The Best Headlamps for Every Activity and How to Use Them
Headlamps are the unsung hero of travel accessories. They keep your hands free while you set up a tent after dark or take an early morning jog. And they light the way for some pretty incredible nighttime adventures that your phone flashlight just can’t hack. No matter what kind of nocturnal fun you’re getting yourself into on your next trip, you’ll want to pack the right light for the job. So we’ve rounded up the best headlamps of 2019 across a range of categories. Need an extra bright beam? We found it. The option to control the settings using your phone? Got it. Techies, cheapskates, trail runners, and more: Read on to find your perfect match.
How to Use a Headlamp
What Are Headlamps Used For?
If you’ve ever tried to precariously balance your phone’s flashlight while squatting in an outhouse—and it didn’t end well—you know a headlamp is a must-pack camping essential. It will cast glorious hands-free lighting on any excursion, whether you’re paddling through bioluminescence under the moonlight, bagging a Rocky Mountain 14er summit at sunrise, biking, running, caving, or checking your map to find the way back from any of the above.
Toss a headlamp into the rental car glove compartment. Tuck it in your day pack side pocket. You’ll be glad you did. Your headlamp can save you from all kinds of travel disasters when you didn’t intend to be out after dark.
What to Look for In a Headlamp?
What to look for in a headlamp depends on what you’re up to. For things like setting up camp or finding stuff at the bottom of your backpack, you can get away with a cheapie model. For trail running, mountaineering, caving, and lots of other adventures, you’ll want a light with some extra features. Columbia, L.L.Bean and Eddie Bauer have some solid options, but they’re not always the best bang for your buck. To choose the best headlamp for your activity, you’ll want to look at brightness (measured in lumens), battery options, battery life, weight, comfort, and the waterproof rating. Not to worry. We’ve already done the heavy lifting and rounded up the best of the best below.
How Do I Choose What Kind I Need?
Brighter isn’t always better (unless you’re caving). It burns up battery life and can be overpowering. Think smolder, not flare. For most outdoor adventures, 300 lumens will be plenty. Beam distance and light type are more important to consider than brightness. Night-hikers typically like a focused beam that lights the trail at least 40 feet ahead. Runners often look for a red-light option that switches to strobe. For backpackers and mountaineers, weight and rechargeable batteries are critical factors.
What are the different LED types?
Headlamps typically come with four different LED light options: flood for general use around the campsite, spot for long-distance viewing of the trail ahead, strobe for increased visibility if you’re running alongside a road, and colored (red, blue, or green) for helping preserve your night vision as you read a map or look for deer. We have yet to find a headlamp with a “disco mode,” for campfire dance parties, alas.
The Best Headlamps
Best Overall Headlamp: Black Diamond Spot
A solid headlamp at a great price is a travel essential no matter what kind of trip you’re planning. The Black Diamond Spot absolutely hits the sweet spot where ideal brightness, burn time, weight, and quality converge for an affordable $39.99. We love the seven different lighting options (red night-vision and strobe among them) that serve every imaginable after-dark function. Whether you need a spotlight to illuminate the volcano trail or you want to cast soft, get-lucky mood lighting in your tent, you just touch the side of the light to dim it. And, thanks to the brightness memory function, bleary morning eyes aren’t subject to last night’s spotlight mode.
- Lumens: 300
- Max beam: [High] 263 ft [Low] 53 ft
- Max burn time: [High] 30 hrs; [Low] 175 hrs
- Batteries: 3 AAA
- Weight: 3.1 oz (incl. batteries)
- Pros: Good value, dimming option, diverse functionality
- Cons: Waterproof feature isn’t 100% reliable in field tests
Best Headlamp Technology: Petzl Reactik+
Some trips call for a headlamp that’s smarter than you are. When you’re mountain climbing or snow skiing at dusk you might not even realize it’s getting dark, let alone have a free hand to switch on a light. Enter: Petzl Reactik+. This tech wonderchild was born to think and act intuitively on your behalf. A built-in sensor analyzes available light and instantly adjusts the lamp’s power and beam pattern (wide, focused, mixed) without a single touch. If that’s not brag-worthy enough, enable Bluetooth or download the app to adjust brightness or pre-set lighting time via your phone or tablet.
- Lumens: 300
- Max beam: [High] 361 ft; [Low] 230 ft
- Max burn time: [High] 2 hrs, 30 min; [Low] 10 hrs
- Batteries: Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery or alkaline, lithium and Ni-MH
- Weight: 4.1 oz
- Pros: Reactive lighting, optimized battery life, rechargeable
- Cons: Relatively expensive
Best Headlamp for Running: Black Diamond Icon
“Runner’s World” magazine named the Black Diamond Icon its top headlamp Gear of the Year pick. And we couldn’t agree more. This bright beauty is Black Diamond’s most powerful light, perfect for any hardcore runner hitting the pre-dawn trail, and the battery life can outlast your personal best any day. The removable battery pack sits at the back of your head, but you can stow it in your jacket pocket to preserve power in the harshest weather conditions—for the hardcore among us that insist on training in a polar vortex. We love the brightness memory feature and night vision mode options: red, green or blue.
- Lumens: 500
- Max beam: [High] 328 ft; [Low] 7 ft
- Max burn time: [High] 70 hrs; [Low] 175 hrs
- Batteries: 4 AA
- Weight: 10.6 oz (incl. batteries)
- Pros: Super bright, exceptional battery life, dependable in any weather
- Cons: Heavy, expensive
Best Rechargeable Headlamp: Petzl Actik CORE
This hybrid headlamp is all about charging options. The Petzl Actik comes with CORE, a battery you can recharge with a micro USB cable. The light is also compatible with 3 AAA batteries, a handy alternative if you’re out in the wilderness on a multi-day excursion without power. Better yet: Connect a solar charger to that rechargeable battery. You may not have seen civilization for a week. You may be in desperate need of a hot shower. But this compact, multi-beam headlamp will keep shining through all your hat-covered bad hair days.
- Lumens: 350
- Max beam: [High] 312 ft; [Low] 33 ft
- Max burn time: [High] 2 hrs; [Low] 160 hrs
- Batteries: CORE rechargeable battery or 3 AAA
- Weight: 2.9 oz
- Pros: Lightweight, compact, versatile
- Cons: No dimmer option, low water-resistance rating
Best Budget Headlamp: Vitchelo V800
It may not be the brightest bulb in the box, or boast a popular name brand, but the Vitchelo gets the job done for less than $20, a quarter the price of other contenders on this list. We like that it’s simple and easy to use with separate buttons for the white and red lights, which helps you avoid fumbling through multiple settings until finally reaching the mode you want. This headlamp isn’t a reliable pick for a trek into the backcountry, but it’s a great choice for casual evening walks or finding your way to the outhouse in the middle of the night.
- Lumens: 168
- Max beam: 360 ft
- Max burn time: 120 hrs
- Batteries: 3 AAA
- Weight: 4 oz (not incl. batteries)
- Pros: Easy to use, lightweight
- Cons: Poor flood light, limited features
Best Bright, High-Lumen Headlamp: Fenix HP25R
Spelunkers, this one is for you. With double the brightness and double the beam distance of most other headlamps, the Fenix HP25R will light up massive caverns in jaw-dropping effect and help you spot bats hanging overhead before they take flight. If brightness is what you need, this headlamp is your go-to. For camping and backpacking, it’s overkill (read: practically blinding) when that beautiful, intense beam accidentally meets your eyes. Another bonus: the battery level indicator on this model. No more getting caught mid-adventure with a headlamp that’s fading, one painful minute at a time.
- Lumens: 1,000
- Max beam: [High] 614 ft; [Low] 112 ft
- Max burn time: [High] 1 hr, 30 min; [Low] 42 hrs
- Batteries: Lithium-Ion rechargeable or (2) CR123A batteries
- Weight: 10.6 oz (incl. battery)
- Pros: Bright wide beam, USB rechargeable
- Cons: Pricy, short battery on turbo setting
Best Headlamp for Kids: L.L.Bean Trailblazer Junior
We’re not above bribing our kids to love the outdoors. This L.L.Bean headlamp does the trick with four fun lighting modes kiddos can play with: high, low, strobe, and full-color spectrum. The made-for-kids light shuts off automatically after two hours. On the low setting, the battery lasts 60 hours, more than enough to glow through the night as a nightlight. It’s water resistant, so you can chill if it gets splashed poolside or is left on the picnic table in the rain. And when, inevitably, it gets ruined or lost, you’re out only $19.99.
- Lumens: 30
- Max beam: N/A
- Max burn time: [High] 5 hrs; [Low] 60 hrs
- Batteries: 2 AAA
- Weight: N/A
- Pros: Simple to use, fun color modes, auto shut off
- Cons: Short beam distance