Shedding Light: A Headlamp Guide

I remember my first headlamp. It was a clunky little fellow that beamed an uneven circle of light from a delicate incandescent bulb. It sucked battery power like a dehydrated hiker chugging water, lasting only a few hours before the light would dim—if the bulb hadn’t already burned out.

Times have changed. Today’s headlamps are smaller, lighter, and use far less battery power, thanks to the rise of long-lasting and energy-efficient LED bulbs. At the same time, the number of possible features has exploded. How to make sense of it all? Here's a headlamp guide to the basics. 

Most headlamps feature a small forehead unit containing batteries (typically AAA) and several LED bulbs, with an adjustable elastic band that secures the whole thing to your head. Brightness varies depending on style and price, although just about any headlamp will adequately light up everything within arm’s reach. 

As a general rule, you tend to pay more for brighter headlamps that illuminate greater distances and for models with more features. A wide range of headlamps fall between $30 and $50 and are adequate for most camping needs; fancier models can run $50 to $100-plus. 

When evaluating headlamps, don’t get distracted by the latest whiz-bang gadgetry. Instead, pay close attention to the basics: the on-off switch and the elastic headband. 

You will hit the on-off switch—typically a push button—hundreds if not thousands of times over the life of a headlamp. So make sure you can operate it quickly and easily, even when wearing lightweight gloves (crucial in cold weather). 

Headlamps that provide one-click-on, one-click-off functionality are ideal. You don’t want to waste time clicking through various settings to find the one you want. (Even some headlamps with more advanced settings offer basic on/off functionality.) Also consider whether the switch could be accidentally triggered by other objects in your pack, wasting battery life. 

Next investigate the stretchy band that keeps the headlamp securely attached to your noggin. Is it comfortable? Will it fit over a warm hat? Is it easy to adjust? Does it stay fixed in place, not loosening up with use—a particularly maddening problem? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, you have a potential winner. 

Headlamp brightness is typically given in lumens, a measure of how bright the human eye perceives a light source to be. Understanding lumens is a complicated endeavor, so most headlamp manufacturers make it easier by translating a headlamp’s lumen output into a measure of distance, or how far away a given headlamp setting can project usable light. 

While some basic headlamps feature only one setting, most have multiple options. These usually include a brighter setting with a more focused beam for viewing distant objects and a lower, more energy-efficient setting that illuminates a broader immediate vicinity. 

Keep in mind that a brighter beam is useful for hiking at night, when you need to light the trail ahead or to locate that mysterious creature rustling in the woods. Otherwise, the lower setting is more than adequate for use around camp. As a general rule, the higher the lumens, the greater the drain on the batteries. 

It’s remarkable how many features makers can pack into a tiny headlamp. In rough order of usefulness, they include tilt, an extremely helpful feature that allows you to pivot the beam up and down; regulated output, which maintains a steady brightness over the life of the batteries rather than slowly dimming; dimmable adjustment, which allows you to choose your optimum illumination rather than selecting from a limited number of settings; and rechargeable batteries. 

Less useful features—or, at least, less commonly needed—include reactive lighting, which automatically adjusts brightness based on ambient light conditions; programmable output, for those who like to fine-tune their own lighting levels and other settings via computer; and a flashing or strobe setting that helps increase your visibility to others (if you’re running or biking at night, say) but also harshes heavily on your eyes and brain. 

This column originally appeared in AMC Outdoors. Photo by AJ_Watt/iStock

“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.  

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