How to Choose the Perfect Headlamp: The Backpacker’s Guide
I have been thinking way too much about headlamps lately. I think a headlamp might be my favorite piece of gear. Believe it or not, my first hiking trip wasn’t until I was 21. I’m 23. My first piece of gear was a headlamp. I had no idea what lumens or settings or weight to consider. Once I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, I delved into the many models of headlamps. I have gone the cheap route, the expensive route, the powerful, and the lightweight.
To determine what headlamps to choose for the trail, you must first evaluate how you want to hike and what options are important to you (weight, waterproof, run time, etc).
Related reading: The Best Headlamps for Thru-Hiking in 2018
Headlamps Differ from These Specific Characteristics:
Bulb (LEDs): Stands for Light-Emitting Diodes. LEDs come in various sizes based on their diameter, 1 mm, 3mm, 5mm. The larger the diameter usually means the brighter.
Beam Type: Some headlamps provide different beam widths either Flood (Wide) or Spot (focused, narrow).
Lumens: Lumens means the brightness or how powerful the light radiates from its source.
Weight: The weight is usually represented in ounces or grams.
Beam Distance (Meters): The beam distance is how far the beam shines.
Lighting Modes: Headlamps can come with different modes such as red, low, medium, high beam, boost (extra intense beam) and strobe.
Run Time: The run time is the battery life from fully charged batteries
Size: Size not only refers to the strap around the head but also those headlamps with external battery packs and top straps. The size does affect the weight.
If you’re interested in knowing more about these details, I recommend THIS source.
My Recommendations for:
- Red Light Mode – Especially if you are sharing a tent or sleeping in shelters often, I recommend considering a headlamp with a red light mode. The red light mode saves your night vision, your battery life, and also saves your shelter or tent mates from hating you.
- Adjustable Beam – Adjusting the tilt of the beam is a lot easier and painless than adjusting the angle of your neck.
Do not consider yourself a night hiker if you just happen to hike late and dread every second in the dark (like me). If you find yourself starting your 20 mile day at noon, then you might just be a night hiker. If you find yourself (happily) cowboy camping on the trail after hiking till midnight, then you just might be a night hiker.
For night hiking, I would recommend these features:
- Red Light Mode – Red light is great for coming in late to shelters.
- Adjustable – Night hikers benefit greatly from adjustable lamps. Like I said above, being able to move the beam’s angle is better than moving your neck.
- High & Low White Light Modes – Against all assumptions, you do not need such a bright light to hike at night. The brighter the light, the less peripheral vision you have. The amount of brightness always depends on the efficiency of your eyes and the weather conditions. This is why I recommend a headlamp with high and low modes.
- Efficient Run Time – The run time might be the most important feature for night hikers to consider. Since night hikers use their lamps more than those who hike during the day, choose a lamp with efficient run times. You do not want to be stuck hiking with a dead headlamp.
Lithium is good in the cold, lighter than alkaline, and lasts longer than alkaline batteries. Always check to see if your model headlamp will accommodate lithium batteries.
None of the options below use a watch battery. Lithium or normal batteries are easier to find on the trail than a watch battery. If you must purchase a headlamp which uses the watch battery, buy in bulk online and put them in a mail drop.
Below I have created a list of Appalachian Trail worthy headlamps divided by the three most common headlamp brands: Petzl, Black Diamond, and Princeton Tec. These brands offer quality headlamps at prices ranging from cheap to outrageous. All of the headlamps listed below range from $20 to $95.
Not every headlamp is created equal. There are many headlamps targeted for minimal use or other activities such as hunting, cycling, or caving. The headlamps listed below are perfect for hiking. Depending on your preferences, you should find a headlamp worth wearing on your precious noggin. I know there is numerous other brands for headlamps but these headlamps are the most efficient when it comes to lumens versus battery life.
If you don’t find a headlamp you like here, I recommend THIS source which includes a list of headlamp reviews.
Don’t Forget to Consider:
Always consider your age and your eye quality in choosing a headlamp. The higher the lumen (brightness) count does not necessarily mean the best headlamp for you. Usually those with poor eyes will benefit better from higher lumens than those with a healthy eyesight.
Petzl Warranty: All Petzl products are under a guaranteed warranty for three years against any faults in material or manufacturing.
|Tikkina||Tikkina 2||Tikka||Tikka Plus||Tikka 2||Tikka Plus 2||Tikka XP||Tikka XP2|
|Bulb||1 High output LED||1 LED||1 High output LED||1 White LED, 1 Red LED||4 LEDs||1 High output LED, white LED, Red LED||High output LED, white LED, Red LED||1 High output LED, Red LED|
|60/15||23/N/A||80/20||125 on Boost, 100/30||40/N/A||70/N/A||140 on Boost, 95/30||80/N/A|
|Max/Min Beam Distance (m)||60/15||23/13||40/20||50 on Boost, 45/25||29/N/A||40/N/A||70 on Boost, 65/20||68/17|
|Battery Type||3 AAA||3 AAA||3 AAA||3 AAA||3 AAA||3 AAA||3 AAA||3 AAA|
|Battery Life On High/On Low (hrs)||60/120||55/190||60/120||2/12||90/120||55/185||2/12||80/190|
|Water Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant|
|Tikka RXP**||Zipka*||Zipka 2*||Zipka Plus 2*||Myo RXP***|
|Bulb||1 High output LED, white LED, Red LED||1 High Output LED||4 LED Array||1 High Output LED, white LED, Red LED||High Output LED|
|215/7||80/20||40/N/A||70/N/A||205 on Boost, 141/13|
|Max/Min Beam distance (m)||110/2||40/20||29/N/A||40/14||90 on Boost/27|
|Battery Type||Rechargable lithium ion battery||3 AAA||3 AAA||3 AAA||3 AA|
|Battery Life On High/On Low (hrs)||10/2.5||60/120||90/120||58/185||86/53|
|Water Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant|
*Does not have adjustable beam
**The Tikka RXP has a built in sensor that adjusts the light brightness for you. There is a similar model called the Tikka R+.
***The Myo series also have a variety of models such as Myo XP, Myo RXP (listed above), and Myo RXP 2. In my opinion, this headlamp is too heavy and powerful for hiking the AT. I listed the item for consistency.
- My Favorite: Tikka XP2 (my thru hike headlamp)
- Best Cheap Option: Tikkina
- Best Lightweight Option: Zipka Plus 2
Black Diamond Warranty: Unlike Black Diamond’s other products, Black Diamond headlamps have a three year warranty on faults on material or manufacturing.
|Bulb||High Output LED, 2 white LED, 2 red LED||High Output LED, 2 white LED, 2 red LED||High Output LED, 2 LED, 2 red LED||2 LEDs||High Output LED, 2 LEDs||1 High Output LED, 2 LED, 2 red LED|
|Max/Min Beam distance (m)||70/8||70/7||70/9||15/5||40/6||100/14|
|Battery Type||3 AAA||4 AAA||3 AAA||2 AAA||3 AAA||4 AAExternal battery pack|
|Battery Life On High/On Low (hrs)||50/200||36/200||70/300||6/75||43/250||75/175|
|Water Resistant||Splash Resistant||Waterproof to 1 m for 30 min||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant||Waterproof to 1 m for 30 min|
I only have experience with the Black Diamond Icon. This headlamp is ridiculously powerful but heavy.
Black Diamond Recommendations:
Princeton Tec Warranty: Five year warranty for a replacement or repair if has faults in material or manufacturing.
|Bulb||4 LEDS||Maxbright LED||High Output LED, red LED||4 LEDS||High Output LED, 2 LED, 2 red LED||1 Maxbright LED, 3 Ultrabright LEDs||3 LEDs, 1 red LED|
|Max/Min Beam distance (m)||39/20||30/18||50/19||90/20||73/10||35/8|
|Battery Type||3 AAA||3 AAA||2 AAA||3 AAA||3 AAA||3 AAA||3 AAA|
|Battery Life On High/On Low (hrs)||50/146||113/121||2/96||1/31||110/150||28/200||74/180|
|Water Resistant||N/A||Waterproof to 1 m for 30 min||Splash Resistant||Waterproof to 1 m||Waterproof to 1 m for 30 min||Splash Resistant||Splash Resistant|
The models listed above are the basic models. Princeton Tec offers Pro, Extreme, and Tactical versions of some of the models above. Visit HERE for more information.
Princeton Tec Recommendations:
- Best Cheap Option: Fred
- Worst Reviews: Byte (check out Shawn’s testimonial in the comments for his mini review on the Byte)
If there is a headlamp brand you would like to see in this post please leave a comment. I will gladly construct a chart.
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If you’re just using a headlamp for working around the house, any of these are fine. But I don’t know why you want something that is only 200 lumens when you could have a 3000 lumen lamp?
I recently went in a mile long cave. It was dark, I mean REALLY dark. There were people in there with these little cheapy head lamps and some better ones like the ones listed here.
But I had my Mountain Bike Light with me. This thing lit up the cave. It made everything else in there look like a candle or a match compared to what I had.
If you want light when you hike, do yourself a favor, get this one. It’s inexpensive, throws a ton of light, easy to use. Order a spare battery, so you won’t have any issues. Mine lasts 3-4 hours without problems. https://amzn.to/1M1pGWd
The higher the lumens, the more power the light requires and therefore the faster the batteries run down.
I’ve been using Foxelli mx500 rechargeable headlamp for my evening runs and my hiking trips, and i have to say im impressed with its performance. Such a powerful headlamp for a great price, it think i spent around $30 on amazon… it is lightweight and very comfortable, and after some time i forget its on my head… highly recomended