At the dawn of the computer age, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore looked at the already-rampant advances in the microprocessor and theorized that going forward, the number of transistors packed onto a single circuit board would double every two years and that computer prices would halve in the sale time. In other words, computer power would increase exponentially and cost would decrease as much. And since 1965, computer scientists have affirmed that Moore was indeed correct.
So what’s all this got to do with headlamps? Well, if you’ve spent any time browsing the shelves of an REI in recent years, you know Moore’s theory also applies to these trusty lights.
Between brightness, battery life, features and comfort, headlamps are the computer processors of outdoor gear—more powerful and affordable than ever before. These important tools help to lengthen your days outside, allowing you to have fun after dark and see places you couldn’t otherwise, and they serve as a safety net in case something goes awry. That’s why picking the right one is critical.
We spent a season field testing more than a dozen models in all sorts of darkness. The result? These seven lamps, which will serve every user and budget.
For quick recommendations, check out the results of our round-robin here, or scroll down for in-depth reviews.
- Best All-Around Headlamp & REI Co-op Editors’ Choice Award Winner: Black Diamond Spot 400
- Most Versatile Power Source & REI Co-op Editors’ Choice Award Winner: Petzl Actik Core
- Best Headlamp for Running: BioLite HeadLamp 330
Other Top Performers
Black Diamond Spot 400 Headlamp
Best All-Around Headlamp & REI Co-op Editors’ Choice Award Winner$44.95 from REI Co-op
- Score: 97
- Weight (with batteries): 2.7 oz.
- Batteries: 3 AAAs; also compatible with BD 1500 mAh rechargeable (not included)
- Max brightness: 400 lumens
- Max burn time on lowest setting: 200 hours
Test Results: After 10 long nights, five alpine starts and several summits, few headlamps would still be humming along like the Black Diamond Spot 400. For one Washington-based tester, it was a sunset-to-sunrise standby, reliably giving him the light he needed throughout a summer testing blitz: bivying along the West Ridge of the Cascades’ Forbidden Peak [Yamakiasham Yaina], slurping down a bag of dehydrated pad thai or reading a book at camp. It’s not a unique story for the Spot 400, which became a quick favorite among our crew of testers for its best-in-test versatility, earning it an Editors' Choice Award.
The lumens—an update over last year's Spot 350—are plenty for technical predawn climbs where seeing detail at a distance is crucial. While other lamps have set brightness levels, the Spot 400 is instantly dimmable: Hold the large button to dim the light to the exact brightness you want. When turned off, the lamp remembers its most recent brightness, so you don’t need to reset it every time.
Our mountaineering tester liked being able to tap the side of the light with a finger to get a burst of the maximum brightness for quick looks down the trail without losing his settings; a tap on the same pad switches the Spot 400 back to its previous brightness. Such touches are user-friendly and intuitive, while also saving battery life—the 200-hour burn time is tops among the models tested. (Confused about burn time? You’re not alone. The standard is nuanced and changing; read more about it and other headlamp specs here.)
The Spot 400 has two beams that put out light either in proximity (a wide dim beam) or in spot form (a narrow bright beam). A separate button on top of the housing switches between these modes. The headlamp also has a red light for preserving night vision; an easy-to-read battery-life indicator; and Black Diamond’s beloved locking function, so it won’t turn on in your pack or in storage. Supertough IPX8 waterproofing means the lamp will work at more than 1 meter underwater for 30 minutes. In other words, precip and spills are no match for the Spot.
USB lovers will appreciate that the Spot 400 is compatible with Black Diamond’s 1500 mAh rechargeable battery pack, boosting versatility. New for 2022, the light also comes in the comparable Spot 400-R model, which is rechargeable out of the box. While most of the 400-R headlamp is identical to the 400, it does have a USB input on the side and slightly better battery run times, lasting an average of 225 hours in its dimmest mode. It’s a little more expensive, though, at $64.95. Buy here.
Bottom Line: Burn time, brightness and comfort all come at a great price in the Black Diamond Spot 400, making it the best all-around lamp for hiking, climbing and cleaning your shed.
- Nights out: 57
- Testing states: California, Colorado, Minnesota and Washington
- Best testing story: The Spot led our tester to an all-time great bivy on the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak: “When the sun came up, our jaws dropped.”
Test Results: No AAAs, no problem. The Actik Core from Petzl comes preloaded with a superlight lithium-ion Petzl Core battery that pumps out usable light for days. Between trips and uses, plug the Core battery into a wall, computer or power bank via its integrated USB port to keep the lamp fully juiced so you’re always leaving the trailhead at 100 percent. When one tester had back-to-back trips in Colorado’s Indian Peaks and Wyoming’s Wind River Range, he was able to refresh the battery in his car in the time it took to drive to the next trailhead. “As the sun set in the parking lot outside the Bridger Wilderness, I unplugged and went right back to work for a night hike through the trees,” he said.
A single, easy-to-press button makes it simple to cycle through the three brightness levels and red light—the perfect increments for everything from packing bear canisters in predawn darkness at camp with the 6-lumen low setting to hauling water from a lake for dinner dishes with the blinding, 450-lumen setting. The brightest beam of the test, it was even powerful enough to let one tester count the branches on trees across the alpine lake where he camped. A long press of the button switches the Actik Core to red light and an even longer press locks it before you stick it in your pack.
The Actik Core’s features are rounded out with an IPX4 rating to keep it safe from splashes. It’s also compatible with AAAs, so you can pop spares into the housing or carry-on airplane travel or in a pinch on longer trips (you do carry spare batteries with you, right?). Buy here.
Bottom Line: The 450-lumen Petzl Actik Core offers blinding light, and because it’s rechargeable, it could save you money on batteries, as well as the frustration of a dead lamp.
- Nights out: 27
- Testing states: Colorado, Idaho, New York, Washington and Wyoming
- Best testing story: The Actik Core helped one tester shoot star photos from inside the Impassable Canyon along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
Test Results: Sweaty, fast-paced night hikes or runs can be the bane of even the best headlamps, but during a predawn slog up Washington’s Mount Baker, the BioLite HeadLamp 330 was all but forgotten—in the best way. Thanks to a superslim design up front (only standing 9mm off your forehead), a scant overall weight and a front-to-back balance that comes from moving the battery to the rear, the intense beam was the only thing reminding one tester that she was wearing it at all.
For how small it is, the HeadLamp 330 is no slouch for power: The 330 lumens were plenty bright for a cloudy 2am peakbagging mission in Washington’s Cascades. It also packs a ton of modes into the tiny body. Switch between dimmable spot light, flood light, spot and flood light, red light and strobe with a single (admittedly small) button. It’s tough to operate while wearing gloves, but we think that’s a small price to pay for what you get.
One runner said the light felt glued to her forehead, hardly bouncing or moving, adding that “the snug band never got gross or sweaty, either.” Credit the high-performance Lycra in the band for its blissful wicking capability. At the end of a trip or run, the (nonremovable) battery pack plugs into the wall or a portable charger via micro-USB. Buy here.
Bottom Line: Whether you’re trail running or mountaineering, the BioLite HeadLamp 330 packs a bright light and ample features into one of the most comfortable and lightweight packages out there.
- Nights out: 22
- Testing states: Colorado, New York, Utah and Wyoming
- Best testing story: One hiker tested the BioLite and her own mettle at 10,000 feet on Mount Baker, ice climbing for the first time. “The BioLite went delightfully unnoticed on my helmet but couldn’t help with the screaming barfies,” she points out.
Other Top Performers
Test Results: The best headlamp is the one you have on you. Case in point: After one tester botched the approach to a camp in Washington’s Picket Range and the day turned out longer than expected, she declared the sub-$20 Petzl Tikkina “a wrong turn’s best friend.” With the best lumen-to-dollar ratio in our test, the Tikkina spits out 250 lumens (enough for our tester to set up camp in the dark) for just a Jackson. But it’s not a one-trick pony—the Tikkina has an IPX4 rating and three brightness levels that you toggle between by clicking through the single button. It’s not powerful enough for scoping big lines from the base (and no red light), but you won’t find a better bang for your buck. Buy here.
Test Results: Yes, for most folks, 750 lumens is overkill. But for some, supernova brightness in a neat-and-tidy 5.3-ounce package is the difference between getting after it and staying home. Take our tester, who toted the BioLite HeadLamp 750 on a multisport odyssey across the West. “With 750 lumens, I had enough light to confidently carve at 30 mph,” he says of a night-skiing mission at Telluride Ski Resort. For spring nights in the Utah desert when he needed to see dimension across the carved landscape after the sun disappeared, he declared the HeadLamp 750’s blinding brightness a blessing. As with its sister HeadLamp 330, the 750’s power pack sits on the back of your head, so it balances better than other similarly powerful headlamps. And you don’t need to worry about draining handfuls of AAAs to use it on its max settings either—two hours on high and up to 150 on low added up to some of the best specs in test. Nice touch: This lamp boasts a tail light (flood, dimming or strobe) on the battery pack, so you can stay visible on the move. Buy here.
Test Results: Is it a piece of dental headgear or a headlamp? Petzl blew up what we know about head-mounted illumination with its IKO CORE, a featherlight lamp that sits on a flexible plastic band with snug cordage. The funky design slices grams, so even though the IKO CORE is one of the most powerful lights in our test, it’s also one of the lightest at just 2.8 ounces. Barely there weight lends it well to activities like night running or climbing—where that futuristic band really shines. Since it curves around your noggin (more like a hat than a band), it never bobs. (The battery pack on the rear also helps with balance.) The band is more rigid than a typical fabric variety, so you can prop the lamp on the ground or a table like a lantern or string it around your neck. Pop it inside its included pouch for diffused light. Sorry, no red light. Buy here.
Test Results: Young campers need to see in the dark, too, and the Black Diamond Wiz’s kid-specific features make it not only safe and easy to use, but virtually indestructible, one tester’s mom declared. The water-resistant, tough plastic housing protected the Wiz from drops, haphazard packing and even one industrial child’s unsupervised experiment involving a puddle. A maximum of 30 lumens might seem small compared to the other lamps in the test, but it proved plenty for one 3-year-old tester for two days of exploring Iowa’s pitch-black Maquoketa Caves. Modes include a full, dimmed and strobe light, plus kids can flip through a rainbow of colored-light options with the single button. Nice touches: The light itself tilts in both directions so there’s no wrong way to put it on, the elastic strap has a breakaway feature for the wearer’s safety and the lamp shuts off automatically after two hours to avoid unnecessary battery drain, should Junior leave it on accidentally. Buy here.
Whether you’re making an alpine start up a volcano or just digging through the junk in your closet, having your hands free to work while still being able to see what you’re doing is key. But not all headlamps are created equal. Different features make certain lights better in certain situations, so deciding what you expect to use the headlamp for is a critical first step in choosing the right one. Lighting up the trail while you’re running at night will require a very different headlamp than one you’ll want for starting a fire or setting up your tent in the dark, and both of those could be different from the light you jam into the kitchen drawer for power outages.
Differences in brightness, lighting modes and power source are three of the biggest differentiators in headlamps and do the most to determine how well a lamp will work for your needs.
Brightness is the first thing everyone sees when they’re searching for a new headlamp. A number of lumens, which corresponds to how bright a light is, is often part of a headlamp’s name and emblazoned prominently on its packaging. The higher the number, the brighter the light.
While some headlamps boast hundreds and hundreds of lumens (cough, BioLite HeadLamp 750, cough), you don’t actually need all that many to see things close at hand. If you’re only using your headlamp to read a book or look at things close-up, you can get away with 100 lumens or fewer, using something like the Petzl Tikkina. Once you want to see a little farther away—like the trail as you walk to the outhouse from camp, or whatever was making that noise in the bushes—a brightness above 300 lumens or so is more important. Lamps like the Black Diamond Spot 400 and Petzl Actik Core hit that sweet spot. High-speed activities like trail running or skiing that require you to see greater distances, as well as disciplines like climbing that call for seeing in higher detail, could necessitate a lamp with more brightness like the Petzl IKO CORE.
Keep in mind that most manufacturers name headlamps using the maximum lumen count. You can often scale back the brightness based on what you’re doing. Still, brighter lights tend to need larger or more batteries (or the hardware for recharging), regardless of how many lumens you’re using, which can make them heavier and bulkier.
Many headlamps give you the option to scroll through a handful of different lighting modes to customize the output. A beam or spot light is a long, narrow beam of concentrated light, perfect for peering into the dark trees around camp or to the other side of a lake. A flood or proximity light spreads the beam over a wide (but not very deep) area, perfect for cooking dinner, changing your socks or even hiking.
Many lights come with both a beam and proximity light, each with a preset brightness. If you value simple user-friendliness, go for a lamp like the Petzl Tikkina, which has one button that intuitively toggles through the lighting modes. If you’re techy, though, you might prefer a headlamp that lets you customize the brightness of each lighting mode to your liking, such as the Black Diamond Spot 400. Fair warning: The latter can be frustrating for someone who’s not willing to read the instruction manual and learn the ins and outs of their headlamp before going into the field.
Batteries—of one kind or another—make a headlamp tick. Most headlamps run on AAA batteries or a rechargeable battery, and both have their benefits. The type of battery, typically either alkaline or lithium-ion, also has an impact.
As the batteries in your headlamp die, the light gets progressively dimmer (read more about how brands calculate burn time here). With a rechargeable battery, like the lithium-ion one in the BioLite HeadLamp 330, you can juice your lamp fully and start off every trip at 100 percent. Such lithium-ion batteries also tend to operate better than alkaline batteries in colder conditions, and they hold a more consistent brightness as they die. Plus, on longer trips you can recharge your headlamp using a power bank or even solar power.
Disposable batteries, however, are quick and easy to replace and available for purchase almost anywhere. They often hold their charge better over time if unused, making them great for emergency headlamps like the Petzl Tikkina.
We passed REI’s best-selling headlamps out to half a dozen testers across the Lower 48 for a round robin-style throw down. After more than 150 nights encompassing late starts, longer-than-expected days, wrong turns, multisport epics, campfire dinners, nighttime walks and plenty of extra AAAs, we asked them to weigh in.
We wanted our testers to consider how useful the brightness of the headlamp is for varying outdoor pursuits; how great the headlamp’s battery life is (and if it was as advertised); how comfortable the headlamp is to wear over long periods of time during different activities (on bare heads, hats and helmets); how useful (and how user-friendly) the headlamp’s features are; and how expensive the headlamp is for what you get.
Our testers graded each headlamp on a 100-point scale for each criteria (brightness, battery life, comfort, features and price), then we averaged the scores to determine the seven best headlamps of the year. The Black Diamond Spot 400 and Petzl Actik Core tallied nearly perfect scores all-around, earning REI Co-op Editors’ Choice Awards. The BioLite HeadLamp 330 scored high or perfect in every category. The Petzl Tikkina, BioLite HeadLamp 750, Petzl IKO CORE and Black Diamond Wiz scored high or perfect in most categories, making them great options for specific users.
Thank you to our nocturnal testers.
Article by Ryan Wichelns. Ryan is a freelance journalist and climber. His favorite climbs are the random, unaesthetic snow- and ice-covered heaps in the middle of nowhere that require a weeklong scree-choked slog to maybe climb. Don’t ask him why. REI member since 2017.
Photography by Andrew Bydlon and Joel Hopkins.