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Headlamp Buying Guide

By: Lisa Maloney on July 14, 2017

What the best headlamp has

A reasonable weight. High-powered models are usually heavier, but many compact headlamps weigh less than 4 ounces. The best headlamps are bright, but also light enough to wear comfortably for the time you need them.

A long battery life. Be sure to check independent tests of headlamps' battery life whenever possible; manufacturers' claims can be deceptive, because they usually list the lumen rating for the brightest lighting mode next to the battery life for the dimmest lighting mode. This discrepancy is explained very well in this article from OutdoorGearLab.com.

Multiple LEDs. Most headlamps offer a mix of higher- and lower-powered LEDs that let you adjust how much light the headlamp produces (and, by extension, how long its battery lasts).

A red light mode for preserving night vision. If you're using your headlamp in isolated dark spaces like under the hood of your car, a red light mode isn't important. But if you use it outdoors in the dark, that red light mode is invaluable for preserving your night vision, or providing enough light to read a book or tie your boot laces without bothering the people around you. Check and made sure that the headlamp can be cycled into red light mode without going through a white light mode first.

A sturdy, pivoting mount. A pivoting mount lets you adjust the angle of the headlamp's light. This comes in especially handy if you can't stop yourself from turning and looking straight at other people while you have the headlamp on, shining its light straight into their eyes. Just angle the headlamp down so you'll still benefit from some illumination, but you won't blind your buddies.

Water-resistant or waterproof casing. A headlamp's resistance to dust, water and other foreign materials is measured according to the IP (ingress protection) scale, usually given in two digits. The higher the numbers, the better the protection; you can see the full scale at EngineeringToolbox.com.

Know before you go

What will you use the headlamp for? If you're using the headlamp to illuminate a climbing route or the road in front of your bike, you need a bright, far-reaching beam. Bright headlamps are also useful for hiking or backpacking in the dark, although you should have a low light or red light mode too. For runners, a combination of light weight, secure fit and brightness are the most important things to consider. Finally, if you're just using the headlamp around the campfire or as an emergency backup on short hikes close to home, a cheaper, lightweight model without a lot of bells and whistles should suit your needs just fine.

If you plan more extreme adventures, look closer. If you're climbing, caving or taking long-distance nighttime runs, you'll want a brighter, waterproof headlamp with an adjustable beam. Ideally you should be able to dim it, adjust it from a focus beam to a wide beam, and have a "boost" mode that focuses an intense beam for a short period of time.

Will you use it as an emergency beacon? Any headlamp can be used to signal in an emergency situation, but a "strobe" mode comes in especially handy for making yourself visible. This mode is also handy for runners or cyclists that spend a lot of time near the road.

Will you be using your headlamp in cold weather? If so, look for a push-button model that can be easily operated while you're wearing gloves.

Look at beam distance, not just lumens. Brightness is an important measure of a headlamp's worth, but it isn't necessarily the be-all, end-all feature. An even, far-reaching beam is more important than the sheer amount of light you get.

Brightest isn't always best. An overly bright headlamp can be annoying if all you want to do is read a book in your tent or find your shoes while your campmates sleep. Super-bright headlamps also tend to use battery sizes that may be hard to find, and go through batteries quickly even in low-light mode.

Have you considered a rechargeable headlamp? If you use your headlamp a lot, a rechargeable model can save you a lot of money in battery costs. However, the advantage of having a headlamp powered by disposable batteries is that you can quickly and easily swap the batteries out if one set runs down while in the field. Some rechargeable headlamps come with a spare battery pack to give you the same effect, or allow you to swap in disposable batteries when the rechargeable battery runs down.

What's to come

We're seeing a surge in the number of multi-use lights like the Light & Motion Solite 250 EX (Est. $180), which can be converted from a flashlight to a headlamp to a bike light. Although headlamps can be considered the original hands-free, multi-use light, if you're looking for a single light source that can truly do anything, this type of product is a great place to start.

High-tech headlamps are here to stay

"Smart" headlamp technology has been around for a few years now, so the question is no longer whether it'll stay but what form it will take. Two big manufacturers -- Petzl and Black Diamond -- are leading the way, with reactive, programmable lighting from Petzl and touch-sensitive housings from Black Diamond. We also have an eye on the Nite Ize brand, which drew a lot of attention this year for its smartphone-style "swipe to shine" on/off switch.

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