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GT: How to Choose a Headlamp

I learned about lumens the hard way.

I entered my first nighttime ski mountaineering race and ponied up to the starting line ready to go, with my hiking headlamp tidily positioned on my helmet. On the climb uphill, no problem. My little 300-lumen lamp did its job illuminating a few feet ahead, which is all that matters when you’re plodding along.

Then, the downhill. After a quick transition to ski mode, I swiftly learned that my headlamp was only illuminating a tiny distance in front of my ski tips, and other skiers seemed to have much brighter lights that let them ski with more confidence. Flummoxed, I could only take slow, frustrated turns, feeling out the snow surface in the pitch-black dark beyond my ski tips. This was not fun.

Finally, I had the idea to use another skier with a bright light as a “skiing eye dog” and follow them so closely that I could use their tracks to discern the snow’s surface for my turns. Embarrassed I had to tailgate them, I crept back just far enough that they wouldn’t feel followed, even though they were.

The next morning, I purchased a much brighter headlamp.

What goes into choosing a headlamp:

Headlamp shopping isn’t as simple as comparing lumens. (Also, who knows what a lumen is? Not most people.) You’ll notice headlamps have lumen ratings, which is a start. But brightness is oddly hard to quantify, and there are several other features to consider. Some are important for some sports and less important for others. So here, we’ll lay out the basic considerations.

Lumen rating:

First, we’ll define a lumen. It’s the brightness of one birthday candle held a foot away from you. A single candle isn’t all that bright, so most headlamps shine with hundreds of lumens in brightness.

What kind of beam:

Here’s where things get interesting. Lumen ratings only tell you so much—a light’s usability depends on how that light is directed and channeled. If the glow-power of 300 birthday candles radiates in all directions, that glow isn’t nearly as bright as if it were all directed in one spotlight-style beam.

It’s why headlamps either have a “flood” style light radiating in all directions from the bulb, or a “spot” style light channeled like a spotlight targeted at one small patch of terrain ahead. A flood-style beam is just fine for general use, such as hanging out around a campsite at night. But if you’re doing something fast-paced and focused like nighttime trail running, mountain biking, or downhill skiing, a narrowly focused spot beam can direct all the light just where you want it, in front of you.

Battery time:

There’s always a catch, right? The brighter your headlamp, the faster the battery burns out. It’s why many headlamps let you toggle through low, medium, and brightest settings so if you don’t need your brightest light at the moment, you can crank it down to preserve battery life.

So always check a manufacturer’s expected run time. If your headlamp will only last a few hours on its bright setting, and you have a long overnight race planned, you know you’ll need to bring extra batteries. Note that some headlamps, like the Petzl Swift, use a USB-rechargeable battery. It means that a spare battery for it costs a little more, but you can avoid wasting single-use batteries.

Light color(s) and patterns:

Pretty much every headlamp will cast a white-colored light, but you may opt for one that also has a red light setting, which can be easier on the eyes at night and cause less squinting. (It also interferes less with stargazing!) Many headlamps also have a “strobe light” setting, which is not only nice for campsite dance parties but can help you make your location clear in an emergency situation.

Lockable switch:

It’s a massive bummer to pull your headlamp out of your pack at dusk, only to realize it turned itself on inside your pack and burned its battery out. Many headlamps now have a little “lock” toggle to keep the headlamp off when not in use—a great feature to have.

Water resistance:

Most headlamps do just fine if you’re out in some rain or snow. But if you’re planning on a truly splishy-splashy activity at night (in which we want to know … what are you doing? Are you ok?) find one with a higher waterproof rating.

Adjustable tilt:

It’s wonderful to be able to adjust your headlamp beam up or down depending on your activity, whether you’re hiking or reading in your sleeping bag. Check to see if a headlamp does have an adjustable tilt if that sounds appealing.

Packability and weight:

Compactness matters much more in some sports than others—and a big, high-wattage mountain bike light will be clunkier than a minimalist headlamp. If you’re trying to minimize grams, get a low-profile light that still has the features that matter most to you. Most are quite packable, although some lamps have an extra strap going over your head for stability, which is nice to minimize jostling but adds a bit of bulk and weight.

Now that we’ve shared what we look for in a headlamp—and how much it can suck to not have the right one—share your own headlamp stories with us, too. We love getting tagged in your nocturnal adventure pics.

Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.

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