If you plan to spend any time outside, you need a headlamp. In fact, headlamps are one of the most useful pieces of gear any outdoorsperson can own because they offer a hands-free way to navigate in the darkness. Whether you plan to run or hike at night, set up camp in the dark or […]
If you plan to spend any time outside, you need a headlamp. In fact, headlamps are one of the most useful pieces of gear any outdoorsperson can own because they offer a hands-free way to navigate in the darkness. Whether you plan to run or hike at night, set up camp in the dark or walk your dog after dusk, this guide is for you.
To bring you the most durable, comfortable, long-lasting and easy-to-use headlamps of 2018, we first spoke to two headlamp experts. Then, we read through hundreds of REI headlamp reviews from verified purchasers to see which they liked best. Each reviewer actually used these headlamps out in the wild before coming back to tell REI how the gear performed.
Finally, we picked 10 headlamps meant for hiking, backpacking, camping and running. We spent two weeks putting them through the ringer during nighttime runs along unlit streets and early morning hikes in the mountains. We dunked the headlamps in water, dried them and left them on for 24 hours to see if the battery life matched the advertised numbers. Finally, we picked our four favorite headlamps (and one headlamp alternative) of 2018.
The Best Headlamp for Camping & Everyday Use
Bulb Type: LED
Max Light Output: 325 lumens
Max Beam Distance: 83 meters (on high)
Average Run Time: 65 hours (on high)
Weight (with 3 AAA batteries, included): 3 ounces
The Black Diamond Spot has been awarded top marks by Switchback, Gear Patrol, Outdoor Gear Lab, Wirecutter and Adventure Junkies and its newest iteration, the Black Diamond Spot 325, is just as solid a choice. The Spot 325 is the same as the original, but with a longer lifespan, more lumens and a more compact build.
The Black Diamond Spot 325 offers a goldilocks option for headlamp users—it’s everything you need, and nothing you don’t, all for the right price. Durable, waterproof, comfortable and easy to use, this headlamp is an ideal option for camping, walking the dog after dark or doing work around the house.
The Spot 325 has 25 more lumens than the original Spot, which puts it at the top of its class for light quality. You can use the “PowerTap” feature on the front of the lamp to shuffle through several power options, a red night-vision mode and a strobe setting. A few customers complained about the PowerTap control feature, saying it was a bit too sensitive for their tastes and caused them to shuffle through the lighting options too quickly; we didn’t experience any problems with that feature, though. The Spot 325’s light is ideal for camp chores, giving you a precise but wide-enough beam for finding tools or gear in the dark. There are settings for both proximity (close up, for cooking, reading or sorting gear) and distance (far off, for spotting climbing anchors or trail cairns), depending on your needs.
The Spot 325 is lightweight and easy to throw in your bag, plus it has a brightness memory mode, which means it’ll revert back to the previous setting the next time you turn it on. The lock feature keeps the Spot 325 off in your pack, even if it’s bouncing around. As promised by Black Diamond, we found that the Spot 325 held strong for more than 24 hours with the settings on high—we didn’t spot even a smidge of dimming. However, Black Diamond boasts that you can get up to 65 hours of light out of the battery-operated Spot 325 if you have the settings on high, and more than 600 hours if you keep it on its lowest setting, making this the longest-lasting headlamp in our lineup. We thought the head strap was pretty comfortable as well. The Spot is also water resistant in up to 1.1 meters of water for 30 minutes, according to Black Diamond; our testing proved this to be true.
“I picked up this light three weeks ago for a trip to the islands to clean up after hurricane Maria,” said one customer of the original Spot. “I used it consistently for three days before I could dig out and get my generator started, then daily for two weeks. Turned out to be a real lifesaver. Super comfortable to wear, fits under a ball cap, and very bright.”
The Best Headlamp for Hiking & Backpacking
Bulb Type: LED
Max Light Output: 375 lumens
Max Beam Distance: 100 meters (on high)
Average Run Time: 75 hours (on high)
Weight (with 4 AAA batteries, included): 4.2 ounces
The Black Diamond Storm 375 is the most recent iteration of the popular Storm model and it is a brick of a headlamp. It’s incredibly durable and only slightly more expensive than its competitors, but is full of great features for hikers and backpackers—or those who need a headlamp to use in wild weather. The Storm 375 is fully waterproof and has brightness memory, which means it picks up right where you left off when you turn it back on. It also stays off until you hold down the lock button so it won’t turn on in your pack while you’re not using it, draining the battery.
The Storm 375 offers 375 lumens, which is 25 more than the older version. This high lumen count means that the Storm 375 throws more directed light than most of the other headlamps we tested. Feature-wise, the Storm has a dimmer, plus red, green and blue tint options, a strobe and a spot feature, all of which you’ll want to use if you’re hiking at night. The spot feature throws a narrow beam of directed, bright light almost 80 meters down the trail, which is ideal for night hikers. (Camping headlamps often feature wide flood beams, which are a bit dimmer and usually have shorter paths. If you’re hiking at night, you’ll use the spot feature most often.) You can dim the Storm 375’s light when you don’t need full power to save the battery. The red light also allows for good night vision.
The Storm 375 might feel a little heavy on your head when you first put it on (it’s a bit heavier than the original Storm), but we found that we got used to the extra weight quickly; the weight is the result of the extra features and durability you’ll need if you’re carrying this with you on a multiday backpacking trip. The head strap is extremely comfortable, and we found that the light didn’t fade, even when it was left on high for 24 hours. Black Diamond says that the Storm 375 can last for up to 75 hours on high, and 310 hours on low.
“This light is very powerful and there are enough light features to tackle any situation,” said one customer of the original Storm. “I wore it the first day for two hours sitting at my desk, and could feel it after the two hours, but it wasn't miserable. I especially like the blue LED feature. It makes things glow almost like a black light.”
The Best Headlamp for Under $20
Bulb Type: LED
Max Light Output: 150 lumens
Max Beam Distance: 50 meters (on high)
Average Run Time: 60 hours (on high)
Weight (with 3 AAA batteries, included): 3.03 ounces
Priced at under $20, the Petzl Tikkina is a solid headlamp option for those who need a light in the dark, but only occasionally. The Tikkina beats out all of its low-cost competitors by offering a fairly bright, 150-lumen light for general-purpose tasks, like walking the dog at night, cleaning out a dark gear closet, fixing a broken pipe under the sink or bumping around camp late at night. This would be a great option for a bug-out bag, too, given its low price.
The Tikkina has a smaller beam and fewer lumens than the other lights we tested, but it still offers three lighting variations (low, medium and high) and the light beam is fairly clear and directed, especially for close-up tasks. There is no red light on the Tikkina and no strobe, but you won’t likely need these settings if you plan to use this light mainly around the house or campsite. It’s easy to insert the batteries into the Tikkina, and its head strap is comfortable. This option is also incredibly lightweight.
"I got one of these last year and used it when I hiked in Yellowstone and was in the Tetons,” one customer said. “I also have one with a red light, but love this little one and I use it more than any of the others. After hiking season I started using it for barn chores in the morning and evening. It makes life a whole lot easier and the light lasted from November to February or early March on the same set of batteries. Considering I do chores morning and evening for more than an hour, that's a good thing. It has great light for what you're doing immediately in front of you, and you can see a long way off with just a touch of the button putting it on the high beam."
The Best Rechargeable Headlamp
Bulb Type: LED
Max Light Output: 350 lumens
Max Beam Distance: 95 meters (on high)
Average Run Time: 2 hours (on high)
Weight (with batteries): 2.9 ounces
If you’re looking for a rechargeable headlamp for running or backpacking, the Petzl Actik Core is a solid choice. It has a high lumen count, is lightweight and offers an adjustable beam—plus we found it to be intuitive to charge and use.
Runners, backpackers and mountaineers tend to gravitate toward rechargeable headlamps because they’re lightweight and cost effective. While you won’t get as many hours of use out of a rechargeable headlamp compared to a battery-powered headlamp, you can save money if you carry a USB charger with you or plan to be home after a few hours. Unlike some of its competitors, the Actik Core offers the best of both worlds: It charges with a USB cord but will also operate with standard batteries if you don’t have a charger handy.
We found the Actik Core to be comfortable and intuitive to use. It has three light settings—low, medium and high—as well as a red light option and strobe feature, all operated by a well-defined button on the top of the lamp. The beam, which is 350 lumens, is strong, wide and maps out to 95 meters.
“Love the battery pack option. I have two and [the Actik Core] works great with solar chargers. Lasted several hours and charges fast. I’d recommend this to anyone to lighten up your pack,” said one customer.
The Best Headlamp Alternative for Runners
Bulb Type: LED
Max Light Output: 60 lumens
Average Run Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (on high)
Weight (with integrated rechargeable batteries): 0.7 ounces
Amphipod makes a line of lights that aren’t quite headlamps but are still useful when spending time outdoors in the dark. We like the clip-on Versa-Light Plus best as a non-headlamp option for runners because of its tiny size, bright beam, rechargeability and ease of use.
The Versa-Light Plus doesn’t use disposable batteries. Instead, it easily charges in any USB port. The light has four LED bulbs, which flash or give a steady stream of light in red and white settings. These lights don’t illuminate a path forward, but they will help keep you visible and thus more safe if you’re running or hiking at night, especially along a road. You can tightly clip the Versa-Light Plus onto any piece of your clothing; it’s so lightweight and small that it’s completely unnoticeable once you start running—no bounce included. A full charge will provide about five hours of light, when the beam is on its lowest setting.
“This is a versatile accessory for runners,” one customer said. “I wear it flashing red in back when running on roads, and in steady white clipped to the front of my shorts when running on dark trails at night.”
What kind of headlamp do I need?
There are a few things to consider when buying a headlamp. First, REI Category Merchandise Manager Derek Temple says to think about what activities you’ll use your headlamp for. People often use headlamps for moving around at night, especially to set up camp, cook or find the bathroom. You’ll also want a headlamp if you plan to hike at night, or might get caught out on a climb after dark. Some runners use headlamps for nighttime or early morning running, both in the city and on the trail. Other folks may want a headlamp for emergency purposes and still others might need one for simple activities, like walking the dog in the dark. Ultimately, your headlamp choice depends on how you’ll use it.
The features you need in a headlamp will vary based on your planned activity. Common headlamp features include:
All of these features combine in different ways in each of the above headlamp models. We looked for models that offered the most durability, variety of beams, ease of use and comfort for the best prices, and our choices reflect those features.
How many lumens do I need?
Lumens are a unit of measurement that explains the quantity of light emitted in all directions by a light source, Temple says. Typically, a headlamp with a high-lumen count will use up battery life more quickly than a light with lower lumens. Headlamps with higher lumen counts usually glow brighter than those with lower counts.
According to Temple, you’ll need between 2 and 300 lumens in your headlamp, depending on the activity. Bird advises customers to think about battery life as well: “You want to not be maxing out your headlamp,” he says. “Buy something you will use at a step down from its max capacity, so it lasts longer.”
Bird also notes that beam distance and light type are more important to consider than lumen numbers. “If you have two 300 lumen headlamps, but one has a 20-foot distance and the other has a 15-foot distance, the 15-foot light will be brighter because the light will be more concentrated,” he says.
How much distance do I need on my headlamp light?
A headlamp’s main purpose is to cast light on a target area, so most headlamps are tested based on how far they can project useable light. For camping, you don’t need a long beam of light. In fact, you’re better off with a wide stream of light, to illuminate more of your workspace up close. If you plan to use your headlamp for running, mountaineering or night hiking, you should consider buying a headlamp that projects light for a longer distance so you can see at least 40 feet of trail length ahead of you.
What battery options are available?
Most battery-operated headlamps use AAA batteries, although a few models use AA. Rechargeable headlamps are also available and some headlamps even allow you to switch between a charge and a AAA battery.
Rechargeable headlamps are a good choice for runners, Bird says. “If you’re using this light for just an hour every morning or evening, the battery expenditure isn’t worth it because you can just plug it in to charge it when you get home.” Rechargeable headlamps also tend to be a bit lighter.
If you’re going on a multiday backpacking trip and plan to bring a battery pack to charge other devices, a rechargeable headlamp is a good choice. However, if you don’t plan to bring a charging pack, grab a battery-operated headlamp, Bird says. “Then, if things go wrong, you can just pop in new batteries rather than worrying about power management.”
What kinds of bulbs do most headlamps use?
These days, most headlamps are made with LED bulbs because, according to Temple, “this gives you the best light output for the least amount of battery power.”
How to care for your headlamp
Temple recommends keeping your headlamp dry and dust-free when it’s not in use. If you’ve been in the mud or dirt, brush your headlamp off when you get home. Bird also notes that most headlamp straps are detachable, so you can wash them if you’ve been sweating. Overall, though, he says it’s tough to break headlamps; they’re quite durable and typically made to last for years.