Choosing the Best Headlamp for You: A Buyers Guide

August 27, 2018
When it comes to choosing a light, it’s hard to beat a headlamp for convenience.

A light is one of the 10 essentials—those crucial pieces of gear you should carry on any hike. This is particularly true in the fall, when daylight fades earlier, and the odds of finding yourself outside after twilight increase.  When it comes to choosing a light, it’s hard to beat a headlamp for convenient, hands-free illumination that beams wherever you look. Here are the key factors to consider as you evaluate your options.


There’s a big difference between lighting your evening activities in camp, when you only need to see a short distance in front of you, and hiking in the dark, when you need visibility farther ahead on the trail. Virtually any headlamp will suffice for around-camp use, so choose a model according to how much you want to invest in nighttime navigation.  

These days, all but the most basic headlamps feature multiple brightness settings: typically low, medium, and high. Some also feature an even higher-powered boost for an intense, short-term flash covering a longer distance. While the least expensive models offer only flood lighting (or wide, diffuse illumination over a relatively small area; roughly $30 or less), most midrange and high-end models ($30 to $50 and up) also include a focused spot beam, which travels farther and is essential for tramping in the dark—and for spotting that critter rustling on the edge of camp. 


A headlamp’s brightness is measured in lumens, or the total light output from the source. All other things being equal, the higher the lumens, the brighter the headlamp. 

That said, lumens don’t indicate how effectively the headlamp reflects and focuses light into a tighter beam, nor do they indicate the quality of that light. The best headlamps will provide smooth, even illumination without dark spots, rings, or other inconsistencies that can make navigating at night more fatiguing for the eyes. Light quality is difficult to evaluate but worth the effort. Test models in the store before you buy or browse product reviews online with a critical eye. 


Headlamps are also rated for beam distance, or how far away the light can illuminate an object. Depending on the model, maximum beam distance varies from roughly 50 meters (about 164 feet) to 120 meters (394 feet) or more. As a general rule, the greater the distance, the better the headlamp will be for hiking in the dark. A minimum distance of 80 to 100 meters is a good benchmark for being able to spot that next blaze on the trail. 

While beam distance is an important spec, it comes with some caveats. First, a headlamp only achieves its manufacturer- determined distance when you’re using fresh batteries. Second, beam distance does not indicate how narrow or broad the light is. A focused spotlight might project farther but illuminate a skinnier tunnel. The best options light both a long distance and a relatively broad area. Again, product reviews or in-store testing is best. 


Most headlamps take three AAA batteries, with performance and brightness declining steadily as the batteries wear down. Other headlamps offer something called regulated output, which helps maintain a consistent level of light as batteries diminish—a nice feature.

Even so, many headlamp purveyors outrageously overstate battery life. Listed times may indicate how long the headlamp will continue to emit some light, even if that light is so faint, it’s equivalent to a full moon—not a particularly useful level. As a rule of thumb, assume a headlamp will perform at its listed brightness and beam distance for no more than 10 to 25 percent of the indicated battery life.



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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.

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