There's a headlamp to fill every lighting need
If you've ever tried to change a tire or work on your car by the light of a flashlight clenched in your teeth, you already appreciate the convenience of hands-free lighting. A good headlamp gets you the same result without putting your dental work at risk. Most headlamps also go one better than a flashlight by having several lighting modes, including a strobe light for signaling in emergency situations, and a red light mode to discreetly illuminate while still preserving your night vision.
Many modern headlamps are water-resistant or waterproof as well, with solid seals that block out dust, water and other contaminants. Once you try a headlamp, you probably won't go back; they're indispensable for everything from exploring dark caves to cycling on dark roads or finding that quarter that rolled into the dark space under your car seat.
Measuring a headlamp's brightness
Today's headlamps use LED bulbs exclusively; they're smaller, brighter and more energy efficient than the bulbs found on older headlamps. Brightness is measured in lumens: the higher the number of lumens, the brighter the headlamp. Most headlamps nowadays have several lighting powers and, of course, they want to look as impressive as possible, so they almost always list the lumen rating for their highest power.
High-powered light eats up battery life, though, so headlamp manufacturers usually give the battery life for the lowest light setting, placed right next to the lumen rating for the brightest mode. The result is, predictably, that consumers expect that sort of battery life at the high setting. You can read more about how headlamp manufacturers almost stopped this misleading practice -- then decided to keep it up anyway -- in an excellent article by OutdoorGearLab.com. Usually, if you flip the headlamp packaging over and check the backside (or make a few prudent clicks online), you'll be able to see the lumen rating and battery life for each of the headlamp's lighting modes, plus the "throw," or how far the beam's light reaches for each mode.
Nowadays, the most powerful headlamps clock in at around 500 lumens. That's great for cyclists advertising their presence on dark roads, climbers lighting up the crag, or hikers scaring Sasquatch away from their backcountry campsite. But that much light can also be annoying, battery-slaying overkill if all you want to do is read a book or tie your bootlaces, so take a look at the specs for your uber-headlamps low light modes, too.
Runners in particular tend to appreciate the compact size and light weight that come with a mid-range headlamp that provides between 100 and 200 lumens; that's also a sweet spot for use in the home or around the car, and some backcountry users are comfortable with this sort of light, too.
What IP ratings mean for your headlamp
The best headlamps are both waterproof and dustproof, which allows them to keep working in almost any adverse conditions. An engineered object's protection against solid objects and liquids is usually given with a two-digit IP, or ingress protection, rating. The first digit in the number gives the protection against solid objects, with "0" being no special protection and "6" being totally protected against dust.
The second digit gives the protection against liquids, with "0" being no special protection and "8" being protected against long periods of immersion under pressure. Another common IP rating for liquids, "7," signifies protection against the effects of immersion in 15cm to 1 meter of water. So a headlamp with IP67 protection, which you'll see in this report, is completely dustproof and can be submerged in up to 1 meter of water. If you see an "X" in place of a digit -- for example, IPX8 -- it's a placeholder that means the headlamp is not rated for that category of protection.
You can see a full listing of IP ratings, including information on the rarely used third digit that signifies protection against mechanical impacts, at EngineeringToolbox.com.
The best headlamps are lightweight, bright, compact, and reliable even in challenging weather or dusty conditions. To find the headlamps that really stand up to the manufacturer's claim, we first examined expert, hands-on reviews from sites like OutdoorGearLab.com, TheWirecutter.com, GearInstitute.com, and Switchback Travel. Trail Runner magazine and TrailandUltraRunning.com had useful feedback for running headlamps, as did the online presences for Outside and Backpacker magazines. We also found lots of helpful user reviews on REI.com and Amazon.com.
We give the same thorough evaluation to other outdoor gear -- so before you leave the house, you might want to check out our reports on binoculars, insect repellent, and hiking footwear.
Best hiking/camping headlamps
Whether you're out on the trail after dark or just puttering around camp, the best headlamp for hiking and camping is bright, compact, lightweight and easy to use. A red light mode comes in handy for preserving night vision while doing tasks around camp or reading at night without bothering your tent mate; and anyone who's ever switched on a headlamp only to be bombarded by bugs will also appreciate that the red light mode is less likely to attract insects than a bright white light, since they can't see the red light.
Some headlamp manufacturers seem to be engaged in an arms race to create the brightest bulbs -- but more power usually means a heavier and more expensive headlamp, which you're then less likely to buy or carry. We found the sweet spot where light weight, compact size, powerful light and reasonable price all intersect in our best reviewed model, the Black Diamond Spot (Est. $90), which has long been beloved of expert and user reviewers alike for its great performance, good battery life and exceptional value.
The 2015 model of the Spot was already very popular, but the updated 2016 model is an especially great value. With a more than 50 percent increase in brightness (200 lumens at max power) and full IPX8 waterproofing, it regularly outperforms headlamps that cost twice as much. The easiest way to make sure you're getting the updated model is by checking the battery compartment access: The 2015 model's battery compartment opened from the bottom, but the 2016 model's compartment opens from the side, which users say makes it much easier to get into.
The 2016 Black Diamond Spot is tested to operate for up to 30 minutes while submerged in more than a meter of water. It should keep running even if water gets into the battery compartment, although you'll need to dry it out afterwards or the headlamp's performance will degrade. User reports from the field show that the headlamp usually lives up to those durability claims very well.
Brightness and waterproofing aside, the Black Diamond Spot has all the features you'd expect from a more expensive headlamp, including a red light mode (both strobe and floodlight) that you can get into without toggling through the white light mode, and a lockout mode to keep the headlamp from accidentally turning on in your pack and draining the battery. It also has a three-stage battery indicator that illuminates for three seconds when the headlamp first switches on, letting you see how much juice you have left.
The Spot (along with almost all current Black Diamond headlamps) also has a "PowerTap" feature that lets you adjust brightness by tapping the right side of the casing. Experts and users are both split on just how useful this feature is, but you don't have to use it; you can also adjust beam brightness by holding the power button when the headlamp is already on. The single-button control isn't terribly intuitive -- you use a combination of holds (of varying length) and double-presses to switch modes or adjust brightness -- but most users say they get used to it after a little while.
The Spot receives one of the highest scores from expert testers at OutdoorGearLab.com, performing particularly well in the trail finding, ease of use, proximity and brightness categories. It's also a top pick after hands-on testing from TheWirecutter.com and Switchback Travel, and gets a great review from OutsideOnline.com. Its single TriplePower LED offers a max distance of 80m at high mode; the SinglePower red and white LEDs have max distances of 10m.
Those brightness claims hold up well when batteries are fresh but, without regulated output, the light dims as the battery power fades. Also, the manufacturer claims about 50 hours of burn time at the brightest mode, but users say it's really more like 7 hours of usefully bright light. (You can conserve battery power quite a bit if you switch to a lower setting.)
Sadly, that discrepancy between claimed burn time and actual burn time is all but universal in the headlamp industry; see this excellent article from OutdoorGearLab.com for an explanation of why that is. In spite of that, the Black Diamond Spot's 7-hour burn time at max power still puts it near the top of the field for a compact headlamp. It runs off three AAA batteries and weighs 90g (3.2 ounces).
If 200 lumens of light in a compact headlamp -- unheard of just a few years ago -- isn't enough light for you, the 320-lumen Black Diamond Icon (Est. $65) is a solid heavy-duty headlamp. We mean the "heavy" part literally, since it weighs 230g (8.1 ounces) and runs off four AA batteries -- but experts and users say it's plenty bright enough for lighting up a climbing crag or route finding in the dark, and its fully sealed, waterproof (IPX7) is tested to keep the headlamp functioning for 30 minutes in up to a meter of water, with no maintenance required afterward.
In fact, the Icon gets one of the highest scores in trail finding from the expert testers at OutdoorGearLab.com, along with praise for its battery life, brightness, and ease of use. OutdoorGearLab.com measures the Icon's run time at 9.4 hours of usable light in the brightest light mode. Although that's significantly less than the manufacturer's claim of 75 hours, it's a substantial increase over the Black Diamond Spot, so this is the headlamp you go for if you need a full night of serious illumination.
Like the Black Diamond Spot, the Icon also has a three-stage battery power indicator and a red light mode (both proximity and strobe) that you can access without cycling through the white light. Its beam distance fell just a little bit short in OutdoorGearLab.com's testing -- 82 meters versus the manufacturer's promised 100 meters -- but users are still thrilled with the Icon's brightness and battery life.
We found a few scattered complaints that the Black Diamond Icon's waterproofing isn't always up to snuff -- perhaps due to issues with getting the sealed battery compartment properly latched -- but in general, it's so tough that one user said that when he accidentally left his headlamp tied to a tree for a few months, all he had to do was replace the batteries and put it to work again. The only real downside is that, like the Spot and many other headlamps currently on the market, the Icon's light is not regulated; that means the output will dim as the battery fades. For an extra $10 you can get the Black Diamond Icon Polar (Est. $55), the same headlamp with a detachable battery pack to help extend battery life when operated in cold conditions.
Although our two top picks are pretty waterproof, users and experts still love the Black Diamond Storm (Est. $50) for use in really foul weather; it's also a great value and offers regulated lighting, so the light stays constant even as the batteries weaken. The Storm also received a recent upgrade: the 2016 model now packs 250 lumens -- 90 lumens more than the previous year's model -- and a max distance of 80 meters. It has both red-light and green-light modes to preserve your night vision. Both night modes have strobe and proximity settings, and can be accessed without cycling through the white light mode.
That said, this headlamp's most valuable feature is its fully sealed IP67 dustproof and waterproof casing. Thanks to a secure-latching battery compartment and waterproof gasket, the Storm is tested to perform for 30 minutes in up to one meter of water and doesn't require any maintenance afterward. If you need to use a headlamp in a dust storm or go swimming in the dark, the Storm is up to the job.
The Black Diamond Storm also uses a heatsink to warm the batteries and extend their useful life. While testing headlamps for Outside.com, kayaker and expedition photographer Darin McQuoid found it to have by far the longest battery life of the models he tested; OutdoorGearLab.com measured the battery life of the 2015 model at just under 8 hours, compared to the manufacturer's claim of 80 hours in high mode. They also ranked it highly in the ease of use, brightness and trail finding categories.
The Storm weighs 110g (3.9 ounces), uses four AAA batteries and comes with the same PowerTap technology, single-button operation, lockout feature and three-stage battery level indicator that you'll find on the other upgraded Black Diamond headlamps.
Not a fan of Black Diamond?
Black Diamond has come to dominate the headlamp market in recent years, and users say their customer service is generally good. (Their headlamps are backed by a three-year warranty.) If you're not a fan of Black Diamond for any reason, though, consider the brand they displaced from the king of the lighting hill: Petzl's Tikka line of headlamps still has a very loyal user following, and their Petzl Tikka XP (Est. $50) is a great example of the solid, reliable mid-range headlamps they produce.
The editors at Switchback Travel praise the Tikka XP for its "superior" battery life and regulated lighting, which stays bright even as the batteries fade; the experts at GearPatrol.com say its single button is easy to operate, even with gloves on. Users generally agree, saying this headlamp is everything they want for a variety of applications: bright, light and easy to use, without a lot of unnecessary frills.
The Petzl Tikka XP has a max lumen rating of 120 lumens with a reach of 50 meters (or 180 lumens and 75 meters for a brief, 10-second boost), and a red light mode that includes a strobe option. This is also one of the very rare cases in which the manufacturer actually provides a realistic estimate of burn time (2 hours at 120 lumens), which the headlamp then exceeds (OutdoorGearLab.com testers measured it at more than 3 hours).
The Tikka XP weighs 85g (3 ounces), is rated as weather-resistant (IPX4) and runs off three AAA batteries. It's also warrantied for three years, is compatible with rechargeable Ni-MH and lithium batteries, and will automatically switch to red light mode when the batteries are nearly out, extending the useful light of the headlamp.
Don't forget to carry a backup
Any hiker, camper or climber can tell you that when your headlamp dies, changing the batteries in the dark is a lot harder than you might expect. Having a small, light headlamp like the Petzl e+LITE (Est. $30) in your pocket makes the whole process much easier. This tiny headlamp -- about the size of a roll of quarters, with a retractable cord instead of a headband -- is also great for stowing in your glovebox in case of car trouble, or in your bike panniers in case you find yourself out longer than expected. The cord makes it easy to attach this light to your bike handlebars, a fencepost, or any other handy object.
The e+LITE weighs only 27g (just under one ounce), runs off two CR2032 batteries, and has a dial to switch between red, white and strobe light modes, along with a lockout mode to eliminate accidental battery drain. Although it only puts out 26 lumens with a reach of up to 29 meters, that's enough to help out in an emergency, and it's waterproof (IP67). Although the e+LITE falls far short of its promised 55-hour run time in its brightest mode, OutdoorGearLab.com measured it was running more than 9 hours -- which still puts it near the top of the headlamp heap for overall battery life. The Petzl e+LITE is covered by a 10-year warranty.