How to choose a headlamp

You can't beat the hands-free lighting convenience offered by a headlamp. But what sets one headlamp apart from another? Look for a few key specs found on headlamp packaging or on product pages at REI.com. Most specs are based on test standards described later in this article.

The following are the main variables that differentiate headlamps:

Specifications Reported In What It Means
Light output (brightness) Lumens At its source, how intensely the light glows.
Beam distance Meters On nearby surfaces, how far the light actually goes.
Run time
(battery life)
Hours How long (at its lowest setting) a light projects "usable light."
Weight Ounces or grams Many range between 3 and 6 oz.; high-intensity models weigh more.
Size Inches or centimeters Top straps and external battery packs accommodate more power but add bulk.

Shop REI's selection of headlamps.

Headlamps in a Nutshell

If you're in a hurry, here's a crash course in headlamp selection:

  1. Look for lumens. Lumens tell you how intensely a light glows at its source.
  2. Look beyond lumens. Lumens don't tell the whole story. (Not everyone, after all, needs a headlamp that blazes with 350 lumens.) What really matters is how well (and for how long) a headlamp illuminates a target area—the trail in front of your feet, for instance. These specs are also useful for evaluating headlamps:
    • Beam distance (how far the lamp can project "usable light").
    • Run time (battery life).
    • Size and weight.

The following sections provide details on headlamp specifications.

Light Output (Lumens)

  • Reported in lumens (not watts).
  • Determined when batteries (the same type sold with the headlamp) are new.

Lumens are a unit of measure that gauges the total quantity of light emitted in all directions by a light source. Watts, traditionally featured on the packaging of conventional household light bulbs, are a measure of how much energy a light uses. Typically, though, 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 necessarily. Lumens are measured in a spherical device, capturing light emitted in all directions by the source. Yet how well a headlamp maker focuses and directs that light (via lenses and reflectors) can impact how those lumens are utilized. If, for instance, a headlamp uses a translucent casing, some lumens will escape through that casing and not contribute to the overall strength of the beam.

Where to Find Lumens on Headlamp Packaging

Manufacturers are rarely shy about touting lumens on their packaging. A lumens count is useful to know, but it is just one of several factors that tell a headlamp's complete story.

lumens indicated on selected packaging

Beam Distance

  • Reported in meters.
  • Determined when batteries (the same type sold with the headlamp) are new.

Lumens tell you how brightly a headlamp glows (at its source), but not how far it goes (to a surface you want illuminated). This is a headlamp's fundamental purpose—to channel light to a target area.

Headlamps are tested to determine how far (in meters) they can project usable light, defined as the light cast by a full moon on a clear night. In the lighting industry this is known as the "moonlight standard," which is especially relevant to outdoor adventurers.

The light of a full moon is considered sufficient light for a person to navigate cautiously but safely through outdoor terrain.

To meet that standard, a light meter must be placed on a surface and register a minimum reading of 0.25 lux (the light intensity of a full moon). Lux is a measure of light where it falls on a surface that it illuminates.

To envision how beam distance is tested, imagine a headlamp with fresh batteries attached to a fixed position. It is switched on, placed on its highest mode, and a light meter (technically known as a lux meter) is moved further and further until the meter, measuring the center of the headlamp's beam, registers 0.25 lux. That is a headlamp's maximum beam distance (which slowly grows progressively shorter as batteries are drained).

Where to Find Beam Distance

While each manufacturer uses the same test for beam distance, they may display the results a bit differently.

Headlamp distance

Run Time

  • Reported in hours (for example, 50h, meaning 50 hours).
  • Determined when batteries (the same type sold with the headlamp) are new.

Here is where headlamp makers part company with the ANSI/NEMA test standard. That standard declares batteries reach an exhausted state when a light can produce only 10% of its original light output (when batteries were fresh). This is usually determined with a measuring sphere.

That would leave a number of high-powered headlamps with a lot of energy still in the tank—still possessing enough battery power to project usable light. A high-intensity beacon such as the Petzl NAO (rated at 355 lumens) would still have a very serviceable 35 lumens of light available at 10% of original output.

Since most outdoor adventurers can function safely in an emergency mode with good moonlight, headlamp makers calculate run time until lights can no longer produce usable light (the light of a full moon) at 2 meters.

Why 2 meters (6'6")? The average American height is about 5'9" (male) and 5'4" (female). Thus headlamp makers consider a headlamp serviceable if it can project 0.25 lux, the equivalent of a full moon's light, on the terrain in front of an on-the-move adventurer in the dark. It's a legitimate calculation that REI's Quality Assurance Lab endorses.

Where to Find Run Time on Headlamp Packaging

Look for a clock icon plus a number of hours (usually shown in abbreviated form, such as 50h). If just one number is shown, this is the measurement of the light's lowest (most energy-efficient) setting for continuous light. Some brands show run times of all modes (low, high and in-between). The blinking strobe mode is a headlamp's most energy-efficient mode, followed by low.

Headlamp battery life

Size and Weight

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.

Most packaging displays headlamp weight in grams. Below are some random conversion figures to speed up mental calculations for non-metric minds.

Grams Ounces
10 0.35
30 1.06
50 1.76
75 2.65
100 3.53
150 5.29

Other Headlamp Considerations

You may not know your preferences on all of the following secondary topics right now. Don't fret. Such understanding is usually gained only after much fiddling in the field and comparing headlamp notes with your companions.

Modes

Most headlamps offer at least a high and low mode. Others may offer 3 or more modes, alternately called "brightness levels." Here's a breakdown, moving from the most energy-efficient mode to the least-efficient:

  • Strobe (or Flash): An emergency blinker. A few models even offer a choice of flash rates: slow and fast.
  • Low: The standard mode used for most tasks such as camp chores or walking along an easy trail at night.
  • Mid: Provided on some models simply to give people more choices.
  • High (or Max): A good option for situations where you simply need or want more light.
  • Boost (or Zoom): 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.

Red Light

Many headlamps offer a red-light mode. Red light does not cause our eye's pupils to shrink the way white light can, so it's good for viewing the night sky.

Beam Width

Black diamond and Princeton tec

Some headlamps offer a fixed beams; others are adjustable. Two fixed widths are:

  • 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.

Adjustable beams are more versatile. Manufacturers have different ways of indicating this feature on their packaging, often showing both wide and narrow beams.

Beam Quality

A strong center beam is not necessarily indicative of a great headlamp. A laser beam, for example, projects an incredibly powerful beam of light but is so narrowly focused that it illuminates virtually nothing.

Some headlamps may not throw light the longest distance, yet they do a nice job of filling its beam with an even density of light, so a larger surface area of an illuminated object will be brighter overall across a wider area.

This is often a desirable attribute. Some lights that cast long beam distances project a very strong center axis of light—so strong that it creates an extra-bright center spot during up-close viewing, such as reading a map. During extended viewing, a bright center spot can create a glare that becomes annoying.

Headlamp packaging does not convey beam quality information, primarily because it's tough to verify through any objective measurement. Some manufacturers individually test for "beam fill" by evaluating the density and evenness of a beam's strength as it falls on a broad 9-point grid (3 points high, 3 wide). If a headlamp claims enhanced beam quality, you'll probably find it mentioned only in its product description.

Lithium Batteries

Do not use lithium batteries in a headlamp unless manufacturer instructions specifically state that a particular model can accommodate lithium cells. The high nominal voltage produced by lithium batteries could damage or ruin a light's circuitry not equipped to handle such power.

Headlamps designed to work with lithium batteries are a good choice for cold-weather usage, since lithium batteries outperform alkaline batteries in cold conditions.

Rechargeable nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries also work well with headlamps and perform well in cold conditions. Read more about battery choices in the REI Expert Advice article, Batteries: How to Choose.

Tip: Rechargeable batteries tend to lose power when sitting idle, so it's smart to carry alkalines (excellent at holding their charge) as backups.

Regulated Output

Rather than gradually dimming as batteries drain, regulated headlamps offer a steady brightness level throughout the life of the batteries. This is a positive—and deservedly popular—feature.

The downside: When batteries are exhausted, the light of a regulated headlamp can go dark abruptly. This may leave you scrambling to replace batteries in the dark. A dimming light on an unregulated headlamp gives you early warning that batteries are nearing the end of their usefulness.

Nonregulated light

Regulated light

Both approaches have advantages and trade-offs. Neither is considered superior.

Other Features

  • Water resistance: All headlamps sold at REI are able to withstand exposure to rain and snow. (They can handle modest drops and jolts, too.) A few can tolerate shallow, short-term immersion. None of the models offered in REI's camp/hike assortment are designed for prolonged underwater submersion.
  • Tilt: Can the tilt of the headlamp unit be adjusted up and down? It's nice to have that option in order to position the beam exactly where you want it. This especially comes into play while reading by headlamp.
  • On/off switches: Some headlamp switches lock to prevent a headlamp from being inadvertently switched on inside a pack. If you're examining headlamps at a store and demo models are available, play with the buttons. Do you find them easy to activate? Do you like how the headlamp cycles through its modes (high to low, or vice-versa)?
  • External battery packs, top straps: Some high-power headlamps that use 4 batteries position the battery pack on the rear of the headband and run a small cable from the pack to the headlamp. It lightens the load on your forehead but can feel clunky. Top straps (sometimes removable) are offered on some models to add stability.

LEDs (Light-Emitting Diodes)

LEDs on headlamp

Headlamps today almost exclusively use LEDs (a type of semiconductor) as their light source. Their advantages include:

  • rugged (no glass or filament to break)
  • energy-efficient (they drain batteries 3 to 5 times slower than incandescent bulbs)
  • long-lasting (can last up to 100,000 hours vs. 40 for some bulbs).

Beware of buzzwords you might see on some packaging. Some manufacturers claim their LEDs are "superbright," "ultrabright," "TriplePower" or some similar form of megaspeak. Don't be impressed. Such terms are pure hype, not industry-recognized technical classifications.

LEDs come in various sizes (based on their diameter—1mm, 3mm, 5mm and larger), and larger usually means brighter. Some do fall in a legitimate category known as high-output LEDs, based on wattage (their ability to draw more energy). Expect bright output by any lamps that feature 1-watt or 3-watt LEDs.

LEDs used in headlamps are "tuned" to produce a white light, but be aware that most LEDs tend to have a faint blue cast to their light. This boosts their energy efficiency, since turquoise offers the most desirable wattage-to-lumen ratio. The most energy-efficient color of all? Red.

ANSI/NEMA Standard

In late 2009, with input from more than a dozen manufacturers and other companies involved in the lighting industry (including REI), the National Electronic Manufacturers Association (NEMA) published ANSI/NEMA FL 1-2009, Flashlight Basic Performance Standard. ANSI is the American National Standards Institute, a private, nonprofit organization that oversees voluntary consensus product standards in the United States.

The dual goals of the standard:

  • Create uniform test methods for all portable, single-direction lighting devices.
  • Present test results in a uniform manner (through the use of common icons), making it easier for consumers to interpret results.

Compliance with the standard is voluntary and, as mentioned earlier, headlamp-makers disagree with majority opinion when it comes to determining run time (preferring to apply the moonlight standard to headlamps). In all other areas, however, headlamp-makers conform to the test methods laid out in the ANSI/NEMA standard.

Best Headlamps by Activity

Tikka plus 2 headlamp

Of all the factors discussed in this article, which matter most? Brightness (light output) is high on everyone's list, but beam distance and run time also factor into the total picture of a headlamp's performance potential.

The nature of your outdoor activities will also play a role in your decision. Here are some basic guidelines:

Activity Key Headlamp Priorities
Running/trail running Weight
Hiking/backpacking Weight, run time, beam distance, multiple modes
Climbing Weight, high-intensity beam, beam distance
Cycling High-intensity beam, beam distance, run time
Paddling Water resistance, high-intensity beam
Snow camping Water resistance, run time
Travel, home emergency kits Size, run time, flood (wide) beam for general usage

Shop REI's selection of headlamps.

Related Articles