has multiple modes make sure it has a memory function to save you having to cycle through the modes each time you switch it on.
A lockout function is also great if you want to avoid accidentally switching it on in your pack and draining the battery.
Durability and Water Resistance
Cheaper models may be equally bright as the more expensive ones but the durability of the materials is worth noting.
Will it survive the inevitable drops and bangs you’re bound to put it through? How will it fair if it gets wet?
You may not need to get an IPX-8 rated fully waterproof headlamp but something in the IPX-4 to IPX-6 range is worth considering if you want to keep the lights on in the rain.
Straps and carrying comfort
You want your headlamp to be comfortable to wear. That means having a band that doesn’t squeeze you but is still tight enough to keep the light stable while you move around.
If you’re considering one with a large battery pack, make sure it’s located at the rear of the strap for good balance.
If you intend running with the headband opt for a broader strap or even a dual strap (overhead) option to keep the light from bobbing all over the place.
Well, what now?
There are literally hundreds of cheap models on the market today. If you’re looking for something to use at home in case of a power failure then one of those will do fine.
If you’re heading outdoors and want some serious light you can depend on then you’ll need to spend a little more. The best headlamp doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
Your best value lies in one that has average brightness, good battery life and features that you’ll actually use. Any one of the products in the reviews above will be a great addition to your outdoor gear.
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