The 10 Best Headlamps for Thru-Hiking in 2020

Your headlamp might be tiny, but chances are it’s one of the most crucial pieces of gear you own. Whether you’re a consummate night hiker or you just get up to pee a lot in the middle of the night, almost every thru-hiker needs convenient, hands-free lighting from time to time. From weight to brightness to battery life, there are a number of features to consider when shopping for the best headlamps for thru-hiking.

Jump to Our Picks for the Best Headlamps for Thru-Hiking

Weight

Headlamps weigh anywhere from one ounce to over half a pound. Every ounce counts for thru-hikers traversing thousands of miles. That’s why the best headlamps for thru-hiking weigh three ounces or less.

Battery

What kind of battery does the headlamp take—AAA or USB-rechargeable? Rechargeable headlamps eliminate the need to carry spare batteries, but you’ll pay a premium for this feature. You’ll also swap the weight of those extra AAAs for yet another charge cable. The best headlamps for thru-hiking can accommodate either type.

Consider battery life when shopping for a headlamp. Prioritize those that offer at least 100 hours of battery life on the low light setting.

Lumens/Brightness Settings

Lumens are a unit of brightness. Most backpackers want a headlamp that offers a range of brightness settings between five and 300 lumens. That way you can toggle between lumen outputs depending on your needs, conserving battery.

  • 10 lumens and under: enough for camp chores and getting up to pee in the dark
  • 80-150 lumens: enough for night hiking
  • 200-400 lumens: useful if  you want to throw a long beam into the woods (“what was that sound?”) or search the ground for something you dropped
  • Above 400 lumens: probably overkill for backpacking. Drives up weight and price while gobbling battery. Exception is if you want one headlamp that works for adventure sports (mountain biking, climbing, etc.) in addition to hiking.

Red Light Setting

Other people’s headlamps are super annoying. In addition to blinding fellow campers, bright white headlamps impair peripheral and night vision (including for the wearer).

Many headlamps come with a red light setting for use around camp or on smooth footpaths where you don’t need a lot of visibility. Not only are they easier on the eyes, but red lights also don’t use much battery.

Locking

There’s nothing more annoying than having your headlamp turn itself on inside your pack, killing the battery long before you reach camp. Power is precious on the trail, which is why the best headlamps for thru-hiking have a locking function to keep this from happening.

Waterproofness

If you spend enough time on the trail, everything you own will have a run-in with moisture at some point, and your headlamp is no exception. That’s why it’s so important to pick one that’s waterproof or at least water-resistant.

Waterproofness is denoted by the headlamp’s IP (Ingress Protection) code. Here’s how to interpret it:

  • IPx4: Resists splashing from any direction. Enough to protect from light to moderate rain.
  • IPx5/IPx6: Resists ‘water jets’ and ‘powerful water jets,’ respectively. Enough to protect from heavy rain.
  • IPx7/IPx8: Resists total immersion up to one meter or deeper than one meter, respectively. Only the best headlamps for thru-hiking are this waterproof.

Our Picks for the Best Headlamps for Thru-Hiking

Nitecore NU25

MSRP: $36.95

Weight with batteries: 1.9 oz.

Light Output / Battery Life:

  • Turbo: 360 lumens / 0.5 hours
  • High: 190 lumens / 5 hours
  • Mid: 38 lumens / 8 hours
  • Low: 1 lumen / 160 hours
  • High CRI: 20 lumens / 6.25 hours

Red light / Strobe / Locking: Yes (0.9 and 13-lumen) / Yes / Yes

Batteries: USB-rechargeable

Watertightness: IP66 (dust-tight and should continue to work in a heavy rain)

From our contributors

“This headlamp is easily one of my favorite pieces of gear in my kit. It packs an incredible punch in a lightweight, rechargeable package. It is small enough to throw into a hip belt pocket and forget about until you need to do some night hiking or locate a flat campsite after dark.”—Erin Lucy

“The Nitecore NU20 has served me well on the PCT, AT, and countless shorter trips. I love that it’s small and lightweight and that it’s rechargeable. I use the lowest setting for journaling, the middle setting for night hiking, and the highest to make sure those footsteps I heard were from a deer and not a mountain lion. My only complaint is it doesn’t have a red light setting for around camp, but this is remedied in the newer NU25.”—Madeline Newell

“The NU25 has all the features I look for in a headlamp: rechargeable, water-resistant, crazy low weight, a lock-off feature to prevent it from turning on in my pack, and multiple brightness settings including two red light levels and a diffuse CRI LED. The two-button system also makes it super intuitive to use. The headlamp weighs just one ounce, not including the headstrap, which I recommend ditching for a lightweight shock cord.“—Owen Eigenbrot

Pros: High CRI light; ultralight; good price point; rechargeable battery; better-than-average water resistance; multiple red lights

Cons: Not the best battery life

Black Diamond Spot

MSRP: $39.95

Weight w/ Batteries: 3 oz.

Light Output / Battery Life:

  • High: 350 lumens / 4 hours
  • Low: 6 lumens / 200 hours

Red light / Strobe / Locking: Yes / Yes / Yes

Batteries: AAA (3)

Watertightness: IPX8 (no data on solid particle ingress, but should survive total submersion to a depth of 1.1m)

From our contributors

“I bought the Black Diamond Spot 325 for my PCT 2020 attempt. I’ve been impressed with its capabilities in field tests this summer. It’s very straightforward to use, and I appreciate the variety of settings it has (strobe, LED, red light, dimmer), without being too overwhelming. The price point was attractive for a budget-conscious hiker and the adjustable headband is comfortable too.”—Rachel Skonecki

“You can’t beat the price on this headlamp and it works great. Lightweight and it gives you a lot of options as far as lighting for different scenarios with a white and red light. Plus, I’m still partial to carrying back up batteries vs. having to charge a headlamp.“—Alex Murphy

Pros: Dimmable; strong battery life; excellent water resistance; battery indicator lights

Cons: No rechargeable battery option; on the heavy side

Petzl Actik Core

MSRP: $69.95

Weight w/ Batteries: 2.8 ounces

Light Output / Battery Life:

  • High: 450 lumens / 2 hours
  • Mid: 100 lumens / 8 hours
  • Low: 6 lumens / 130 hours

Red light / Strobe / Locking: Yes / Yes / No

Batteries: USB-rechargeable 1250 mAh CORE (included); also AAA-compatible

Watertightness: IPX4 (no data on solid particle ingress but should resist light to moderate rain)

From our contributors

The various brightness levels work well – I’ve found that the highest level is really quite powerful. The USB compatible rechargeable battery is super nice! Especially on longer car/van camping trips. The only downside I’ve discovered is that it loses charge very quickly. On longer section hikes I usually use the highest level brightness setting sparingly to conserve power.”—Sophie Gerry

“I’ve put my Actik Core through a lot over the years, including hiking with it for hours during a literal hurricane. It’s one of the best headlamps for thru-hiking. I love the flexible charge options and that the brightness automatically steps down when the battery gets low.“—Kelly Floro

Pros: USB-rechargeable and AAA-compatible; good battery life; super-bright

Cons: Expensive; no locking feature; only moderate water resistance

Biolite 330

MSRP: $59.95

Weight w/ Batteries: 2.4 oz w/ batteries

Light Output / Battery Life:

  • High: 330 lumens / 3.5 hours
  • Low: 5 lumens / 40 hours

Red light / Strobe / Locking: Yes / Yes / Yes

Batteries: USB-rechargeable

Watertightness: IPX4 (no data on solid particle ingress but should resist light to moderate rain)

From our contributors

I love this headlamp primarily because it’s super comfortable and the battery is long-lasting. The only issues I have with this headlamp are how I’m somehow so confused as to the settings. It seems like whenever I press the top button, something unexpected happens. Other than that, I love this headlamp and it’s my go-to this season.” — Maggie Slepian

“I was an old-school battery guy, determined to die on a hill of AAA alkaline cells. Then I tested the Biollite 330. I was impressed with the light weight and the number of different lighting combinations. And after trips of 4-5 days, it still had plenty of charge left. Downside? It could use a larger control button, but that’s about it.”—Ken Nail

Pros: Battery indicator light; moisture-wicking adjustable headband; lightweight; dimmable

Cons: Expensive; disappointing battery life (max burn time only 40 hours)

Petzl Tikkina

MSRP: $19.95

Weight w/ Batteries: 3 oz.

Light Output / Battery Life:

  • High: 250 lumens / 2 hours
  • Low: 6 lumens / 120 hours

Red light / Strobe / Locking: No / No / No

Batteries: 3 AAA; also compatible w/ USB rechargeable Petzl 1250 mAh CORE (not included)

Watertightness: IPX4 (no data on solid particle ingress but should resist light to moderate rain)

From our contributors

“I used the Petzel Tikkana on my AT thru-hike. It lasted the whole way with, I want to say, one battery change, and is still going strong on my hike of the Vermont Long Trail this year. I did turn the batteries the wrong way on purpose when I wasn’t using it to ensure it wouldn’t turn on in my pack by accident. My only complaint is the single button for every type of light— at times it would take a few presses to get to the kind I wanted.” — Julia Gladstein (“Puma”) AT 2019

Pros: Inexpensive; strong battery life; flexible charging options

Cons: No red light, strobe, or locking; on the heavy side

Black Diamond Cosmo

MSRP: $29.95

Weight w/ Batteries: 2.8 ounces

Light Output / Battery Life:

  • High: 300 lumens / 4.25 hours
  • Low: 4 lumens / 200 hours

Red light / Strobe / Locking: Yes / Yes / Yes

Batteries: AAA (3)

Watertightness: IPx8 (no data on solid particle ingress, but should survive total submersion to a depth of 1.1m)

From our contributors

“I chose (the Black Diamond Cosmo) for the low price point and different beam options. I often switch between the spot and flood beams when I’m camping, especially when I transition from setting up my campsite to reading in my tent.” — Sarah Wolfson

Pros: Excellent water resistance; good battery life; cheaper than the BD Spot; second button makes toggling between modes easy; dimmable red light

Cons: No rechargeable battery option; on the heavy side

The Best Headlamps for Thru-Hiking: Honorable Mentions

UCO AIR

MSRP: $29.95

Weight w/ Batteries: 1.6 oz.

Light Output / Battery Life:

  • High: 150 lumens / 1 hour
  • Low: 10 lumens / 5 hours

Red light / Strobe / Locking: Yes / No / No

Batteries: USB-rechargeable

Watertightness: IPX4 (no data on solid particle ingress but should resist light to moderate rain)

Pros: Ultralight; dimmable; fun colors; inexpensive

Cons: Atrocious battery life; no strobe or locking features

Coast FL1R

MSRP: $39.99

Weight w/ Batteries: 1.1 oz.

Light Output / Battery life:

  • High: 200 lumens / 2.75 hours
  • Low: 60 lumens / 7 hours

Red light / Strobe / Locking: Yes / No / Yes

Batteries: USB-rechargeable

Watertightness: IP54 (almost, but not entirely dust-protected; should resist light to moderate rain)

Pros: Ultralight; Detaches from headband; locking; moderate price

Cons: Limited battery life, no strobe

Petzl Swift RL

MSRP: $119.95

Weight w/ Batteries: 3.5 oz.

Light Output / Battery Life:

  • High reactive: 900 lumens max / 2-30 hours
  • High standard: 550 lumens / 2 hours
  • Medium reactive: 300 lumens max / 5-40 hours
  • Medium standard: 200 lumens / 5 hours
  • Low reactive: 100 lumens max / 10-50 hours
  • Low standard: 10 lumens / 100 hours

Red light / Strobe / Locking: No / No / Yes

Batteries: 2350 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable

Watertightness: IPX4 (no data on solid particle ingress but should resist light to moderate rain)

Pros: Ergonomic, detachable headband; insane light output; strong battery life; one of the only locking headlamps from Petzl; reactive lighting maximizes battery life without manual adjustment; versatile

Cons: Freaking expensive; no red light or strobe; heavy

Princeton Tec SNAP Modular Headlamp

MSRP: $39.99

Weight w/ Batteries: 3.5 oz.

Light Output / Battery life:

  • High: 300 lumens / 10 hours
  • Low: 10 lumens / 155 hours

Red light / Strobe / Locking: No / Yes / No

Batteries: AAA (3)

Watertightness: IPX4 (no data on solid particle ingress but should resist light to moderate rain)

Pros: Modular/easily detachable via magnetic mount; bright; decent battery life; affordable; dimmable

Cons: No red light or locking; heavy

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Comments 8

  • Avatar
    Seth "Osprey" Schumacher : Sep 4th

    Ditto to the Nitecore NU25. However, I’d add the Petzl Zipka to this list. While only IPX4 rated, at 66g (2.3oz) it’s a great little lamp. Bright enough with red light options and the ability to use the Petzl CORE rechargeable battery or AAA batteries as needed. It’s similar to the Tikka from Petzl but with the retractable “headband” it can be worn not just on the head, but the wrist, on a backpack strap, etc. which I LOVE.

    Light:
    MAX 300lm for 2h
    MED 100lm for 9h
    MIN 6lm for 120h
    Red 2lm for 60h

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Kelly Floro : Sep 4th

      Thanks for reminding us of a great headlamp! The Zipka was actually the first headlamp I ever owned way back in the day. Another great offering from Petzl.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    FM : Sep 4th

    If you anticipate doing any lengthy night hiking on a trail like the AT, consider the following:

    Parabolic reflector headlamps generate some flood light for close up (at your feet) and throw a spot of concentrated light for distance (usually 10 ft ahead of you) and are prefered for hiking. Flood is best for close up work. LEDs with no reflector cast only even flood light.

    For the average 7mm diameter, dark adapted pupil (DAP), 15 lumens is marginal, 30 lm is practical and 75 lm is plenty.

    The limit of your headlamp burns your battery at an enormous rate, so if you want to use 75 lumens all the time for a long time before reaching battery depletion, make sure your maximum setting is about 5 times higher (in this case 375 lm). Lower settings are more efficient. 375 lm is still great to have to momentarily light up that tree branch that just fell near you that you thought was a carnivorous hiker eating bear.

    Dark adapted pupils diameters can vary from 4-9mm. Your optometrist can measure you, or you can use methods described at various places online to do this yourself.

    If you are the typical kid thru-hiking a trail out of college or high school, 7mm is a good guess. As you become older, DAP diameter decreases. If you have smaller daps than 7mm, you will need more light. How much more depends on a square rule. If you are a retiree and have a 5mm DAP, then you need [(7/5)^2]*Lumens, roughly 2x the light needed for your typical high school graduate–30 lm marginal, 60 lm practical, 150 lm plenty.

    Lithium batteries (primary and ion rechargeable) hold even brightness over most of the battery life, then drop off quickly. Alkaline batteries (unless regulated by the flashlight) decrease gradually over time.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Kelly Floro : Sep 4th

      ^THIS. Thanks for this phenomenally detailed and specific comment FM!

      Reply
      • Avatar
        FM : Sep 4th

        Thanks. Just added a little more info to this thread. Hope you find it just as helpful.

        Reply
    • Avatar
      FM : Sep 4th

      Addendum to above:

      For the AT, blazes in most areas are usually spaced 40-50m apart except in wilderness areas where they are a tenth to a quarter mile apart. To see a typical blaze at 50m with practical light having a youthful 7mm DAP, a flashlight with a max intensity rated at least 950 candela (cd) is required. For an old f*rt 5mm DAP, 1900 cd is required.

      These intensities are available on many headlamps (make sure yours does). But the flood from the headlamp hits nearby objects and causes the pupil to contract somewhat dimming long distant objects (test your headlamp on a dark trail at night before going). Using a miniature handheld flashlight not only backs up a headlamp failure, but if you add a taped sliding chipboard tube to the cowling, you can block the flood component of the light and see farther without affecting the spot component of the light.

      You can find a 10,000 cd intensity handheld thrower at 2.8oz (Astrolux S1 XPL 18350 bat). You can hike with the appropriate setting on your headlamp and momentarily click on your handheld for blaze searches. And seeing that only 10-20% of max setting is required to see that blaze, the battery should last a long time.

      Seeing a 2x6in blaze beyond 175 meters is impractical without a mini-scope. 20-20 vision resolves a 2x6in blaze into a desirable minimum required 3 stacked pixels. 175 meters is about the short end of the blaze separations in designated wilderness areas. To see that far with practical illumination of target, a youthful 7mm DAP needs about 80,000 cd and 5mm DAP needs 160,000cd.

      Flashlights of these intensities can weigh up to 11oz without batteries and cost over $120 (and you know how you feel about that discarded protein bar wrapper in your trash Ziploc). Navigating in wilderness areas with your GPS smartphone and a free app like Guthook (AT map costs $60) is a much more practical option. The additional weight is zero, mapped GPS navigation easily cuts through mountain fog (haha) and you save $60 to boot.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        FM : Sep 4th

        Corrections and clarifications to previous post:

        I should not have said “practical” illumination for the 950cd and 1900cd figures. I normally use “marginal” for my maximum range calculations. Marginal in this case means 1) stop at a blaze 2) scan the 50m range for the next blaze 3) take a few moments to discern the next blaze–it’s right on the border of non-detection. “Practical” illumination means doubling the marginal intensity figure. It means you can easily and readily discern the blaze. In that case, you need 1900cd and 3800cd for youthful and geriatric DAP respectively.

        And unfortunately, my geriatric brain miscalculated the intensity needed for detecting a white blaze at max range for 20-20 acuity. For ‘marginal’ detection of a blaze at 175m, you need 135,000cd and 270,000cd for 7mm and 5mm DAP, respectively. For ‘practical’ (readily seen) detection, you need 270,000cd and 540,000cd respectively. Those figures make the required handheld flashlight virtually weight-wise impractical for most backpackers UNLESS you can find a flashlight tech to modify a zoomie thrower to those specifications. Weights in the range of 6-12oz is not unrealistic but still too high for the tastes of most backpackers.

        Sorry for the confusion. I’m having a ‘slow Joe’ moment, lol.

        Reply

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