How to Choose Headlamps

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.

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A hiker wears a beanie and a headlamp.

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.

So, what sets one headlamp apart from another? How do you know what to buy? There are several main variables that differentiate headlamps

Tested: The Best Headlamps of 2020

Video: How to Choose Headlamps



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.

Headlamp 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.

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.

Climber wearing a headlamp

Additional Headlamp Features

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.

Red light mode

Many headlamps offer a red-light mode. Red light does not cause our pupils to shrink the way white light can, so it’s good for nighttime use.

Water resistance

All headlamps sold at REI are able to withstand some degree of exposure to rain and snow. (They can handle modest drops and jolts, too.) A few can tolerate shallow, short-term immersion.


The ability to adjust the headlamp unit up and down is a nice option. It lets you position the beam exactly where you want it. This is especially handy when reading by headlamp.

On/off switches

If you’re examining headlamps at a store, try out the buttons to see if you like how the headlamp cycles through its modes (high to low, or vice versa). Also, some switches lock to prevent the headlamp from being inadvertently switched on inside a pack.


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.

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

External battery packs, top straps

Some high-power headlamps that use four 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.

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