Headlamps offer a hands-free alternative for lighting while reading, hiking, biking, skiing, climbing, and the daily tasks around camp. They are affordable, durable, long-lasting, and should be included in your essentials bag for every outdoor adventure, great or small.
Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) have completely revolutionized the quality and popularity of headlamps. LEDs provide excellent close-up flood lighting and far-reaching spot lighting, while increasing the run time 400% and decreasing the weight and size. Pretty cool, right!? Add in the fact that LEDs don't have filaments that easily break and you get a lightweight, durable, high-powered headlamp with a variety of options for anyone's needs.
Over the last decade, emerging LED technology has rendered halogen based headlamps fairly obsolete. The halogen headlamp used to be the top choice for high lumen output and range, but it is severely limited by both its limited run time and lack of durability.
Some people still opt for the increasingly small halogen options for the range of the beam and its ability to focus from flood to spot. Others simply prefer it because they don't like the white/blue color of a LED light and prefer the warmer yellow tones of a halogen.
The amount of light emitted from the headlamp is given in lumens. For the most part the higher the number, the brighter the headlamps. However, this number can be somewhat misleading. High lumens doesn't necessarily mean you can see farther, just that a higher output is available from that headlamp. A flood style headlamp with high lumens is great for illuminating a lot of area up close, but won't cast the beam very far.
When choosing a headlamp, pay attention to the lumens, but remember that it is also a factor of beam style as well.
The beam style describes a headlamp's ability to cast a tight and narrow beam a long distance (spot), or brighten a broad area up close (flood). Each headlamp has a different amount of spot-to-flood ratio.
Spot headlamps are good for fast-paced activities where it is important to have lots of warning as to what's coming up, such as biking, trail running, or skiing. These headlamps often have higher lumens to cast the light more than 60 meters.
Flood headlamps try to create a broader angle of light for better up-close activities such as camping, reading, and general use.
Some headlamps offer different modes for spot, flood, or both, depending on the activity you are currently doing.
The run time is given in hours according to how long it takes a headlamp to be reduced to only 10% of its original power according to the ANSI/NEMA North American testing standards. A longer run time can be achieved by using a lower power mode.
Headlamps come in either regulated or unregulated output.
Regulated Output means a headlamp will try to maintain it's full brightness as long as it can and then suddenly drop to the 10% output level when the batteries are drained. This is can be nice because you have the full brightness for as long as possible, but you can be left in the dark very quickly.
Unregulated Output headlamps will only maintain their full brightness for a short amount of time and then slowly dim. These headlamps will burn for a longer amount of time but don't maintain the high lumen output for long.
Higher lumens and a longer burning headlamp will mean a larger size and more weight to accommodate the extra batteries. Heavier models often have an external battery pack that sits behind your head and a top strap to increase the stability of the headlamp.
For most general uses, the size and weight isn't a big factor in choosing a headlamp.
Petzl makes a headlamp with a retractable band that is a great option for storing in a essentials bag or for occasional short term use.
Headlamps often come with a variety of output modes to increase or decrease the brightness. These are a great way to conserve the battery life of the headlamp. A high and low mode is great to have, and most also come with a middle mode, but that isn't necessary. The strobe is also a commonly found mode that could theoretically be used in an emergency situation.
Some headlamps have dedicated red-light bulbs or a red filter that is nice for around camp. The red light helps maintain your night vision while still providing some added illumination.
A few headlamps also offer a "boost" mode that puts out a max output for a few seconds to scope out the trail.
The last feature is the ability to tilt the angle of the headlamp. This should be considered essential for the headlamp's versatility and for the sake of your companions' eyes! A tilted-down headlamp is perfect for around camp, while a high beam is used on the trail.
Headlamps are undergoing a lot of improvements over the years and that trend will likely continue. Expect your light to last around 5 years, then shop around for the latest models. The biggest recent innovation is the introduction of reactive lighting, which automatically responds to your needs. As the technology advances these innovations will become increasingly affordable and polished.