The Ultimate Guide to Headlamps

Headlamp

Our mission is to get people outdoors, not sell gear. That's why our guide starts with the core function that needs to be addressed, then helps you evaluate your options holistically, since sometimes you may not need any gear & can use what you have at home. We want you to think critically about what you need, which is personal to you with no right answer (some people go venture outside naked without any gear, survive & have a great time).

Core function: Hands-free lighting is something not to be under-estimated. If you ever have to scramble, pitch a tent, or go to the bathroom, you'll really see the light on headlamps!

Is either the core function or the outdoor-specific gear made for it an essential?

A headlamp is highly recommended given the value of hands-free lighting .

For rationale, read our 'what you really need' protip

What to use & how to choose

Key factors

Cool zippers, new waterproofing, etc... sometimes it's easy to get lost in all the hype (over-spending happens on features). Our guide focuses on the fundamental factors you should always keep in mind (thus, this short list is similar across all items). Then only at the end do we have some questions to get you thinking about other minor features.

We highly recommend reviewing Type or Style first, where we review what you can use to address the Core function--a regular item you have at home may work! The other factors are secondary & depend strongly on the Type or Style you've picked.

While we encourage you to use regular items wherever possible, as an outdoor gear shop, we only carry outdoor-specific products

Type or Style*

We've organized the most commonly used items people use to address the Core function below, with example images, characteristics, features, etc.

Name Flashlight Headlamp
Example qualities & features Example images Flashlight Headlamp
Can it be used hands-free?

This is a big deal! Consider doing the below in the dark (which can fall quicker that you expect outside):

  • Setting up an unfamiliar tent
  • Hiking on challenging terrain where you need hands for support or to use with trekking poles
  • Food prep
  • Going to the bathroom
Are there colored lighting modes?

Red light is especially used outdoors to preserve night vision

Will it work in wet environments?

Check the device's IP rating

Light rain to full submersion
Effect on secondary factors Price $10-30 $20-50
Weight Up to 16oz (454g) Up to 8oz (227g)
Rationale Less technical & more material More technical & less material

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

Not specific enough for outdoor use

Standard for most outdoor uses

*With lighting there are even more types: clip-on lights, bike lights, phone lights, etc. The variations are endless. We've focused on the most used types here


Price

One of life's certainties is the trade-off between price & quality. This creates an inherently unfair situation. If you save money today by buying something lower end, you'll end up replacing it more frequently, spending money & time each instance so that at the end, you probably haven't actually saved anything. On the other hand, if you decide to invest in something higher end, you'll need a lot more upfront money, and you need to be able to use the item frequently enough to make it worthwhile.

We developed our rental program to address this unfairness. We don't sell lower end items. But for our higher end items, we offer them for rent at up to 90% off retail price, generally well below the cost of buying even the cheaper option. That's a win-win!

It may seem like the price & quality trade-off is disappearing, because you can find a cheap version of almost anything for tens of dollars that still has good reviews (assuming the reviews are real). Remember 2 things:

  • Many reviews are written after only a trial use, first use, or infrequent use: We've seen entire review videos of gear done at home, which is very different than actually being outdoors!
  • The point of gear is to give you a good experience because you've already spent money to be on vacation from work! Don't let quality issues affect your relaxation

For gear specifically, the quality issues center around performance & durability.

For lighting, the larger issue is usually around durability. Lower end lights break more easily or are more likely to stop working after a drop or other type of impact.

Methodology notes on prices shown on this page

Power

Measured by lumens, the total amount of visible light emitted. We know it's pretty technical, so have examples in the table below. There really isn't a "right" answer. For example, if you're biking and are choosing a bike light, do you want to simply see the road in the dark? In this case ~200 lumens may be enough for most cities, maybe ~500 for more rural areas or on trail. Or, do you want to be seen, unequivocably, by any incoming traffic? In this case, you may want 1000+ lumens. Of course, generally when you're doing an outdoor activity, seeing in the dark is enough; you're not really concerned about being seen by traffic, and you're probably not trying to blind your friends! Still though, it's an important question to keep in mind as you make your decision. For that reason, many higher end models of flashlights & headlamps have different brightness settings.

Lumens range

10

& below

25 50 100 200 300 500

1000

& above

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
General usage Indoors Outdoors
Flashlight examples Keychain light Reading light Standard flashlight, phone flashlight Tactical flashlights
Headlamp examples

Standard headlamp

(camping, backpacking)

Technical headlamp

(caving, spelunking, mountaineering, climbing)

Standard headlamp Technical headlamp
Effect on other factors Price Less expensive More expensive
Weight & Size Lighter & more compact Heavier & less compact
Rationale While effect on other factors follows above trends (more power = more materials = more expensive & bigger), there is significant product variation across form factors, so we have not teased out "breakpoints"

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

Doesn't add that much more value (you can use something non-outdoor-specific which would be much more affordable)

Headlamps ~300 lumens are standard for most outdoor uses

Headlamps at 500 lumens for climbers; we don't rent because most people would not need something this technical

2 other factors that people often think of as power but that are not technically measured by lumens are:

  • Beam distance: how far away the light will shine
  • Lighting style: how the light is spread out. Flood lights have a wide beam of output, spot lights have a narrow beam

We don't discuss the above in detail because most people do not have enough technical uses to consider them (if you're too far away to see something, just walk closer!); and because many modern lights (especially headlamps) can toggle between lighting styles; and because these factors are technically related, for example when there aren't that many lumens, the beam distance can't be very high regardless of how well the internal optics of the light are constructed, which means the light will probably not be very useful as a spot.

Energy source & usable life

Especially from a safety perspective, this is incredibly important! Some headlamps require batteries, other are USB-chargeable, and others are a hybrid of both. In our experience, USB-chargeable headlamps seem to be less reliable (not to mention dependent on having a mobile power source), so we have chosen to carry the battery-operated kind, and always recommend an extra set of batteries! Most headlamps will last at least from sunset to sunrise (10+ hours)*.

*It's always a good idea to test the usable life of electric-powered lights. Usable life is officially defined as any amount of light being emitted (which is why you see numbers like 60 hours... that means that at 60 hours, maybe you're only getting a dull glimmer!). On an easy trip, test it at the settings that you prefer (e.g., brightness level) to get prepared for more technical trips when you really don't want the light to fail!

Weight & Size (Compactness) for Backpacking

If you're thru-hiking 20+ miles (32+km) per day, every advantage counts! In this case, size refers to compactness. You can carry more gear in the same size backpack if all of it is very compact, or for more weight savings, you can get a smaller size pack.

To reduce more weight & increase compactability, manufacturers reduce the amount of material used (e.g., fewer features, thinner fabrics, etc.) and, where possible, use more technical materials to prevent performance loss. For example, ultralight fabric used in clothing has to still be waterproof. These strategies create 2 general consequences

  • Lightweight gear tends to be less durable: Sometimes, light-weight gear is just thinner & so more prone to damage (even a more technical material may not fully offset the loss in durability)
  • Lightweight gear tends to be more expensive: While less materials = lower cost, the more dominating effect is often that thinner materials = more technical = greater cost

For these reasons, the lighter the gear, the more you should treat it as an investment! Is the price difference worth the weight or size savings? This depends on you & your trip.

Lightweight models therefore either sacrifice lumens of light output for weight or change the form factor (e.g., thinning or sometimes completely removing the strap that goes around your head [though this latter converts the device to more of a flashlight]). Given multiple changing factors, it's hard to have an apples-to-apples comparison, instead we leave you with a few notes based on our experience:

  • The thinner straps in ultralight headlamps may not be comfortable
  • Experience is key to determining if a less powerful light works for you, so we recommend renting a regular headlamp once first. In fact, some ultralight hikers just use keychain flashlights for emergencies (and don't really hike at night)
  • Batteries are a major source of weight; if you go with a USB-charge-only model, consider availability of charging sources on your trip

Minor features that may be important

Here, we give you a list of questions to start thinking about minor features. We hope our approach of savings these features for last gets you to more critically think about what you need & not get caught up in the hype of what's cool and over-spend your budget.

  • Can the headlamp body swivel up & down?
  • What other lighting features are there (e.g., strobe lighting)?

What we carry

General Notes

  • We choose what we carry based on extensive research on what's the best value to our customers (e.g., price given performance & durability features) across all the top brands. We specifically do not carry every brand & model; for details on why we do/don't carry certain items in the How To Choose section
  • Buy prices are MSRP with tax, i.e., what you see is what you pay. Prices may differ in-store due to change in models or discounts, but this is rare. If we don't sell what we rent, we list MSRP value with tax
  • Rent prices are the starting pricess; enter trip dates on our Catalog to get exact prices (based on total trip length, not per day!). We also don't charge sales tax, an automatic savings of almost 10%!
Power

Headlamp type

300-325 lumens 500 lumens
Standard camping, backpacking Technical caving, spelunking, mountaineering, climbing
Model Black Diamond Spot headlamp Black Diamond Icon headlamp
Black Diamond Spot Black Diamond Icon

Buy

MSRP with tax

includes batteries

$45 $110

Rent

includes batteries

$6+

Weight

with batteries

3oz

85g

11oz

300g

When you rent online, we will pick a model for you. You can change the model if you pick-up in-store, subject to availability. On the Options page of our online order process, you can also select options or write-in any preferences. This section describes the majority of our models & options, but sometimes we carry others. We will only pick something else if it doesn't conflict with your choices indicated on the Options page; moreover, if there's a major functional difference (e.g., capacity), we will attempt to contact you first

Usage tips

The most important tip for battery-operated devices: take out your batteries! There are too many stories where the device's on-button was inadvertently pressed, and so it was completely drained by the time it was needed. Not to mention, in cold environments, batteries will drain (you should, in these cases, keep your batteries in an interior pocket, close to your body heat), and in hot environments they can explode (you should also keep them in a pocket in this case, somewhere out of the sun).

Maintenance tips

Repairing

Corrosion: Remove the battery (you may need to use a coin to try to wedge it out if the corrosion has caused it to become stuck). Then, use a Q-tip with vinegar (for both acidic & alkaline batteries) to scrub away the corrosion, and then a new Q-tip with water to lightly rinse the area. Let it thoroughly dry before storing. Take care as battery corrosion can cause chemical burns!

Storing

Minimize battery leak & risk of corrosion by storing batteries outside of the device in a cool, dry, dark place

We have a general protip on how to store & maintain gear that we highly recommend reviewing as well. If you send us video or a good photo series, we may be able to help you evaluate your repair needs.

The exact numbers (e.g., weights, dimensions, prices, etc.) used were updated as of September 2019 . That said, there usually isn't dramatic change; we update & review the market roughly biennially.


Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, the only outdoor gear shop where you can buy, rent, or borrow gear!