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Best Running Headlamps

By: Lisa Maloney on July 14, 2017

Headlamps keep runners safe by helping them see and be seen in any environment

Headlamps serve two purposes for runners: They help illuminate the trail or pathway you're running on, and they also make you more visible to drivers, cyclists and other runners along the way. If you're running on dark trails, you'll need a fairly bright headlamp that gives you enough range to anticipate and avoid obstacles; but if you're running in the city, you can afford to focus more on finding a lamp that's light weight and compact, while still being bright enough to make yourself seen and get you through spots between street lamps or other illumination.

For trail runners -- and urban runners too -- our best-reviewed running headlamp is the Black Diamond Sprinter (Est. $75). Users love that it has runner-friendly features like a red strobe taillight (which you can turn on and off) and a rear battery pack that puts the heaviest part of the light behind you, so the headlamp never slides down or bounces around on your forehead. This little headlamp only weighs 105g (3.7 ounces).

Black Diamond's PowerTap technology -- which backcountry hikers and campers seem generally ambivalent about -- really comes into its own for runners; they love being able to tap the side of the casing to quickly set the headlamp to maximum intensity when near vehicles or fast-moving bikes, then tap it again to return to the previous setting. The Sprinter's lithium polymer battery charges via a USB port in about 5 hours and provides roughly 4 hours of run time at max lighting: 200 lumens, with a max distance of 50 meters.

That's not enough time for serious backcountry use, but it's plenty for most runners, especially if at least part of your run takes place during daylight. Also, Outside's "Gear Guy," Doug Gantenbein, says that on the low setting (which reduces throw distance to 2 meters), he was able to get more than 60 hours of use from a single charge on the previous version of the Sprinter. That's better than the manufacturer's advertised 42 hours of runtime on low.

The Sprinter also receives a "top pick for runners" award from OutdoorGearLab.com, an editor's choice award from Trail Runner magazine, and a nod from Jacob Waltz with GearInstitute.com. Waltz says the Sprinter stays put even without the use of the optional top strap, and it's comfortable when worn as a waist light. The Sprinter is rated as "stormproof" (IPX4); it can withstand rain and sleet from any angle, and it's regulated for constant illumination, even as the battery runs down.

If you're a hardcore backcountry runner that spends a lot of time in the dark, you'll probably prefer the Black Diamond Storm (Est. $40), our best-reviewed weatherproof headlamp. It's completely sealed and waterproof, and produces regulated light, with a max power of 350 lumens and a max range of 80 meters. Its run time is closer to 8 hours on the high setting, and it uses four AAA batteries that can be replaced in the field if you need continuing light.

Urban runners just need a small, basic headlamp

If you do most of your running in urban settings or are looking for a small, dependable headlamp without all the high-tech bells and whistles, consider the 150-lumen Princeton Tec Sync (Est. $30), our best headlamp for urban runs. It's small, lightweight (83g/3 ounces), and has a dial for selecting lighting modes instead of a button. Options include a red LED and a lockout mode to keep the headlamp from turning on in your pocket. Users either love that dial or they hate it; those that aren't fans say it takes two hands to operate and is the part most prone to failure.

With that said, the Sync draws heaps of expert praise from the likes of TrailandUltraRunning.com and Trail Runner magazine and Backpacker magazine. "It's as simple and intuitive as it gets, yet still has all the features we want" writes Kristen Hostetter with Backpacker, where the Sync was selected for an Editor's Choice award in 2015. That's a couple of years ago at this point, but we haven't seen anything else notable emerge to fill this particular, affordable niche. The Princeton Tec Sync also gets a "Best in Class" award from GearInstitute.com, along with praise for its comfort and bounce-free ride as you run.

Users love the Princeton Tec Sync too, saying it's the perfect no-nonsense, functional headlamp at a great price, with enough light to illuminate a dark road during your morning or evening runs. You'll probably want something more powerful for remote trail runs, though, and if you're facing foul weather, something like the Black Diamond Storm (Est. $40) is more appropriate. That's because Princeton Tec doesn't release water- or dustproofing specs for the Sync, and we see reports that bad weather can short out its dial switch.

The Sync runs on three AAA batteries; the manufacturer promises 97 hours of burn time on max power (38m max range), or 200 hours on low power. Testers with Backpacker got about 70 hours out of a previous version on max brightness before it became too dim to use -- but note, that's not the same as having 70 hours of actual maximal performance. Because the Sync doesn't provide regulated lighting, its brightness dims as the batteries fade.

Consider a smart headlamp

If you are a fan of high-tech or "smart" headlamps, the best in the market right now is the Petzl NAO (Est. $160), which has a reactive lighting feature that automatically adjusts the beam to match ambient light conditions and the distance to your target. There are occasional misfires -- for example, testers with OutdoorGearLab.com say that campfires, other headlamps and even reflective surfaces can confuse the reactive lighting feature and cause it to flicker annoyingly -- but this technology has been around for a few years now and is drawing an ever-increasing group of fans.

OutdoorGearLab.com testers also say they got an abysmal battery life from the Petzl NAO -- about 2 hours on the max brightness, and 113 meters of reach. Still, this headlamp's bright, even beam earned the only perfect trail finding score in the OutdoorGearLab.com tests, and it has since been updated with an even brighter beam: Up to 500 lumens of light in constant mode, AKA manual control, and a maximum of 700 lumens in reactive lighting mode.

The NAO has a few other nice features: An optional belt kit lets you move the battery pack to your waist to keep it warm, and the rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack can be replaced with two AAA alkaline or lithium batteries. It also has the usual lockout function to preserve battery life while in your pack. If you spring for the slightly more expensive Petzl NAO+ (Est. $200) you get the same headlamp plus a few extra lumens (750 lumens in reactive lighting more, 530 lumens in constant mode) and Bluetooth compatibility that lets you tweak the light settings on the go and gauge remaining battery life/runtime using the MyPetzl Light app on a mobile device. On the downside, the NAO+ remains relatively bulky at 185g or 6.5 ounces.

Some users still prefer a simple, straightforward headlamp. But others are coming to appreciate the way this reactive lighting technology has matured over the last few years, and say that despite the occasional bobble -- for example, the headlamp dimming when it contacts condensation from your breath on a cool morning -- they enjoy the hands-free convenience and adjustability of a headlamp like the latest version of the Petzl NAO.

If you like the idea of the Petzl NAO's reactive lighting but don't like its price or don't need that much light, consider its baby brother, the Petzl Reactik (Est. $85), an updated version of the much-loved Petzl Tikka headlamp line. The Reactik has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and the same reactive lighting capability as the NAO, with a max output of 220 lumens. It also comes in a "plus" version, the Petzl Reactik+ (Est. $110), which has a little extra power -- 300 lumens -- and is Bluetooth compatible with the MyPetzl Light mobile app.

OutsideOnline.com chooses the Petzl Reactik+ as one of the 10 best headlamps; the editors seem to entertained by the fact that you can program your Reactik+ to blink messages in Morse code -- although of course, that requires someone on the other end who knows how to understand what's being blinked, and users say the Bluetooth pairing seems to work best with iOS devices. Heads up: Users also report that the app still isn't the most user-friendly creation in the world, although it's significantly easier to use than its predecessor.

The staff at GadgetReview.com also choose the Petzl Reactik+ as one of the best new headlamps, noting that you can program burn times on the fly to make sure you don't run out of battery while you're out running or walking -- a nice antidote to the Reactik+'s short battery life, which is as bad as the Petzl NAO's. At least Petzl is honest, advertising max burn times of 3.5 hours and a maximum beam reach of 65 meters for the Petzl Reactik in high mode, and 2.5 hours/110 meters for the Petzl Reactik+.

An optional battery pack that lets you replace the rechargeable batteries in the Reactik and Reactik+ with three AAA batteries is a nice touch when in remote areas, as is the washable head strap -- a major plus for trail runners who say they love these headlamps for short- to medium-length outings, but don't want to carry the funk of a sweaty headband around with them all the time. They say the unusual split-in-back strap is comfortable and holds the headlamp steady, and the IPX4 weather-resistance is adequate for most conditions you'd be out running in.

The Petzl Reactik and Reactik+ both weigh 4.1 ounces (116 grams) and have a suite of useful features including a red light mode, adjustable beam width, and a power-lockout mode to keep the headlamp from turning on in your pack.

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