How to choose the best headlamp

selecting best headlamp

Headlamp Buying Advice. Choosing best headlamp.

The benefits of owning a headlamp are fairly obvious, but just to recap, the primary benefits of a headlamp over other sources, such as a flashlight, lantern, or the flashlight app on your cell phone are:

  • Hands Free.   This is the major advantage over a flashlight, and for most outdoor activities, like climbing or around camp. Just imagine trying to set up your camp stove and cook with only a flashlight.  Even though a lantern can provide good hands free lighting, the ability to be able to direct light with the nod of your head is a huge convenience.
  • Lightweight and Compact. They are super lightweight and packable, and the lightest weigh in at less than an ounce.  Most models weigh in at less than 7 ounces and are very similar in size. You will only notice weight difference when looking at very high powered models with external battery packs. These are more bulky and intended for specific needs, such as climbing.
  • Beam Distance.  Most headlamps cast an impressively long beam. Technology gets better and better every year, so even with a $20-30 headlamp you get a long beam lighting the way to things that may be difficult to spot from a distance, for example a trail marker or where you dropped that map.
  • Durable.  You can purchase a water resistant headlamp if you’re planning on being out in the elements, and there are even waterproof ones that can tolerate being submerged up to 1 meter.

Consider your purpose

When deciding on a headlamp, think about what mainly you will need the headlamp for. If it’s just for general utility, any headlamp will do. Think of this as your headlamp you’ll keep with you in your car or for car camping just use around the campsite. For instance, a headlamp like the Petzl Tikkina costs just under $20 and is a great value (in fact, it’s even won some best buy awards).

But if you spend lots of time in the backcountry and you’re concerned about safety, if you spend an additional $20 you can get yourself a headlamp that is much more robust and durable, will last years and years, and give you an improved beam length and better quality light.

tent at night illuminated by headlamp

The headlamp is one of the most important safety items you can purchase, and in fact, is one of the things we recommend always to pack with you in the backcountry. Consider the prospect of being caught out in the dark in the backcountry after things go wrong. It’s surprisingly easy for this to happen: your partner gets injured, failed equipment, you get lost.  Instead of saying that any headlamp or light will do (which of course is better than not having one at all), make your decision with more rigour and consider the potential difficult situations you might encounter: cold weather, storms, getting lost, injuries, broken equipment, broken down car, meaning you may need the light for much longer than you initially estimated.

Headlamp Types and Features

  • Floodlight – wideness of beam. Almost every light offers a floodlight mode.
  • Spotlight – focused or narrow beam. A narrow beam is a must have when you need to see a long distance.  Generally, any headlamp above $30 retail will offer a spotlight and a floodlight mode. The best ones shine a beam of about 100 meters, and a few even shine 150 meters.
  • Red light feature –  red light headlamp can come in very handy.  First, red preserves night vision and it uses less battery, dramatically increasing your battery run time.  It’s also safer as a flashing red LED can be seen from a longer distance than white light. It takes about an hour for your eyes to get fully adjusted to the dark and only a flash of light to destroy it!
  • Waterproof – Most headlamps have an IPX4 rating, meaning they can withstand water splashing the enclosure from any direction.  This provides adequate protection in a rainstorm.  You can also get a headlamp that’s rated IPX7, which means they are waterproof up to one meter deep.  The headlamp is tested by being submerged in one meter water for 30 minutes.
  • Type of Battery – Most batteries use AAA or AA alkaline batteries.  But some are rechargeable, like the Petzl Tikka RXP, Petzl NAO, Black Diamond Revolt and Black Diamond Sprinter using Lithium Ion batteries or NIMH (nickel metal hydride).
using headlamps while camping

A headlamp is a must have for camping. Image from amazon

Performance Specifications

Lumens: This is a measure of luminosity as tested giving the output force of light. Higher lumens mean higher light output. However, be careful with this: while this is a good measure of usefulness for indoor lights, outside, the best headlamps are those that give smooth and even light in whichever mode you choose, rather than simply the amount of lumens provided. Lumens does not factor the quality of the light beam, hence can be misleading.  It only gives the total sum of light in any direction.

For example, two headlamps with the same lumen rating will have different light quality depending on width of the beam and the optical quality of the lens.

Beam Distance: While this is a better measure of quality then lumens, it doesn’t give a good indicator of quality either.  Manufacturers specs on this will be slightly overstated, but if you look at maximum beam distance is a good relative indicator of performance.

Battery Life:  This will tell you how long you can expect the batteries to last in your unit. The problem with this measure is each manufacturer has created their own measure of battery run time rather than using a standard (such as the ANSI FL-1 industry standard).

Choosing the best headlamp for your needs

We think you should focus on the following criteria:

Beam distance

In emergency situations, this is very useful.  There is no substitute for being able to see far ahead in the distance when it’s dark to avoid getting lost.

We’ve been stuck in the mountains in summer and winter in the dark before, and having a headlamp without an extended range and beam distance was a bit frightening .

Of course, not everyone will needs a maximum beam distance headlamp.  If you’re going to only use your headlamp around camp, or an emergency headlamp for the car, it won’t be a consideration.  A $20 headlamp will be sufficient.  If the extent of your night hiking requirements will be on marked trails, try the Coast HL7 or Black Diamond Revolt.

Great maximum distance headlamps include the Fenix HP25 and the Coast HL7.


In an emergency situation or worst-case scenario, this becomes very important and should be considered when making your buying decision.  Will your headlamp sustain being dropped into a creek or out all night in the rain?

For very durable headlamps, consider one with an IPX4 rating, which means it will hold up in a rainstorm.  The Black Diamond Spot is a good choice in this category.  For the ultimate in durability, consider one with an IPX 7 rating such as the Black Diamond Icon, which is waterproof.

Battery Life

This also matters greatly when things go wrong, but isn’t important for everyone.  If you’re car camping and bring along extra batteries, you don’t need to worry.  If you get stuck out in the backcountry, a headlamp that can sustain light all night on the high setting will be indispensable when things go wrong. For headlamps with a super high battery life, try the Black Diamond Icon, which will run at high output all night long (10 hours). The Black Diamond Spot or the Coast HL7 would last the night if set to low mode, or, if you bring an extra set of AAA batteries.

What is your favorite headlamp?

Let us know in comments below.



Alicja is an economist, enjoys climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, cycling and gets out into the backcountry as much as possible. See all of Alicja's Blog Posts