Our guide to headlamps helps you understand light output, beam distance, run time, size and weight so you can choose the right one for you.
When you’re setting up your tent at night, trail running at dusk, or just looking for something in your attic, you can’t beat the hands-free lighting convenience offered by a headlamp. Headlamps today use LEDs almost exclusively as their light source. LEDs are rugged, energy-efficient and long-lasting.
Headlamp Beam Type
Flood (or Wide): Useful for general camp tasks, up-close repair work and reading. Flood beams ordinarily do not throw light a long distance.
Spot (or Focused or Narrow): This tight beam best enables long-distance viewing. In most cases this is a better choice to navigate a trail in the dark.
Flood/Spot: Adjustable headlamps are the most versatile.
Headlamp Light Output (Lumens)
Lumens are a unit of measure that gauges the total quantity of light emitted in all directions by a light source. Typically, a light with a high lumens count will consume energy at a higher rate than a light with a lower lumens number.
So, the higher the lumens, the brighter the light? In most cases, yes—but not always. How well a headlamp maker focuses and directs that light can impact how those lumens are utilized.
Headlamp Beam Distance
A headlamp’s fundamental purpose is to channel light to a target area. Headlamps are tested to determine how far (in meters) they can project usable light. While lumens tell you how brightly a headlamp glows (at its source), headlamp beam distance tells you how far it goes (to a surface you want illuminated).
Headlamp Run Time
This spec gives you a sense of how long your headlamp will last from the time it’s fully charged. However, the headlamp industry has recently begun changing how this is measured, so if you’re comparing one headlamp to another, you may see some confusing numbers. Here’s why: Manufacturers once measured run time until a headlamp could no longer produce usable light (the light of a full moon) at 2 meters. The new standard uses 10 percent of a light’s original brightness as the point where run time ends. For example, under the old standard, a particular 350-lumen headlamp might have a run time of 40 hours. Under the new standard, however, the same headlamp’s run time might measure out at just 2 hours. (It should still provide another 38 hours of illumination, but that level of illumination is diminished.) So, if you find two seemingly similar headlamps with a big difference in run time, one might simply not have been tested using the new standard yet.
Most headlamps, with batteries included, weigh less than 7 ounces and are of similar size. You won’t notice substantial differences in headlamp size and weight until you start examining some very high-powered models. Some have top straps and external battery packs that add bulk. Such models are intended for specific needs (e.g., climbing) rather than routine adventures.
Headlamp Brightness Levels/Modes
Most headlamps offer at least a high and low mode. Others may offer three or more modes.
Strobe (or Flash) mode acts as an emergency blinker. A few models even offer a choice of flash rates: slow and fast.
Low is the standard mode used for most tasks such as camp chores or walking along an easy trail at night.
Mid is provided on some models simply to give people more choices.
High (or Max) is a good option for situations where you simply need or want more light.
Boost (or Zoom) is found on just a few models. This feature permits an extra-intense beam to be projected for a brief period, maybe 10-20 seconds—nice to have when you’re really curious about what’s causing that rustling sound in those nearby bushes. Just realize this mode exerts a high drain on batteries.