Headlamps + Lighting Buying Guide
Do you feel like you're in the dark about headlamps and lighting gear? Well, allow me to shed some light on the topic for you. Depending on the activity, there are a whole bunch of lighting options out there that'll help brighten up your adventures once the sun goes down. Or comes up. That sun can never make up its mind.
When do you need a headlamp? When it's dark, duh.
Choose the right lighting for your activity
RUNNING: If you're going out for a run past sundown, bringing a headlamp along is a bright idea. When choosing a headlamp to run with, you'll want to pay attention to things like the fit, weight, and beam distance.
HIKING and BACKPACKING: For an overnight backpacking trip, a headlamp is something you'll be glad you brought. Sure, we have phones with lights on them these days, but having the hands-free option of a headlamp when setting up camp in the dark is way more helpful. It's always a good thing to keep in your day pack, too, because you never know when the sun's just gonna be like "eh I'm done for the day." For these activities, you'll want to know what the battery life is like on your headlamp, and be familiar with the beam options (which we'll talk about later. Obviously).
CLIMBING: When you're climbing as the sun goes down, or comes up, you'll want to have a headlamp that you can trust to light up the route for you. Beam distance and light output are two important factors in choosing a lamp for your climbing needs.
PADDLING: Sometimes the best paddles happen after dusk, when the stars are out and you don't have to worry about getting that weird tan line on your legs from the cockpit of your kayak. You may want to check out waterproof options for your paddling endeavors, or just don't get wet, your choice.... sometimes.
CAMP / TRAVEL: Even if you're car camping or taking the ol' RV out and about, a headlamp is still a good thing to bring along. When you wait too long to get your fire started, nature calls and you've got to venture off the beaten path, or that sunrise hike is calling and well, you obviously must go. Weight and beam aren't as important since you'll have a home base, so you can finally get that one headlamp that you think just looks really cool.
Fit + Weight
Fits like a glove for your head
Band size and material can make a difference
FIT: No two noggins are alike, and therefore no two headlamps will fit quite the same. Trying on your options is always a good idea, especially if you'll be doing an activity with a lot of movement. If you're running or climbing, for example, you'll want to be extra sure that you've found the right fit. Nobody wants to deal with a bouncy light. It's always good to have a headlamp that fits well, even if you're just sitting around a campsite or walking the dog at night.
The type of band can make or break a fit for some people, too. Most headlamps will have a soft elastic band that goes around the head and rests on the forehead. Some heavier options will come with a strap that goes over top of the head for extra support, but it can just be a preference thing too. Although rare, you will also see a strap that uses a retractable cord for a more thin design. Like the perfect pair of pants, you really gotta try it on to get that "this is the one" feeling.
WEIGHT: Just like fit, weight is an important factor when it comes to activities where you're on the move. Hitting the trail for a jog with a heavy headlamp can become super annoying within the first few strides, so you'll want to have a light and well-fitting option. Typically, a lightweight headlamp will be somewhere in the 2 to 3 ounce range, and the heaviest of lamp can get all the way up to around 13 ounces.
Beam me up, Scotty.
Variable beams can cover your needs for most activities
SPOT BEAM (Focused or Narrow): Good for being able to see what's in front of you when you're hiking, running, or cycling in the dark. This beam will provide a nice lighted path kind of like the isles in the movie theater but better.
WIDE BEAM (Flood): Good for the campsite, this beam will spread the love and allow you to see a larger area at once.
VARIABLE BEAM: The jack of all trades when it comes to headlamps, this guy is able to switch between wide angle and spot beams so you can see it all.
BEAM DISTANCE: This tells you the distance your beam is going to be able to project what's considered "usable light". The very end of the beam is said to be as bright as a full moon, so if that one guy starts howling again you should probably get out of there.
"Shine bright like a lumen" – Rihanna's next hit, probably
Check for a max lumen output
Lumens are the unit of measurement used to define the brightness of your headlamp. Be sure to note the lumens on the headlamp you're checking out so that you know what kind of brightness you can expect from that beam. The lumen range for headlamps can be anywhere from 50 lumens all the way up to 1,000 lumens. So bright.
Headlamps typically come with a few mode options for varying light conditions. Here are the common ones you'll see:
HIGH (Max): The brightest option on your headlamp. Be conscious of the fact that this mode will use the most battery life of all the settings.
MIDDLE: Not too bright, not too dim, this setting is just right for eating that bowl of porridge.
LOW: The most energy efficient setting, the low setting can be helpful when dusk hits and you need that bit of extra light on the trail.
STROBE: This setting is a good option to use as a signal for help between your friends or a passerby on the trail in an emergency or any tricky situation.
RED: Red light helps your eyes maintain night vision because it provides light without causing your pupils to do that thing where they get tiny around bright light. It's not as bright as the others, but it's got its own thing going for it.
Charge 'em up
Don't forget to pack extra, you guys
STANDARD: AA or AAA alkaline batteries are pretty standard when it comes to headlamps. Some models that use 4 batteries will put the battery pack in the back of the headband to even out the weight. This is where those extra over-the-head straps I was talking about before can come in handy.
RECHARGEABLE: If you want to get real fancy, some headlamps can use rechargeable batteries such as NIMH or Lithium Ion. If you're going somewhere without electricity, make sure you have your backups charged.
RUN-TIME: This is going to be the amount of time that your headlamp will run on a fully charged battery at its most efficient setting (typically the low setting).
They're back and brighter than ever
Great for lighting tents or group campsites
FUEL-BURNING: These more traditional-style lanterns that use various forms of fuel to give you a great glow around the campsite. Liquid-fuel, propane, and butane can all be used as a source of fuel. These are definitely one of the more bulky options in the world of campsite lighting, but are a great when you want that old-school feel with more reliability than a candle lantern.
ELECTRIC: The future of lanterns is now, you guys. Electric lanterns typically use LED lights these days because they offer some awesome features like a long battery life and a strong light output. Having to carry around more batteries is the only downside of this type of lantern.... though there are also rechargeable options these days, too.
CANDLE: There's really nothing better for sharing spooky stories around the campfire than this classic-style lantern. One or more candles give off a warm glow with little to no noise, but have a light output that is not nearly as bright or wide as the other options. These are great for a cozy feel, but not as great for activities or being moved around.
It's like sunshine on a stick. Kind of.
Can offer more powerful lighting than headlamps or lanterns
WHEN to USE: Flashlights are great when you want a strong light source that you can point in any direction without having to turn your head all weird when you're wearing a headlamp. They can get brighter than a headlamp and offer similar flood and spot beam options.
SIZE + WEIGHT: With all kinds of sizes and light output to choose from, make sure you know what you're looking for when you set out to get your flashlight. Small, portable ones are great to have in your pack for when you need to look at something quickly or read something close to you. Larger flashlights can give off great light beams, but tend to be very heavy because of the batteries involved.
LIGHT OUTPUT + BATTERIES: Flashlight brightness is measured in lumens just like headlamps and can range anywhere from 20 lumens to 3500 lumens. If you're using one of these instead of a headlamp for your nighttime hike, make sure you get one that will give you the beam distance you're looking for. Most flashlights use AA or AAA batteries, but some offer a rechargeable built-in battery that uses a USB connection to charge back up. Some models are made for an emergency situation and will have a battery that charges via solar power or a hand crank.
Just Get Some Lights Already
Without light, it's hard to see stuff. Be prepared for your next adventure with the type of headlamp, lantern, or flashlight that fits your needs. Just don't pull a Mrs O'Leary and kick that lantern over or you'll ruin the trip.