At the dawn of the computer age, IBM co-founder Gordon Moore looked at the already-rampant advances in the microprocessor and theorized that going forward, the number of transistors packed onto a single circuit board would double every two years and that computer prices would halve in the sale time. In other words, computer power would increase exponentially and cost would decrease as much. And since 1965, computer scientists have affirmed that Moore was indeed correct.
So what’s all this got to do with headlamps? Well, if you’ve spent any time browsing the shelves of an REI in recent years, you know Moore’s theory also applies to these trusty lights.
Between brightness, battery life, features and comfort, headlamps are the computer processors of outdoor gear, more powerful and affordable than ever before. Also like processors, these lights are critical tools to lengthen your days outside, allowing you to have fun after dark, see places you couldn’t otherwise and serve as a safety net in case something goes awry. That’s why picking the right one is critical. We spent a season field testing a dozen models in all sorts of darkness. The result? These six lamps, which will serve every user and budget.
The Best Headlamps
Best headlamp for camping
- Weight (with batteries): 3 oz.
- Batteries: 3 AAAs
- Max brightness: 325 lumens
- Max burn time on lowest setting: 200 hours
- MSRP: $39.95
Test Results: After 10 long nights, five alpine starts and several summits in a month of testing, few headlamps would still be humming along like the Black Diamond Spot325. For one Washington-based tester, it was a sunset-to-sunrise standby, reliably giving him the light he needed for everything from bivvying along the West Ridge of the Cascades’ Forbidden Peak to slurping down a bag of dehydrated pad thai to reading his book at camp.
The 325 lumens are plenty for technical predawn climbs where seeing detail at a distance is crucial, but whereas other lamps have set brightness levels, the Spot325 is instantly dimmable. By simply holding the large button, you can dim the light to the exact brightness you want. After turning it off, the lamp remembers its most-recent brightness, so you don’t need to reset it every time.
Our mountaineering tester liked being able to tap the side of the light with a finger to get a quick burst of the maximum brightness for quick looks down the trail without losing his settings; a quick tap on the same pad switches the Spot325 back to its previous brightness. Such touches are user-friendly and intuitive, while also saving battery—the 200-hour burn time is tops in the test. (Confused about burn time? You’re not alone. The standard is nuanced and changing; read more about it and other headlamp specs here.)
The Spot325 has two beams, which put out light either in proximity (a wide but dim beam) or in spot form (a narrow but bright beam). It’s easy to switch between these modes with a separate button on the top of the housing (new for 2019). The headlamp also has a red light for preserving night vision, an easy-to-read battery life indicator and Black Diamond’s beloved locking function, so it won’t turn on in your pack or in storage when not in use (hold both buttons for roughly 3 seconds to lock it). Supertough IPX8 waterproofing (the lamp will at work more than 1 meter underwater for 30 minutes) means precip and spills are no match for the Spot.
Bottom Line: Sacrifice nothing: Burn time, brightness and comfort all come at a great price in the Spot, making it the best all-around lamp for hiking, climbing and cleaning your shed.
- Nights out: 10
- Testing states: Washington
- Best testing story: The Spot325 led our tester to an all-time bivy on the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak: “When the sun came up, our jaws dropped.”
Best rechargeable headlamp
- Weight (with battery): 2.8 oz.
- Battery: Lithium-ion Petzl CORE or 3 AAAs
- Max brightness: 450 lumens
- Max burn time on lowest setting: 130 hours
- MSRP: $69.95
Test Results: No AAAs, no problem. The ACTIK CORE from Petzl comes preloaded with a superlight lithium-ion Petzl CORE battery that pumps out usable light for days. Between trips and uses, plug the CORE battery into a wall, computer or power bank via its integrated USB port to keep the lamp fully juiced so you’re always leaving the trailhead at 100 percent. When one tester had back-to-back trips in Colorado’s Indian Peaks and Wyoming’s Wind River Range, he was able to refresh the battery in his car in the time it took to drive to the next trailhead. “As the sun set in the parking lot outside the Bridger Wilderness, I unplugged and went right back to work for a night hike through the trees,” he said.
A single, easy-to-press button makes it simple to cycle through the three brightness levels and red light—the perfect increments for everything from packing bear canisters in predawn darkness at camp with the 6-lumen low setting to hauling water from a lake for dinner dishes with the blinding, 450-lumen setting. The brightest beam of the test, it was even powerful enough to let one tester count the branches on trees across the alpine lake where he camped. A long press of the button switches the ACTIK CORE to red light and an even longer press locks it before you stick it in your pack.
The ACTIK CORE’s features are rounded out with an IPX4 rating to keep it safe from splashes. It’s also compatible with AAAs, so you can pop spares into the housing or carry-on airplane travel or in a pinch on longer trips (you do carry spare batteries with you, right?).
Bottom Line: If you need something on the higher end of the lumen-spectrum (say, for fast-moving activities like skiing or biking—or just checking on the noise across the lake from camp), a rechargeable light could save you money on batteries, as well as the frustration of a dead lamp.
- Nights out: 17
- Testing states: Colorado, Idaho, New York, Washington, Wyoming
- Best testing story: The ACTIK CORE helped one tester shoot star photos from inside the Impassable Canyon along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
Best lightweight headlamp
- Weight (with batteries): 2.4 oz.
- Batteries: Lithium-ion rechargeable
- Max brightness: 330 lumens
- Max burn time on lowest setting: 40 hours
- MSRP: $49.95
Test Results: Sweaty, fast-paced night hikes or runs can be the bane of even the best headlamps, but during a predawn slog up Washington’s Mount Baker, the BioLite HeadLamp 330 was all but forgotten—in the best way. Thanks to a superslim design up front (only standing 9mm off your forehead), a scant overall weight and a front-to-back balance that comes from moving the battery to the rear, the intense beam was the only thing reminding one tester that she was wearing it at all.
For how small it is, the HeadLamp 330 is no slouch for power: The 330 lumens were plenty bright for a cloudy 2am peakbagging mission in Washington’s Cascades. It also packs a ton of modes into the tiny body. Switch between dimmable spot light, flood light, spot and flood light, red light and strobe with a single (admittedly small) button. It’s tough to operate while wearing gloves, but we think that’s a small price to pay for what you get.
One runner said the light felt glued to her forehead, hardly bouncing or moving, adding that “the snug band never got gross or sweaty, either.” Credit the high-performance Lycra in the band for its blissful wicking capability. At the end of a trip or run, the (nonremovable) battery pack plugs into the wall or a portable charger via micro-USB.
Bottom Line: Whether you’re trail running or mountaineering, the BioLite HeadLamp 330 packs a bright light and ample features into one of the most comfortable and lightweight packages out there.
- Nights out: 22
- Testing states: Colorado, New York, Utah, Wyoming
- Best testing story: One hiker tested the BioLite and her own mettle at 10,000 feet on Mount Baker, ice climbing for the first time. “The BioLite went delightfully unnoticed on my helmet but couldn’t help with the screaming barfies,” she points out.
Other Top Performers
- Weight (with batteries): 3 oz.
- Batteries: 3 AAAs (or swap in a Petzl CORE battery for $29.95, not included)
- Max brightness: 250 lumens
- Max burn time on lowest setting: 120 hours
- MSRP: $19.95
Test Results: The best headlamp is the one you have on you. Case in point: After one tester botched the approach to a camp in Washington’s Picket Range and the day turned out longer than expected, she declared the sub-$20 Petzl TIKKINA “a wrong turn’s best friend.” With the best lumen-to-dollar ratio in our test, the TIKKINA spits out 250 lumens (enough for our tester to set up camp in the dark) for just a Jackson. But it’s not a one-trick pony—the TIKKINA has an IPX4 rating and three brightness levels that you toggle between by clicking through the single button. It’s not powerful enough for scoping big lines from the base (and no red light), but you won’t find a better bang for your buck.
- Weight (with batteries, in headlamp configuration): 3.5 oz.
- Batteries: 3 AAAs
- Max brightness: 300 lumens
- Max burn time on lowest setting: 110 hours
- MSRP: $41.95
Test Results: Headlamp. Bike light. Lantern. Utility light. The Princeton Tec SNAP just about does it all. The 300-lumen light pops (or snaps…) into any of three included mounts and is held in place by a sturdy magnet, giving it a second life beyond a headlamp. One tester took it from headlamp mode while hiking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range to lantern mode once her tent was set up to bike-light mode when she got home to Salt Lake City. “Using the same piece of equipment for everything saved pack space and weight,” she said. “I only had to think about one set of AAAs to pack and change.” At full brightness, our tester determined the SNAP was bright enough for hiking and bridging the gap between streetlights on the bike path. It has one big button on the side that’s easy to hit and hold to fine-tune brightness, regardless of its configuration.
- Weight (with batteries): 2.4 oz.
- Batteries: 2 AAAs
- Max brightness: 30 lumens
- Max burn time on lowest setting: 120 hours
- MSRP: $19.95
Test Results: Young campers need to see in the dark, too, and the Black Diamond Wiz’s kid-specific features make it not only safe and easy to use, but virtually indestructible, one tester’s mom declared. The water-resistant, tough plastic housing protected the Wiz from drops, haphazard packing and even one industrial child’s unsupervised experiment involving a puddle. A maximum of 30 lumens might seem small compared to the other lamps in the test, but it proved plenty for one 3-year-old tester for two days of exploring Iowa’s pitch-black Maquoketa Caves. Modes include a full, dimmed and strobe light, plus kids can flip through a rainbow of colored-light options with the single button. Nice touches: The light itself tilts in both directions so there’s no wrong way to put it on, the elastic strap has a breakaway feature for the wearer’s safety and the lamp shuts off automatically after two hours to avoid unnecessary battery drain, should Junior leave it on accidentally.
Whether you’re making an alpine start up a volcano or just digging through the junk in your closet, having your hands free to work while still being able to see what you’re doing is key. But not all headlamps are created equal. Different features make certain lights better in certain situations, so deciding what you expect to use the headlamp for is a critical first step in choosing the right one. Lighting up the trail while you’re running at night will require a very different headlamp than one you’ll want for starting a fire or setting up your tent in the dark, and both of those could be different from the light you jam into the kitchen drawer for power outages.
Differences in brightness, lighting modes and power source are three of the biggest differentiators in headlamps and do the most to determine how well a lamp will work for your needs.
Brightness is the first thing everyone sees when they’re searching for a new headlamp. A number of lumens, which corresponds to how bright a light is, is often part of a headlamp’s name and emblazoned prominently on its packaging. The higher the number, the brighter the light.
While some headlamps boast hundreds and hundreds of lumens, you don’t actually need all that many to see things close at hand. If you’re only using your headlamp to read a book or look at things close-up, you can get away with 100 lumens or fewer, using something like the Petzl TIKKINA. Once you want to see a little farther away—like the trail as you walk to the outhouse from camp, or whatever was making that noise in the bushes—a brightness closer to 300 lumens is more important. High-speed activities like trail running or skiing that require you to see greater distances, as well as disciplines like climbing that call for seeing in higher detail, could necessitate a lamp with more than 300 lumens like the Petzl ACTIK CORE.
Keep in mind that most manufacturers name headlamps using the maximum lumen count. You can often scale back the brightness based on what you’re doing. Still, brighter lights tend to need larger or more batteries (or the hardware for recharging), regardless of how many lumens you’re using, which can make them heavier and bulkier.
Many headlamps give you the option to scroll through a handful of different lighting modes to customize the output. A beam or spot light is a long, narrow beam of concentrated light, perfect for peering into the dark trees around camp or to the other side of a lake. A flood or proximity light spreads the beam over a wide (but not very deep) area, perfect for cooking dinner, changing your socks or even hiking.
Many lights come with both a beam and proximity light, each with a preset brightness. If you value simple user-friendliness, go for a lamp like the Petzl TIKKINA, which has one button that intuitively toggles through the lighting modes. If you’re techy, though, you might prefer a headlamp that lets you customize the brightness of each lighting mode to your liking, such as the Black Diamond Spot325. Fair warning: The latter can be frustrating for someone who’s not willing to read the instruction manual and learn the ins and outs of their headlamp before going into the field.
Batteries—of one kind or another—make a headlamp tick. Most headlamps run on AAA batteries or a rechargeable battery, and both have their benefits. The type of battery, typically either alkaline or lithium-ion, also has an impact.
As the batteries in your headlamp die, the light gets progressively dimmer (read more about how brands calculate burn time here). With a rechargeable battery, like the lithium-ion one in the BioLite Headlamp 330, you can juice your lamp fully and start off every trip at 100 percent. Such lithium-ion batteries also tend to operate better than alkaline batteries in colder conditions, and they hold a more consistent brightness as they die. Plus, on longer trips you can recharge your headlamp using a power bank or even solar power.
Disposable batteries, however, are quick and easy to replace and available for purchase almost anywhere. They often hold their charge better over time if unused, making them great for emergency headlamps, like the Petzl TIKKINA or Princeton Tec SNAP.
We passed REI’s best-selling headlamps out to half a dozen testers across the Lower 48 for a round robin-style throw down. After nearly 100 nights encompassing late starts, longer-than-expected days, wrong turns, multisport epics, campfire dinners, nighttime walks and plenty of extra AAAs, we asked them to weigh in.
We wanted our testers to consider how useful the brightness of the headlamp is for varying outdoor pursuits; how great the headlamp’s battery life is (and if it was as advertised); how comfortable the headlamp is to wear over long periods of time during different activities (on bare heads, hats and helmets); how useful (and how user-friendly) the headlamp’s features are; and how expensive the headlamp is for what you get.
Our testers graded each headlamp on a 100-point scale for each criteria (brightness, battery life, comfort, features and price), then we averaged the scores to determine the six best headlamps of the year. The Black Diamond Spot325, the Petzl ACTIK CORE and the BioLite HeadLamp 330 scored high or perfect in every category. The Petzl TIKKINA, Princeton Tec SNAP Modular Kit and Black Diamond Wiz scored high or perfect in most categories.
Thank you to our nocturnal testers. Additional reporting by Jenni Gritters.