How to Choose a Headlamp

Headlamps are essential for a range of mountain activities: mountaineering, caving, trail running, MTB and orienteering to camping and use in mountain huts. This guide will help you choose the right headlamp for you.

Headlamps, an essential item for mountain activities. Photo: Rab
Photo, courtesy of Rab Equipment

Headlamps, an Essential Item for Outdoor Activities

Headlamps are essential for lighting in the mountains, regardless of the type of activity.

There are two fundamental reasons why:

  • Your hands are free. Whether mountaineering, climbing, running, hiking, cycling, orienteering, cooking or just reading in your sleeping bag; it’s no easy task unless both hands are free.
  • The beam of a headlamp follows your gaze.

Since headlamps are used for multiple mountain activities, they vary in design. The main difference lies in the power of the light emitted, or light output, and the amount of light that falls on a given surface according to the angle of the beam. The former is measured in lumens, the latter in lux.

Light Output and Beam

  • Light output: the total amount of light emitted from the headlamp. This is expressed in lumens (lm). The higher the number of lumens, the brighter it is.
  • Illuminance: measures how visibly bright a given area is. It is measured in lux (lx)

Why do we need to understand these measurements and what do they mean?

The light output is straightforward: the greater, or more powerful, the output, the brighter and further the beam will reach.

Illuminance indicates the real light that reaches a surface. It is not just a question of how powerful it is, but also the angle of the beam:

  • If a surface is illuminated with a very narrow beam angle, it will receive a higher number of lux than with a wider angle. The light beam distance is also longer.
  • If a surface is illuminated with a wide beam angle, the light has to spread out over a larger area and so it is dimmer. The lit surface has a lower lux number and the beam distance is shorter.
The wider the beam angle, the shorter the beam distance. Photo: Petzl
The maximum beam distance indicated by the manufacturer refers to the point that receives 0.25 lux; any amount of light below this is not taken into account.

Lighting Factors When Choosing a Headlamp

We have named two, but there is also a third: burn time.

  • 1. Light output
  • 2. Beam distance
  • 3. Burn time

1. Light Output

The light output and beam distance can be adjusted on most headlamps and the technical specifications always refers to the maximum capacity.

Runners need a brighter light and beam distance than walkers or other less dynamic activities. The descent also requires a brighter light than the ascent.

Some headlamps are able to regulate intensity automatically. Such as the Petzl Reactive Lighting system. By detecting the reflected light, the headlamp is instantly able to change the light output and beam angle to adapt to each situation. For example, if you are reading a map, the beam angle will be wider and less intense. If you raise your head to look into the distance, the brightness will increase considerably and the beam will be narrower.

Petzl Swift RL with Reactive Lighting
It is difficult to say how much light output is required for any specific activity, because the beam distance depends as much on the beam angle (which varies according to the reflector) as on the light output. For that reason, the beam distance can vary from one headlamp to another, even with the same light output. But here are a few points to take into account :

  • A low output is enough to see at close range (for camping, etc.)
  • A low output is also enough for walking, mountaineering or lighting a shelter.
  • Be careful when rock climbing: too bright a light can reflect off the wall and cause glare.
  • When using a headlamp for fast-paced activities, such as trail running, at least 80 lumens or over is recommended for short use on good terrain. Longer duration requires 120-130 lumens and even 200 lumens for very fast-paced activity on bad terrain.
  • The faster the movement, the more lumens are required. For this reason cycling needs 400 lumens for comfort and performance.
A line of headlamps ascending the Khumbu icefall, Everest. Photo: Javier Camacho
Certain activities require an even greater number of lumens; caving, for example, often requires up to 1,100, which is extremely high, if you consider that anything over 400 lumens is as bright as daylight. Bear in mind, that the greater the light output, the shorter the burn time, as more energy is required. Therefore, such bright lighting is designed for momentary use; to see a large cavern, a stretch of road or the top section of a climb.

Since the light output can be regulated, why not get the most powerful headlamp possible and then use the light output needed at any given moment? It is not that simple; a more powerful headlamp is heavier, less comfortable, and has reduced burn time.

For this reason, it is preferable to choose a headlamp that provides the right amount of lighting for the activity in question. Average headlamps weigh very little, take up no space in your pack, are very comfortable on your head, have a beam range of between 60 and 90 meters with an output of between 250 and 400 lumens and have an excellent output to burn time ratio. They are also very easy to use.

Petzl Tikka, headlamp with 300 lumens
This said, lighting is essential for safety. If your activity requires a brighter light, choose a headlamp with a higher output rather than putting yourself in danger.
Distance lighting; high output, narrow beam. Photo: Javier Camacho Gimeno

2. Beam Distance

As we mentioned, the beam distance depends on the light output and, above all, on the beam angle. Therefore, ensure the headlamp beam is suitable for your activity. A narrow, long-distant beam angle is not useful for camping, consulting a map or walking. But a wide beam angle is not suitable for distance vision, or pinpointing a precise location.
Close range lighting: low output, wide angle. Photo: Rab Equipment
So, how can a headlamp perform in every situation? Normally, by using several LED's. If there are two, the less powerful one will have a wide beam angle, and the more powerful will have a narrow angle and the beam will reach further. If there are 3, one will have a wide beam, another the narrow beam and the third will be a combination.
Petzl Actik Core 450 lm, dual LED
You can also find some single LED systems with zoom technology, which adjusts the width and depth of the beam thanks to a movable reflector lens. Other designs, such as the Petzl Iko, have a total of seven different LED's.

The simplest headlamps may have just one LED, with no beam adjustment. These normally have a wide beam.

Fenix HL18R-T 500 lm, basic headlamp
Do we really need several LEDs? This depends on the activity and the user. As we mentioned, current classic headlamps are practical, simple and durable. They usually have a wide beam and 60-80m beam distance and are a good option for non-technical, leisurely activities as well as for camping, etc. But you will find this is not enough for competition, such as night orienteering, ski touring or technical mountaineering activities, which require distant vision.
Led Lenser MH7 600 lm

3. Burn Time

Burn time goes hand in hand with light output. The greater the light output, the shorter the burn time, the lower the light output, the longer burn time.

For this reason, in order to save the battery life, the light intensity should always be adjusted to each situation.

The brightness of some headlamps decreases progressively while others have a constant light output:

  • Standard lighting: As the battery becomes weaker, the light output gradually decreases
  • Constant lighting: The brightness stays constant over a predetermined time, which is as long as the battery is able to provide the energy necessary.

Some headlamps have battery saver technology, which is useful if you need to increase the burn time to allow you to finish your activity, for example.

Some brands, like Petzl, define burn time as the duration a headlamp is able to light a certain activity, calculating from the time it is switched on until it has decreased to 10 percent of its maximum power. At that point, it switches to reserve lighting, which can only be used for walking.

The maximum burn time specified by brands is not the same as the maximum light output. The difference between setting your headlamp at 100 or 300 lumens can mean your headlamp emits light for up to nine or just two hours.

Rechargeable or Standard Batteries?

Normal headlamps use AA or AAA batteries, while rechargeable batteries are usually charged by a USB cable.

The pros and cons are clear: changing batteries costs money and produces more waste, but packing a spare ensures it lasts longer. Charging a battery is very convenient, cheaper, and does not produce constant waste. And you can also pack a spare, just in case.

Many headlamps with a rechargeable battery are also compatible with standard batteries, which is useful for situations where you are unable to recharge. In some cases an adapter is required.

Petzl Hybrid Concept system: change from rechargeable to standard batteries without an adaptor

Front or Rear Battery Pack?

Since the appearance of LEDs, many headlamps are designed with a front battery pack: the battery is included in the same unit as the headlamp.
Black Diamond Spot Lite 160
This design is much more comfortable to wear as the strap is free at the back.

More powerful headlamps require larger batteries and LED's. These battery boxes are usually at the back.

Petzl Duo Z2
The most powerful headlamps often feature a removable battery box that is attached to the headlamp via a remote cable. As the cold decreases battery life, a removable battery box allows you to keep it warm in your pocket to optimise performance in winter conditions.

Watertight Headlamps

Headlamps are designed for outdoor use, in all weather conditions, so the electrical components need a certain amount of waterproofing protection.

This is measured according to the IEC 60529 norm, which uses an IP code to categorise the resistance of enclosures of electric and electronic devices against the intrusion of dust and liquids.

The IP code is indicated in the technical specifications of the headlamp and appears as IP followed by two digits: the first indicates the dust resistance, the second the waterproofing capacity.

If the dust resistance rating is not required, it may not be included, in which case, the first digit is an X (IPX5, for example). The dust rating is useful for environments such as caving.

The waterproof rating is as follows:

  • IP x0: No protection
  • IP x1: Protected against vertically falling water drops.
  • IP x2: Protected against vertically falling water drops when at a 15º angle
  • IP x3: Protected against water spraying up to 60º on either side, at an average 11 litres per minute.
  • IP x4:Protected against water spraying at any angle, at an average 10 litres per minute
  • IP x5:Protected against water jets from any direction (hose pipes), at an average 12.5 litres per minute
  • IP x6:Protected against powerful water jets or heavy seas, at an average 100 litres per minute
  • IP x7: Protected against submersion in water under defined conditions of pressure and time
  • IP x8:Protected against continuous submersion in water
  • IP 9K: Protected against power water jets at high temperature, at an average 14-16 litres per minute at 80ºC.

So headlamps with an IPX7 or over can be submerged for a certain amount of time (usually up to -1 meter for 30 minutes in fresh water). IPX5 and IPX6 is sufficient protection for mountaineering and heavy use, and the minimum should be IPX4.

Beam Colour

LED's can emit a cold white light or warmer colour, so it is a good idea to check the LED colour temperature as this varies from one headlamp to another.

Cold light gives the impression you can see things more clearly, but this is actually an illusion. Warm light is more recommendable because it is natural and causes less eye strain, which is preferable for long night activities.

Nowadays most headlamps emit a pleasant neutral light, which means you do not have to worry about which colour to choose.

Some models feature a number of coloured LEDs: white (normal), Red, Green and Blue (RGB lighting). Others just have red lighting.

RGB lighting allows objects to have greater contrast, which is useful for map reading, for example.

Red lighting is less blinding to others, which is useful if you need to get up in the middle of the night in a mountain hut. The human eye also adjusts faster to red light than white and it helps preserve night vision.

Rear Red Light. Emergency Lighting

Some headlamps have a red back light and these are useful for mountain races and are even mandatory for some events.

The vast majority of headlamps have a flashing mode and SOS light system. The first is for attracting attention and the second sends the SOS message.

Disadvantages of Headlamps

A headlamp is designed to follow your gaze, which is ideal in most situations. However, when looking at another person, they may be blinded by the brightness of the light and depending on the light output and proximity, this could even cause eye damage.

For this reason headlamp manufacturers are obliged to indicate the risk level of each headlamp according to IEC 62471:2009, which classifies them into four groups:

  • Group 0. No risk
  • Group 1. Low risk
  • Group 2. Moderate risk
  • Group 3. High risk

It is convenient to check which group your headlamp is in. This is usually indicated in the technical specifications. Most are in group 1 but the most powerful headlamps can be in group 2.

Whatever the classification, always be careful when you are in close proximity to another person and try not to point the headlamp directly at their eyes.

The red light is an excellent solution to this problem, as it prevents glare.

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