How to Choose a Headlamp

posted in: ADVICE & TIPS, GEAR | 0

When it comes time to choose a headlamp there are many different options on the market which vary from $30 to upwards of a few hundred dollars so it will be important to decide which headlamp is right for you. By thinking of which activities you plan to use your headlamp for will help narrow down the selection.

Maybe its weekend camping with friends, or enjoying a good book before bed or maybe you will be trail running through dark forest trails at night? Trust us, brighter isn’t always better, especially when working in close proximity to others.

Once you have figured out what activities you plan to use your headlamp for , you can look at which features will be most beneficial and help you make the right decision:

  • Brightness: The amount of LED light you need will depend on which activity you are doing
  • Power Source: Rechargeable lights and replaceable batteries each have pros and cons
  • Battery Life: How long will the light last, can you adjust this
  • Beam Pattern and Distance: Is a wide angle light or long straight beam better for you
  • Red- Light Option: Is a red light option important for the activities you plan to do?
  • Special Features: Does the headlamp offer a particular feature that would be beneficial for your activity

Headlamp Brightness

Lumens are the standard unit for measuring brightness. You’ll see a wide range of offerings from entry level headlamps starting at 15 lumens up to headlamps over 1000. A lumen (denoted lm) is a measure of the total amount of visible light (to the human eye) from a light source. The higher the lumen rating the “brighter” the light will appear. To give you an idea of how bright a lumen is, One lumen is approximately equal to the amount of light put out by one birthday candle that’s one foot away from you.

Brands we carry, Black Diamond and Petzl have spent lots of research and development dialling in their optics to focus the lumens, which means the light will go where you want it. These brands will have a more accurate representation between lumens and brightness, if you look at lower quality brands where their optics are not as dialled in, you may see a wide range of brightness per lumen.

The importance of brightness will come down to which activities you plan to use your headlamp for. Its important to note that once upon a time 30 lumens was the brightest on the market and many individuals were able to complete some pretty epic adventures. Having the brightest light on the market doesn’t always mean it will be the best for what you are using it for. Many lights on the market have multiple brightness settings to allow you to customize the brightness for activity. This is a great option for someone looking to use their light in multiple different applications.

                Lower Lumens: Good for setting up camp, reading in the tent, working in close proximity, walking the dog, keeping in an emergency kit, or using in a group setting.

                Higher Lumens (200+): Good for running in the dark, night hiking, mountain biking or skiing.

Power Sources

The power source in which the headlamp uses can make a big differences for you since no power will equal no light. If you are mainly looking for a headlamp for weekend epics, evening runs or walking the dogs rechargeable lights are a great option as you can easily recharge between adventures. This will also allow you to have maximum lumens at the start of every adventure without having to waste batteries. However if you adventure entails long durations and little access to a power source, like a plug-in, having a headlamp that utilizes batteries may be the better choice. Most headlamps that use batteries use either AA or AAA both of which are readily available worldwide.

                Rechargeable Lights: Allows you to recharge easily with a USB recharging with almost any power source from wall outlets, portable power banks, AC chargers or solar chargers (Just make sure you pack the charging cord). Another added bonus to rechargeable lamps is you can ensure full power when you head out for every adventure vs dealing with dying batteries. Some rechargeable batteries also are able to connect to apps to allow you to control burn time, and brightness.

                Replaceable batteries: AA or AAA batteries are easy to replace almost anywhere in the world ad provide instant power. But you’ll need to bring extra batteries, recycle used ones and buy new ones. Headlamps that use batteries usually only last at maximum lumens for a short period of time, therefore the longer you use your headlamp the less power it will be giving off.

Some headlamps can interchange between battery and USB power sources, giving you the best of both worlds.

Battery Life

In general, the brighter a light’s output, the shorter he battery life. When you look at the headlmaps specs, you’ll see the burn time listed. If a headlamp has multiple modes, then the amount of time the battery will last will be different for each mode. Think what modes you’ll use the most and find a light that runs efficiently in those modes.

As the battery drains, some LED lights will get progressively dimmer. That might not be a problem if you’re on a week-long hike and moving slowly, hanging around camp or urban running in the evening. But if you are planning an epic adventure, which requires fast reactions like mountain biking at night or sprinting through the forest on a trail run, you may want your light to maintain a more steady brightness. Regulated output lights have intelligent circuitry that lets the LED light stay at a constant brightness until the batteries can no longer supper that output. Once that happens, the light dims to a low output, usually for an hour or so- hopefully giving you enough light to get to where you’re going safely.

ANSI/ PLATO FL1 Standard

This is a standard that describes the length of time it takes a headlamp running at max power to dim from 100% brightness down to 10% brightness (for example, a headlamp with 300 lumens going down to 30 lumens). On most brands, this will be the information displayed on the packaging as its “burn time”. Important to note however, is that there is still a period of time after the headlamp has reached 10% brightness where there is still plenty of usable light. This period of time is described on the package as “reserve time”. It measures the time it takes for a headlamp to go from 10% brightness down to the point where it no longer illuminates past a distance of 4 meters. So, a headlamp with a higher lumen rating will generally have a longer reserve time than a less powerful headlamp.

Batteries and Cold Weather

Ever had your phone battery suddenly die in cold weather? Similar things can happen with headlamp batteries. If you are planning on using your headlamp when the mercury begins  to drop, consider keeping your headlamp close to your body or inside your jacket to help keep the batteries warm  so you can get better performance from your headlamp.

Beam Pattern and Distance

The beam pattern will also play a factor on how bright the light appears. Some lights will only offer one pattern, however many lights offer the ability to switch between a spot beam and a wide angle.

                Spot Beam: If you’re looking for a headlamp to help you squeeze in one more run in the backcountry or make dawn patrol a bit safer, then a focused spot beam to light up things in the distance will serve you well.

                Wide Angle: If you’re using general light and a wider field of vision is important than a light that offers a wide angle may be important. This light pattern often doesn’t go as far in distance but gives light to more of your peripheral line of sight.

                Reactive Lighting: This is a special feature offered in some of our higher end models which switches between modes depending on the distance you are looking out. If something is close proximity to you, the light will dim however if you look out in the distance scouting out your next line, the light will switch to a more focused beam to give you optimal distance. On many of the lights that offer this feature, you also have the ability to control when you want this on or off.

Red Lights

Ever wonder why some headlamps offer a red light feature to them? The main reason is red-light doesn’t affect our night vision, you won’t blind your tent mate when you need to go for a midnight bathroom break. It’s also nice if you are playing a round of cards around the fire, it allows you to see without being annoying to everyone around you. You will be surprised how much you use the red-light feature especially if it gets dark earlier in the evening.

Other Features


This feature may not be important if you never plan to take fido for a walk when mother nature decides to throw some ugly weather at us, but if you plan to use your headlamp on mother’s natures worst days you may want to consider getting a headlamp that has some water protection. Headlamps built for outdoor adventures will have some weather protection built in. Most quality headlamps will start with an IPX- 4 (protection from splashes from any direction for at least 5 minutes) to IPX-7 (protection from submersion up to 1 m for at least 30 minutes).

Lightweight Design

Many of the headlamps for outdoor use are roughly the same size and weight. But if you’re the type that cuts your toothbrush in half to save grams, headlamp weight will be important to you.

As weight is usually goes hand-in-hand with features (lighter = less features, heavier = more features), it’s important to know exactly what you want from your light, and what you can do without. Once you have a clear idea of your needs, you can find headlamps that tick all your boxes and then choose the lightest.

Tip: For those truly looking to cut weight, consider lithium batteries. Lithium batteries are lighter than their alkaline and NiMH counterparts, and perform better in cold weather. But be warned that they’re also more expensive.

Lock-out mode

Some headlamps have a lockout mode, so a bump or accidental button press will not turn the light on. This feature is handy if you throw your light in your backpack or tool box.

Flashing or boost modes

Flashing modes are real eye-catchers, especially if you plan to cycle with your light. And boost or turbo modes can be great for moments where you quickly need extra brightness.

Now you have had some time to consider which features will suit your activity needs the best, its time to make a decision. If you are in the market for a new headlamp, we have a wide range headlamps to suit every need. And trust us when we say, you will wonder why it took you so long to add this piece of gear to your adventure kit.

PS. You will soon find out you will use this item for more then just adventures.