debunking gear myths and getting past the marketing: what you should look for in a headlamp

Hi, When I went night hiking in Yosemite up Half Dome, or winter backpacking hiking 4 hours in the dark at altitude…on snow, I had one headlamp. My father gave it to me just before one of his trips. I did not do any research on it, after all, a headlamp gives you light, and what more could there be to it? Was I wrong in assuming that a cheap Target, Walmart, etc. headlamp would be sufficient? NO. I want to say it resoundingly, NO. After spending the past week scouring the web for resources on headlamps, what have you learned? Most of the manufacturer claimed run times are wrong. If a label states, “30 hours runtime on HIGH output” I assumed that the lamp would provide the high output brightness for 2 hours. Turns out that is wrong. Although there exists a standard for testing headlamps, most manufacturers measure it differently. In practice, a headlamp might be HIGH output for 1-5 hours, then spend the remaining 29-25 hours on a dim setting where you can see about 30m in front of you. See the outdoorgearlab citation at the end of the article. They have some excellent charts on runtime and beam distance. Most of the stated lumen requirements are misleading. From the recommendations at Outdoor magazine, Backpacker magazine, sales reps at local mountaineering stores, I imagined I would need 70+ lumens to hike at night. Indeed if you read candlepowerforums or backpackinglight there are a lot of people claiming that 70 lumens would be stumbling through technical terrain and 100+ is a ‘minimum’. On the other hand, I have real world experience of hiking at night…not as a mountaineering superstar, but as an enthusiast backpacker. I have hiked with a low lumen handheld flashlight, and the Brinkmann 3 led headlamp: Brinkmann 809-8022-s 10-lumen 3-LED Pivoting Headlamp I checked the rated lumen output on the headlamp. This headlamp is one that I have used in cold, snow, biking at night, and backpacking. It’s maximum rated output is 10 lumens. For reference that is about the output of a mini maglight, non-LED incandescent. What is so good about the cheap headlamps? The battery lasts forever, the light is sufficient for hiking, and for being seen. In a word, they do everything that a normal person needs, at a fraction of the price of an expensive Petzl headlamp that people buy. What is not so good? Well, they don’t come with all the fancy features and modes. Dimming lights, flashing modes (though some do), regulated lightoutput (more on this later), rechargeable, auto-dimming, touch sensitivity…and other ‘convenience’ factors. What do you really need in a headlamp? Here are my recommendations based on conversations with fellow hikers, reading forums, my own experience, and reading research about lights online. Ideally a light is about 40 lumens, that is enough for hiking, biking, running under almost any normal conditions. Could get by with even less. The human eye adjusts and has a surprisingly wide range that it can see. If you have a light that is really bright, you end up ‘ruining your night vision’ (imagine walking into a theater from outside. Essentially, as the light gets brighter, you develop a kind of tunnel vision where you can only see what is illuminated by the light. This situation is the source, I think, of why people start recommending such high lumen outputs for fairly temperate activities like night walking. There are some candlepower forums where users actually recommend around 2 lumens of light for camp tasks and around 10-15 for hiking at night, thus preserving your night vision. Normal batteries. I like the idea of high-efficiency batteries, but for normal use and real-world output, you don’t need it. Convenience wins out here. Get something that takes AA or AAA and your life will be a whole lot easier. What does it mean to preserve or ruin your night vision? Like I described above, you can get into an arms race, where the brighter the light you have, the more tunnel like your vision gets because your eyes are not able to adjust. Which makes you have to have bigger and wider and brighter lights. When I hiked Half Dome at night, we were under moonlight, but not a full moon. To be honest, it was easier to hike, and I could see MORE, with the headlamp OFF than I could when it was on. The light of the moon (commonly estimated to be around 5 lumens or less, is more than adequate on most trails). I mean, be honest with yourself, walking around on a sidewalk at night or through a dark parking lot, you still see stuff. If you are away from streetlamps, 40 lumens will be more than enough. What are some nice additional features to have? How do I make all my appliances rechargeable? Some would be rechargeable batteries, but you can get that on your own. Here is a rechargeable battery charger or charging station for $12 Energizer Value Charger with AA Rechargeable NiMH Batteries Here are 8 rechargeable AA batteries for $10 Energizer Power Plus NiMH AA Rechargeable Batteries, 8-count (2300 mAh, Pre-Charged) You could pay a lot more to get a Petzl RXP with rechargeable batteries. Petzl Tikka RXP Rechargeable Headlamp Black One Size Maybe it would be worth it for some people, but with the $22 I stated above you could use those batteries in all sorts of products, and have 8 batteries on the ready instead of just the ones that come with the unit. It essentially makes ALL your appliances rechargeable. Which specific models should I get? This Energizer light is sweet (wow a lot of energizer products linked here….well the batteries were highly ranked on Amazon and this lamp is highly ranked on an independent test site). Click the link and check it out. Energizer 3 LED Headlight, Green/Black, 3AAA This light is around $10-$15 and has a sweet bonus feature: a red light! As opposed to many of the gimicky features that I hate and aim to avoid endorsing, the red light is useful for saving your night vision. It takes normal AAA batteries (need a different charger than I mentioned above). In the outdoorgearlabs review, it OUTPERFORMED it’s estimated run time. In fact, it had the longest runtime of almost all the lights. Yes, it starts out with only about 30m of visibility, but then again, after a few hours, ALL THE OTHER LIGHTS dropped to a similar level. Check the beam distance and run time graphs. Additionally, I like that it has a straightforward interface. Try checking out the Black Diamond Spot (gasp! speaking ill of a beloved model) in a store. Black Diamond Spot Headlamp (Green) Yes, you can figure it out from the manual or watching a quick movie, but there is a lot of non-intuitive clicking to get where you want. It is typical of the interfaces for lots of the single-button operation headlamps that seem to be all the rage. Did you find any weird alternatives? Yes, for $64 I want a zebralight. It is a pen style FLASHLIGHT that takes a single AA battery and boasts (actual!) runtimes close to what the above models with 3 AAA or 2 AA batteries do. There are models with max outputs in excess of 200 lumens (rare is the headlamp that touches that). It has a headband attachment so you can mount it securely beside your head. The clicking interface makes A LOT of sense. It has lumen output down to fractions of a lumen for having really low light impact and just reading stuff in front of you. It is waterproof to 2m for 30 min (more than the Black Diamond Storm and other waterproof headlamps that cost ($50+ and don’t have the same versatility, features, or ease of use). Check it out: Zebralight H52w AA Headlamp Neutral White It is pretty sexy. …. I also find it hard to justify spending $64 on a flashlight because I’m all about value and real world application. I don’t really need that kind of lumen output except to show off to my friends or that kind of water proofing because even a normal headlamp can take the kind of normal splash and rain that mine get. Still for the price and versatility, it is unbeatable. Lots of lightweight backpackers use a discontinued zebralight H51 that comes in at <2ozs full loaded with a strap. Any other weird things? I must say I am also considering the Black Diamond Revolt. Black Diamond Revolt Headlamp, Titanium It will cost me about $35-$40. It features a max lumen output of 70, red and white lights. The main draws for me are that, while it does degrade to a fraction of it’s output after 5 hours, it holds a normal charge for around 20 hours, and it is rechargeable already and comes with rechargeable batteries. Huge on convenience and matching the majority of my personal use (hiking/backpacking, biking). It also has the option to take normal batteries. A better value with the sale price, the rechargeable factor, and normal use than the zebralight stated above. But man that zebralight is sexy hahaa. Parting words? Get out there and have some fun! Forget what the marketers say. Use your damn cell phone light if you want to do a night hike or that old school mini maglight. Love it. citation: – check the report on runtime and beam length


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