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Headlamp Reviews

By: Lisa Maloney on July 14, 2017

Editor's note:
Black Diamond continues to dominate most of our headlamp categories, but this update also highlights some worthy challengers from brands like Coast, Fenix and Petzl, which is currently king of the "smart" headlamps. We also found a great, compact headlamp choice, as well as terrific picks for any type of night running.

Black Diamond Spot Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Lumens: 300 Est. battery life: 7 hours @ max Weight: 90g (3.2 oz.)

Best hiking/camping headlamp

The 300-lumen Black Diamond Spot's versatility makes it a perennial favorite for outdoor uses. This headlamp strikes an excellent balance between brightness, battery life, size and durability, and is an exceptional value too. The newly updated 2017 version features IPX8 waterproofing, a red light mode you can access without cycling through the white light mode, and Black Diamond's PowerTap technology, which allows you to control the headlamp's brightness by tapping the side of the casing with your finger.

Buy for $28.65
Black Diamond Storm Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Lumens: 350 Est. battery life: 8 hours @ max Weight: 110g (3.9 oz.)

Best weatherproof headlamp

If you're stuck in a dust storm or swimming in the dark, the 350-lumen Black Diamond Storm is the best headlamp to have along. IP67 weatherproofing (impervious to dust, submersible to one meter) makes this one tough, versatile headlamp. You can activate the red, green and blue night vision modes without cycling through the white light mode, and regulated lighting means that the illumination from the Black Diamond Storm won't fade as the battery power fades.

Buy for $49.95
Petzl e+LITE Review
Also Consider
Specs that Matter Lumens: 50 Est. battery life: 9 hours @ max Weight: 26g (<1 oz.)

Compact headlamp

This tiny, but mighty, headlamp is small enough to fit in a pocket, small bag, glovebox or bike pannier. The most recently updated version of the Petzl e+LITE features a thin, adjustable headband instead of the previous model's retractable cord, plus a built-in whistle for use in emergencies. At just one ounce, the e+LITE is light enough that you'll barely notice it's there, but it puts out 50 lumens with a reach of up to 10 meters.

Buy for $44.88
Black Diamond Sprinter Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Lumens: 200 Est. battery life: 4 hours @ max Weight: 105g (3.7 oz.)

Best headlamp for trail running

The small, light Black Diamond Sprinter headlamp is designed specifically for runners, with a flashing red taillight, a rear-mounted battery pack to keep the headlamp centered on your head, and regulated lighting so the light never dims. It's comfortable when worn as a waist belt, too, and comes with an optional top strap. The Sprinter is rated to be stormproof (IPX4) and its rechargeable battery provides up to 200 lumens of light for about four hours in its brightest mode.

Buy for $74.98
Princeton Tec Sync Review
Also Consider
Specs that Matter Lumens: 150 Battery life: 70 hours @ max Weight: 83g (3 oz.)

Best headlamp for urban running

The 150-lumen Princeton Tec Sync is small, compact and comfortable to wear at a run -- the perfect no-frills headlamp for running in urban environments with occasional lighting, or to use as a backup headlamp for trail runs. Instead of a button, it uses a dial selector to switch between lighting modes, which include a red light mode for preserving night vision and a lockout mode to prevent accidental battery drain. The battery life is particularly impressive.

Buy for $22.92

Types of Headlamps

Hiking/Camping Headlamps

If you're hiking or camping, both weight and space in your pack come at a premium. The best headlamps for outdoorsy pursuits acknowledge that by striking a useful balance between brightness, compact size, light weight and battery life. The controls for any hiking or camping headlamp should be easy enough to use with gloves on, and having a red light mode helps preserve night vision while doing tasks around camp or reading in your tent at night.

Weatherproof Headlamps

For those who depend on their headlamp during far-flung outdoor adventures or have to work outside no matter what the weather is doing, a weatherproof headlamp is the best way to preserve your source of light. Rubber seals and precision-fitted compartments make the best headlamps waterproof against wind-blown rain and even full immersion; some models are also proof against dust.

Compact Headlamps

Sometimes biggest and brightest isn't best. Compact headlamps are the perfect tool if you need a hands-free light source that is small enough to tuck in your purse or pocket, or as a backup to use while you're changing the batteries in a larger headlamp. Compact headlamps generally provide enough light for reading and performing tasks that are close at hand, but their capability for route-finding is limited.

Running Headlamps

Runners have a few special needs when it comes to headlamps. The light should be small, light and well-balanced; nothing kills a run like having a headlamp slip or bounce around on your head. Brightness factors in, too: If you're running in an urban environment, you usually don't need a lot of light to see your path and make yourself seen by drivers or cyclists. But if you're doing ultra-endurance runs or long trail runs that extend into the night, you might prefer a somewhat heavier, but brighter, headlamp to help you find your way.

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 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, the manufacturers want their products to look as impressive as possible, so they almost always list the lumen rating for the headlamp's 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. That said, we're happy to report that on many headlamps freshly updated for 2017, we see some manufacturers making more realistic claims about beam reach and battery life.

Usually, if you flip the headlamp packaging over and check the backside (or make a few prudent clicks online), in almost every case 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 average around 500 lumens of lighting power. 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-headlamp's 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 150 and 300 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 -- about 3 feet -- of water. So a headlamp with IP67 protection, which you'll see more than once 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.

Finding The Best Headlamps
Our Sources
"The Hunt for the Best Headlamp"
"The Best Headlamp"
"7 Headlamps for Runners, Reviewed"

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 their manufacturer's claims, 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 for 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. $40), which has long been beloved of expert and user reviewers alike for its great performance, good battery life and exceptional value.

The recently introduced 2017 model of the Spot offers 300 lumens of lighting power with spot and flood modes combined, a 50 percent increase over the 2016 model's 200 lumens. Otherwise the features on the newest version of the Spot remain unchanged, including full IPX8 waterproofing. So far, early user feedback indicates that like the 2016 model, the 2017 Spot will continue to outperform many headlamps that cost twice as much.

The 2017 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 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 a high score 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 QuadPower and DoublePower white LEDS offers a max distance of 80m at high mode; the SinglePower red LED has a max distance of 10m.

Those brightness claims hold up well when batteries are fresh but, without regulated output, the Spot's light output dims as the battery power fades. In their latest update the manufacturer downgraded their claims of battery life at high power from 50 hours to 25 hours, but user reviews indicate that real-world performance is likely to more like 7 hours of usefully bright light. You can conserve battery power quite a bit if you switch to a lower setting.

As we noted earlier, hat discrepancy between claimed burn time and actual burn time is all but universal in the headlamp industry. In spite of that, the Black Diamond Spot's estimated 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 300 lumens of light in a compact headlamp -- unheard of just a few years ago -- isn't enough light for you, the newly redesigned 500-lumen Black Diamond Icon (Est. $100) 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, dustproof and waterproof (IP67) body 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. We didn't find any tests of battery life for the newest version of the Black Diamond Icon, but OutdoorGearLab.com measured the previous version'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 (now reduced to a more modest 50 hours in the 2017 model), 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 night-vision mode that you can access without cycling through the white light; the night-vision mode offers not just red lighting but also blue and green options. The Icon's beam distance fell just a little bit short in OutdoorGearLab.com's testing -- 82 meters versus the manufacturer's promised 100 meters (now updated to 110 meters in the 2017 model) -- but users are still thrilled with the Icon's brightness and battery life, and the new model comes with brightness memory that switches the headlamp back on at the same brightness setting as when you turned it off.

Another nifty feature for the 2017 Black Diamond Icon is a detachable battery pack that you can stow in your pocket. Keeping the battery pack warm in cold weather extends the headlamp's battery life, and of course it takes a little weight off your head and neck, too. Although some complain that the battery pack on the Black Diamond Icon makes it too bulky, it's become a surprise darling of hardcore ultra-runners who need a headlamp that packs enough brightness and battery life to see them through an entire night of running.

We found a few scattered complaints that the waterproofing on the previous version of the Black Diamond Icon wasn't always up to snuff -- perhaps due to issues with getting the sealed battery compartment properly latched -- but in general, it's still plenty tough. 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 new version of the Icon also draws praise from GearPatrol.com for being one of the highest-quality headlamps of the year, and Switchback Travel describes it as "bombproof." The only real downside is that, like the Spot and many other headlamps currently on the market, the Icon's light is not regulated; so as the battery power fades, so does its light output.

Although our two top picks are pretty waterproof, users and experts still love the Black Diamond Storm (Est. $40) for use in really foul weather. It's also a great value and offers regulated lighting in a small and lightweight package, so the light stays constant even as the batteries weaken. Like most Black Diamond headlamps, the Storm received a recent upgrade: the 2017 model now packs 350 lumens -- a full 100 lumens more than the previous year's model -- and a max distance of 80 meters. It has red, green and blue-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.

We're still waiting for updated battery life results on the newest model of the Storm, but it has a decent reputation to uphold: Testers at OutdoorGearLab.com found that the 2015 model lasted about 8 hours at max power, and while testing headlamps for Outside.com, kayaker and expedition photographer Darin McQuoid noted that the Storm had by far the longest battery life of the models he tested. The 2017 Storm's manufacturer specs have been updated to reflect a battery life of 22 hours -- much more realistic than the 80 hours promised for previous models.

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. Reviewers consistently found the PowerTap technology -- a touch-sensitive dimmer switch on the side of the housing -- easy to use, but say they didn't miss this feature terribly when using other headlamps. The Storm's brightness memory, which lets you switch it on at the same brightness levels it had when turned off, is a more popular feature just added on the 2017 model.

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 about backing the three-year warranty on their headlamps. If you're not a fan of Black Diamond for any reason, though, consider the following brands, which have become recognized for their powerful illumination and sensible features.

The Coast HL7 (Est. $35) scored a real coup by bumping older, most established brands to claim the top spot in the latest round of testing from OutdoorGearLab.com. The magic recipe here is a combination of simple, intuitive controls and bright light in a relatively lightweight package -- just 4.4 ounces (124g). For users who are frustrated by high-tech headlamps that require you to memorize a complex sequence of complex taps or button presses, the Coast HL7's controls are delightfully simple: It has a button to turn it on, a lever on the back of the headlamp to adjust light intensity, and a focus ring to adjust the beam from close-up floodlight to far-reaching spot.

The Coast HL7's 285 lumens of light output are more than enough for most users. Although we're still waiting on comparative test results for the newest version of the Coast HL7, testers evaluating a previous version for OutdoorGearLab.com measured a beam distance of 131 meters and a runtime of 3.4 hours in high mode. That exceeded the manufacturer's promised 119 meters and max runtime of 1.5 hours -- a refreshing change in a product field where most manufacturer claims aren't very realistic.

The HL7 is clearly built with just one task in mind, and it excels at that: "It's simple functionality that is absolutely painless in use—there's no need to cycle through various modes to swap between close proximity and distance," write the staff at Switchback Travel, where they name the Coast HL7 one of the year's top headlamps. It's also built sturdy, with an impact- and weather-resistant casing that is backed up by a lifetime guarantee and customer service that users say is wonderful.

 The only thing that keeps us from placing the Coast HL7 higher in this report is its poor battery life, a concern echoed by almost every reviewer that's handled it, although that does little to diminish its overall popularity. There's no denying the HL7's great mix of performance, sensible controls and great value.

Another hot topic is the Fenix HP25R (Est. $85). This headlamp has been on our radar for a couple of years, but wasn't included in last year's report because it was temporarily unavailable. Now it's back in a rechargeable version that earns a "Top Pick" designation from OutdoorGearLab.com for its exceptional brightness and trail finding ability. "Sometimes you just need a super bright light," they write.

The Fenix HP25R's light output is impressive, with a total of nine different lighting modes to choose from. Its standard spot strength is 350 lumens, but that can be boosted to a staggering 1,000 lumens in Turbo mode, although that diminishes total runtime to an equally staggering 1.5 hours; it's rated for 4.5 hours in the standard high mode.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Fenix HP25R also offers a faint, 0.2-lumen red light mode. The headlamp itself weighs 6.5 ounces (184g), not including the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which can be swapped out for two CR123A batteries in a pinch.

Users say this headlamp is great for cycling, caving, and work applications like night avionics, where high light output is the absolute highest priority, and they like its rugged aluminum chassis and having a dedicated push-button control for each bulb (spot and flood). That said, the headlamp can get hot quickly when used at max power, and the chassis is only rated IPX6 -- water-resistant enough for most conditions, but if you need a super-bright headlamp that is also fully waterproof or dustproof, consider the 500-lumen Black Diamond Icon (Est. $100) or the 350-lumen Black Diamond Storm (Est. $40).

Ultimately, we think the Fenix HP25R is a great choice if you need a super-bright light for short periods. But for hiking, camping, and any other applications that require you to balance weight, runtime and lighting, you'll may be better served by the many other headlamps we've covered that are smaller, lighter and less expensive. Or, as the editors at OutdoorGearLab.com write, "If you need less than the brightest, choose something else."

Compact headlamps are great as 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, lightweight headlamp like the 50-lumen 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 lightweight headband and a built-in whistle for summoning emergency help -- 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 cinch-able, lightweight band makes it easy to attach this light to your bike handlebars, a fencepost, or any other handy object. If you see a Petzl e+LITE with an elastic cord instead of the lightweight headband, it's an older version -- still very good, but with only about half the lumens of the newest version.

The e+LITE weighs only 26g (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 50 lumens with a reach of up to 10 meters, that's enough to help out in an emergency, and it's waterproof (IPX7) for up to 30 minutes of exposure at 1 meter of depth. Testers with OutdoorGearLab.com reported that the Petzl e+ LITE actually exceeded its advertised burn time of 9 hours, and it is covered by a 10-year warranty.

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