Update - May 2017
For 2017, our Best Buy winner, the Petzl Tikkina, receives an update to include information about its recent upgrades. As manufacturers up the ante, we work to confirm that award winners continue to earn their titles fair and square.
Best Overall Headlamp
Incredible brightness and beam control
Our favorite headlamp overall is the Coast HL7
. Combining an incredible 131-meter beam distance, a manageable 4.5-ounce weight, and top of its class floodlight optics, this product is a great asset in the dark. Coast
has even just dropped the list price our Editors' Choice winner to $50 if you need more convincing. The battery pack placement at the back of the head isn't for everyone, but this design does make the light more balanced and stable. The Coast's
beam distance and high scores in trail finding and close proximity increase its value relative to other high-priced lights, such as the $55 Petzl Tikka XP
, the $40 Black Diamond Spot
, or the $50 Princeton Tec Vizz
. Battery life when running the light on full power is somewhat lacking, but turning down the brightness when it's not necessary significantly extends the life of the 3 AAA batteries. Or, just carry an extra set of batteries, which weighs only 1.2 ounces, to double the 3.4 hours high-mode life.
Read full review: Coast HL7
Black Diamond ReVolt
Good spotlight capability
Above average in almost every category
Works with regular AAA batteries
Medium length distance beam
Convinced that rechargeables will lead the future of backcountry lighting, we are stoked to see the growing lineup of USB rechargeable alternatives to traditional batteries. The Black Diamond ReVolt
is our favorite
of these lights due to its unique combination of strong performance, light weight, and reasonable price. The ReVolt
is above average
in all categories except brightness. And, even in brightness, it's no slouch, casting a 56-meter beam (about 180 feet). Battery life is where this light really excels, especially for a rechargeable. Buyers should be aware that rechargeable batteries often perform better when new than old, but even with predictable declining performance, the ReVolt
can be expected to remain impressive. The ReVolt
is unique in also being able to accept regular alkaline AAA batteries for added flexibility. If you hate buying (and throwing away) batteries, travel to remote regions where battery replacement is impractical, or use your light at least weekly, you'll find the ReVolt
to be a solution that will pay for itself in reduced battery costs coupled with excellent performance.
Read full review: Black Diamond ReVolt
Best for Budget-Minded
Good battery life
Not as bright as alternatives
For now, the quality gap between low-end lights sold at outdoor retailers, such as the Petzl Tikkina
or the Black Diamond Gizmo
, and the entry level lights you'd find at Home Depot is just too big. But, each year competitive offerings at the low-end improve. Today, with the Energizer 3 LED
available for just $12, we find it impossible to ignore the great value it offers for those looking for basic utility lighting, though it still could not match the inexpensive offering from Petzl
. In 2015, with the Tikkina
being widely available for less than $17, and its batteries lasting longer than most other lights we tested, our choice for Best Buy was an easy one. The latest 2017 version of the Tikkina has recieved some fantastic upgrades. This already bomber product now features a washable headband, 150 lumens, and Hybrid battery technology which offers the option to use either AAA's or Petzl's rechargable Core battery sytem. You can learn more about these updates in the individual review.
Read full review: Petzl Tikkina
Top Pick for Trail Finding
Heavy with limited battery life at max power
The Fenix is now rechargeable!
Fenix confirmed with us that the HP25R, pictured above, replaces the original HP25. Yep, you guessed it, that "R" stands for rechargeable. Our individual review highlights the differences between the model we reviewed and this latest version, which includes more modes, lumens, and more money ($100 list price).
Robust, incredibly bright, and boasting good enough optics, the Fenix HP25R
is the one light we'd most want to have in our pack when a backcountry venture goes wrong. It absolutely dominates the other lights in brightness. While there are competing products that are lighter weight and almost as bright with better battery performance, none provide the sheer power provided by the Fenix
. It also provides one of the top performing floodlight modes, with an evenly lit low-beam that will run for days. The downside is fairly evident in terms of a relatively high price tag, heavy weight, poor high-mode battery life, and a more bulky size. But, if you found yourself caught out after dark, a long way from camp, with a storm coming in, there is no better choice than the HP25R
Read full review: Fenix HP25R
Top Pick for Ultralight
Lightest weight headlamp out there
Three lighting modes
Newer, lighter version now available
Petzl recently released the newest version of the e+LITE (pictured above), which claims an even lower weight, more lumens, and a more traditional headband. Our individual review of this product goes into more detail about the differences between the older and newer versions.
If light and fast
is your strategy, the Petzl e+LITE
fits the bill. It weighs only one ounce (30 g) and fits in the palm of your hand. It provides adequate light for work around the campsite and in the tent, and in its brightest mode will shine a reasonable beam distance of 28 meters (about 90 feet). If you keep it in low-mode, the battery holds up a long time. And, if you end up in an emergency situation, flip it to the flashing red LED for an emergency beacon that lasts for days. You might think the retractable zip-line headband would be uncomfortable, but due to the e+LITE's
featherweight, we found that it works well. It's perfect for ultralight backpackers, or anyone who values small size and/or light weight. At $30, the e+LITE
is a bit more expensive than other small low-end lights, and you'll want to pick up some extra packs of the Energizer 2032 Battery
before you head out of town (you may not find them easily in the mountains), but nothing comes close to this one on size and weight.
Read full review: Petzl e+LITE
Top Pick for Runners
Black Diamond Sprinter
Bright for such a diffused beam
Waterproof to 1m
No spotlight feature
Short battery life
The Black Diamond Sprinter
is perhaps the most purpose-built light in our test. While others we reviewed serve one of various specific purposes but also claim general appeal, the Sprinter
makes no apologies for its niche service. One tester pointed out that it sure seems as though someone at Black Diamond wanted this light for his or her own use, and went about designing it. It is that specific. It isn't the brightest, nor does the battery last too long. But the battery is fully integrated and rechargeable. The construction evenly balances the weight on a bouncing runner's head, and the light is constructed such that you can point a white light forward for illuminating your way and point a red light backwards for safety visibility. In short, this light is purpose built for road running in the dark. As such, it excels.
Read full review: Black Diamond Sprinter
Analysis and Test Results
As headlamps grow in popularity, the number of choices increases. What begins as a simple exercise along the lines of, "Hey, let's pick up a light for our trip," ends at your local outdoor store with you facing an intimidating wall filled with dozens of products, scratching your head and pondering questions such as, "Umm, what's a lumen
The ability to leave your hands free, and easily direct light with head movements, have made headlamps increasingly popular. In this review, we compare 28 top competitors to find the best.
That's where we come in. We tested over 70 headlamps over a year, eventually narrowing it down to 28 finalists, which we put through the wringer in at least one six-month test period. Over half the products reviewed here, we have used for multiple years. The results of our hands-on review follow.
If you want to get more complete background info before you make a purchase, please take a look at our buying guide
Seeing Is Believing
One of our goals in this review is to help you see for yourself how these products perform. We took beam distance photos of nearly every light tested and included them in our beam comparison widget
so that you can see the actual output of each headlamp, side-by-side.
An Evenly Lit Beam is Ideal
|Coast HL7||Black Diamond ReVolt|
We also took photos of the diameter of each beam
in both spotlight mode and in close-proximity mode
. The best lens optics produce an evenly lit spotlight for distance viewing and a wider, but still evenly-lit, floodlight beam for proximity situations in camp.
|Zebralight H602||Petzl e+LITE|
These photos give you a sense of the optics quality. Does the beam have hot spots, rings, or anomalies in the light pattern? We found that lighting artifacts
make the light less effective, tricking your eye into seeing things that are really bright or dark spots. In our trail-finding tests, the beams with light artifacts made it harder to see the trail, and surprisingly, it made us tired
(we think because the eye and brain were having to do more work to interpret the trail).
Introducing the OutdoorGearLab Light Coffin
A long exposure lights up the base of a cliff at Indian Creek, Utah.
We also built a light-proof box that we call "the coffin" which is rigged up to a data logging light meter and a laptop. With it, we can collect data, which enables us to graph the beam distance of any light as the battery life degrades
The OutdoorGearLab "light coffin" records brightness levels once a minute as battery power degrades. With a little bit of light physics mathematics, we can convert this data into a graph showing how beam distance degrades over time.
Don't Believe the Hype
After studying more than 90 products over multiple years and putting half of those lights through at least one six-month test, we are left with more than a bit of skepticism about the marketing ethics of manufacturers. Our first rule for buying is this: manufacturers' specs are misleading
, especially with regard to battery life. You can read more details on this topic in our article, Why Headlamp Claims Are Deceptive
Lies, Damned Lies, and Marketing
Here's what you should know before getting giddy reading manufacturer's specs and saying something naive like: "Hey Skippy, this shines a 50-meter beam for over 150 hours
!" Umm, how can we break this? It's a lie.
While manufacturers' marketing department might crack an evil smile at the prospect of fooling consumers into believing that their claimed brightness is maintained throughout the claimed run-time
, the engineers designing know that idea is wildly
disconnected from the reality of beam distance performance. We think misleading consumers in this way is wrong
and needs to stop. We hope to help do that by shedding light on the subject.
Most manufacturers report three major specifications. They describe their lights' lumens, the distance of a beam in high mode, and the amount of time the batteries will burn in high mode. They may report other stats, but these three predominate.
Lumens Are for Light Bulbs
Nearly every headlamp includes a spec for lumens, but we recommend ignoring
this. Why? Because lumens are a measure of light energy in any
direction. This is a good way to spec a lightbulb but is often misleading for estimating the quality of a focused beam. In headlamps, it is important to consider the quality of the optical lens system that focuses the light into a beam and ideally creates an evenly lit
beam. Lumens don't get you that information. Beam distance specs are more useful, but they have their own issues to consider
Beam Distance Specs From Manufacturers Can Be Misleading
Beam distance claims on packaging cannot be trusted because:
- Cited beam distance is a maximum only applicable to the initial minutes of use with fresh batteries. Beam distance rapidly degrades within a short time. Refer to our charts of beam distance versus battery run-time to see specific measurements for each light.
- If the beam is too narrow, it may shine far but be practically worthless in the field. A narrow beam is frustrating; it's like looking down a tunnel.
- Packaging specs are based on manufacturer claims, not independent lab test results. We concluded that most manufacturers overestimate beam distance, but generally not disturbingly so. On average, our measurement was nine percent less than the claimed distance.
Battery Run-time Specs Are Misleading
Both of the above lights claim run-time longer than 50 hours. But, you can see that beam distance degrades to a tiny fraction of the claimed distance within 5 hours. The claimed run-time is misleading because it counts this long tail of very dim light in violation of the ANSI FL-1 specification.
Battery run-time specs are not to be trusted because:
- High-output battery run-time is given alongside a beam distance spec (e.g. High: 100 meters beam distance, 80 hours run-time). Most consumers conclude they will be able to see that distance for the specified run-time (i.e. "In High mode I will be able to shine a beam for 100 meters for 80 hours"). The truth is far from that since beam distance degrades rapidly as batteries drain.
- Most manufacturers shun the ANSI standard for battery run-time and instead allow the "battery run-time" clock to keep going until the light gets as dim as a candle placed two meters away (0.25 lux). This results in huge, misleading battery run-time specs that aren't close to what most consumers would consider high-output light levels.
- The variance between our measurements and manufacturers' claims on high-mode battery run-times were nothing less than appalling. On average, manufacturers' claimed high mode battery run-times were 4x higher than our measurements of high-mode battery run times using the ANSI FL-1 standard. This is a huge variance. In one case, the variance was 38x (this was the 2013 version of the Princeton Tec Vizz, which the manufacturer has now changed in 2015*). The most popular Black Diamond and Petzl lamps were about 10x overstated when compared to our measurements. We think that is nasty.
*Editors' Note. In a refreshing move, since publishing our first complete review and exposé on truth in advertising, Princeton Tec
has modified their claimed high mode run times on the Vizz and other lights. The new numbers now better align with our battery life tests.
How Good People End Up Becoming Bald-faced Liars
Headlamp testing and dinner cooking. Road trip camp life is a beautifully simple thing. Good equipment enhances the experience.
There is a weird back story here. Let us show you how a bunch of otherwise reasonable manufacturers ended up rejecting an industry standard they helped create, only to embrace a disturbingly deceptive alternative. We detail that back story in our companion article, Why Headlamp Claims Are Deceptive
, but we'll summarize it here for convenience.
Umm, Guys, There Is an ANSI Standard Here
In 2009, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) developed a standard specification called the FL1 Flashlight basic performance standard
. It provides standards for measurements of light output, beam distance, battery run-time, water resistance, and other claims and was developed with input from roughly a dozen top manufacturers of flashlights, head lights, and major retailers, including REI.
The three beam images shown above
help give a feeling for the difference between the ANSI FL1 battery run-time standard (which we use and feel is reasonable), and the manufacturers' own renegade "standard" for run-time specs. From left to right the images above show:
- The beam image on the left is a high output spotlight with a brightness level of 660 lux (measured at 2 meters)
- The middle image is approximately 66 lux, which is 10 percent of the left image's brightness. The ANSI FL1 standard says to stop the clock on high output run-time when the left image degrades to the dimness level of this middle image. To us that seems to be a fair place to say "high output" run-time is over.
- The beam image on the far right is 10 lux, or 1.5 percent the brightness of the high output beam at left. It is really dim. We think that no reasonable consumer would consider the right image as "high" output light. But, the manufacturers embraced a lax standard that considers the image on the right to qualify for "high output" run-time. In fact, under the manufacturer's spec, the run-time for high output would continue until the right image was 40x dimmer, about the level of a candle placed two meters away.
As reported by REI
, who was on the ANSI FL1 committee, the manufacturers decided to reject the ANSI standard
for battery run-time
they had just helped develop, and created another way of calculating battery run-time that we consider to be self-serving and deceptive
We Did Our Own Measurements
Exasperated with manufacturers' claims for battery run-times, we measured battery run-time ourselves
using a data logging light meter and the ANSI standard. We believe our measurements, based on the ANSI FL1 standard, provide a more realistic estimate of effective "high mode" run-time, better fitting consumer expectations of high-output performance. You can read the details of our testing methodology in the How We Test
section of this review.
We performed our own measurements of High mode battery run time based on the ANSI FL-1 standard. The variance with claimed run-time is shocking. We consider the manufacturer's claims to intentionally misleading consumers.
Types of Lights
There was a time not long ago when there were a lot of different lights, many using different bulbs to achieve brighter light (incandescent, halogen, LED). In today's market, every lamp tested uses LED lights due to their brightness and low-energy requirements. Today, there are only four major feature varieties:
- Spotlight mode — many products include bright LEDs and optics that focus the light in a beam best suited for looking at a distance. These spotlight beams shine brighter but narrower. This is the setting for viewing objects in the distance or for a hiker navigating a vaguely defined trail. Most lamps with a spot mode also include a separate wide flood mode for close proximity use.
- Close proximity floodlight mode — a low-intensity floodlight casting a wide beam with even lighting is ideal for working around the campsite, in the tent, or in most household situations. The lower light means the battery run-time is extended, and the reduced brightness means you won't be blinding your campsite mates.
- Red light — coveted by stargazers and hunters, a red LED is the most efficient in terms of battery life. Stargazers love red light because it allows you to see reasonably well, but doesn't screw up night vision. Hunters love red light (or blue or green too) because animals eyes don't see it. A red light can also be valuable in search-and-rescue situations, since a flashing red strobe is visible at great distances and lasts longer in terms of battery run-time than any other mode.
- Rechargeable battery — rechargeable lights are the future, as batteries are expensive and the cost of rechargeables continues to decline. Today, the return-on-investment is questionable (at $1 per alkaline battery), since we usually don't churn through enough batteries to justify the $20-$50 higher cost of rechargeable models (i.e. you'd need to buy 20-50 replacement batteries to break even). But, for those who use a light at least weekly, a rechargeable light is a smart investment that should pay for itself within a year or two.
Criteria for Evaluation
We used a combination of testing techniques, both hands-on field tests and lab tests using industrial light meters, to rate each product on six performance metrics. Below we'll summarize each metric and the products that performed best and worst.
In our trail-finding test, we took each light to a vaguely defined trail where we could look out hundreds of meters in the distance and hike along sections of trail. Beam distance was a key feature of top performers, but the optical quality of the light also made a bigger difference than we guessed. Lights that had rings, dark spots, or anomalies would trick your eye into thinking there might be a dip or hole in the trail ahead. Over time, we found the poor lights made our eyes tired and required greater attention than an evenly lit beam. We also found that narrow beams were OK at a distance because the focused light worked well, but when night hiking with too narrow a beam, it felt like you were looking down a tunnel and required too much head turning to see the trail.
The top-scoring lights in our trail-finding tests were the Petzl NAO
, the Black Diamond Icon
, and Fenix HP25R
. Of these, the NAO
was a standout, offering nearly perfect optical clarity and a bright, evenly lit beam that was comfortably wide. The Fenix
shined the furthest of any light tested, but the beam is narrower. While we like being able to see great distances with the Fenix
, some prefer the NAO's
wider beam when walking down most sections of trail. Trail walking also highlighted the NAO's
unique Reactive mode, in which the beam automatically gets brighter when you look into the distance and dims to save batteries when you look at closer objects. Reactive
is an innovative feature Petzl
is starting to roll out on other lights such as the recently released Petzl Tikka RXP
, and we found it worked perfectly on trail, brightening when we peered into the distance and adjusting to just the right light level for hiking when we looked at the trail steps ahead.
Trail finding testing in Utah.
It is important to note that these high-performing lights also suffered from poor battery life
in their high output mode. Only the Icon
lasted more than nine hours based on the ANSI standard, and the NAO
only two hours.
|Petzl NAO||Black Diamond Icon|
When you consider battery life and trail finding together, the best performer was slightly dimmer than the top trail lights, but with significantly improved battery run-time: the Black Diamond ReVolt
. The ReVolt
can shine an evenly lit beam far down the trail for over 10 hours
. Additionally, you can recharge it and do it again the next night.
|Black Diamond Icon||Black Diamond ReVolt|
We used an industrial light meter for our brightness tests, making our own measurements rather than relying on manufacturers' claims. The chart below details how each lamp ranked in the Brightness metric.
We found the brightest light to be the Fenix HP25R
. The Fenix
throws a long, narrow beam more than 22% farther than the next light. With such an authoritative victory in brightness, the Fenix
won our Top Pick award. Next in line, the Coast HL7
, throws a wider beam 131 meters. Neither lasted four hours in their highest output mode
, which is disappointing, but if you need distance, they are unmatched.
Among the top performers for close-proximity floodlight performance were the Zebralight H52
, Nitecore HC50
, and the Coast HL7
. All three scored 8 or 9 of 10 in this category and offered near-perfect close-proximity lighting around the campsite, with a wide, evenly lit beam. All three also offer variable brightness so you can set the level where you want it.
The worst performers around the campsite were the Energizer 3 LED
and the Black Diamond Cosmo
. Both produced a light that was too narrow, which reduces peripheral vision, and left us moving our head too much for comfortable use.
The ability to use both hands is one of the key benefits over flashlights
Additionally, especially around other users and light sources (like a campfire), the Reactive Lighting technology in the Petzl Tikka RXP
gave us trouble. The light is adjusted based on what the sensors deem necessary. The sensors are confused by other light sources and the light flickers annoyingly. The Reactive technology can be turned off, but it contributes to an expensive purchase price.
Battery life was one of the toughest categories to score because of the various modes of each light, the huge range of maximum brightness, and the fact that manufacturers' claims for battery life were so ludicrously exaggerated
when compared to our measurements. For high-mode lighting, our "light coffin
" data gave us a quantitative guide for how performance fared. We then granted an overall battery life score based on light coffin performance, availability of a locking switch, and high-mode brightness. (Brighter lights burn batteries faster than dimmer ones, all things equal. Brighter lights also usually have lower modes, so using a light at a lower percentage of its max will result in longer burn times than our coffin test suggests.) If the light comes on inadvertently, it can burn your batteries before you get a chance to use it.
The top-performing light on battery life was the Black Diamond ReVolt
, which offered a unique rechargeable solution with excellent battery life. As you can see in this comparison of the Petzl Tikka RXP and the Black Diamond ReVolt
, the ReVolt
offers reduced brightness, but with the benefit of much longer run-time (as well as lower cost). For many, the ReVolt
offers a nice balance of good-enough
brightness with excellent battery life. It is for this balance of performance that we gave it our Editors' Choice award.
OGL tester Denise Park wraps up a day of rock climbing in Utah, using a headlight to facilitate her way back to the car.
The Black Diamond Icon
deserves honorable mention for battery run-time, because it had the best battery life of any light tested, offering greater than 75-meter beam distance (about 250 feet). While a handful of lights could shine a beam further, they died out more quickly, as you can see in this comparison of the Icon versus the Editors' Choice Coast HL7
. The Icon
was unique in being able to provide a reasonable distance beam all night (9.4 hours in our ANSI standard test). In its low-light mode, the Icon will shine for many days.
One of the worst performing lights in terms of battery run-time was the Petzl NAO
. It is not surprising that the brightest lights gave out the quickest, and, to be fair, the NAO
dominated our trail finding test (9/10 rating) due to its combination of a super-bright light, wide and evenly lit beam, and nearly perfect optics. While the battery held up, we loved
. But, that love-affair lasted only about 75 minutes
Weight is the simplest metric for us to score since the answer is on the scale.
The Petzl e+LITE
is the clear winner here, gracing the scales with just 1.1 ounces, or 30 grams total (batteries included).
The heaviest light was the Fenix HP25R
, weighing in at 9.9 ounces (282 grams).
Ease of Use
In scoring ease of use, we considered the day-to-day operation of the light, with a little bit of consideration of periodic tasks, like changing batteries.
The Black Diamond Gizmo
is the easiest to use in our test. It offers a simple and intuitive single button to turn it on and off. Anyone would be able to figure it out and master it.
The worst scoring products were those whose operation required reading the manual. The Nitecore HC50
is the worst with a score of 3/10. Initially, we received a light that wouldn't turn on. We never got that one to work. We purchased a new one and, while it did work, we never figured out all the nuances and features of this beefy product.
Not everyone needs or should care about our gloved-use tests, which is why we do not give it its own separate score but instead incorporate it into our ease-of-use score. We assume that those who do often wear gloves when using a light will find this information helpful, so it is worth mentioning. We wore medium thickness winter gloves for this test and assessed how easily we could operate each light. Additionally, whether you use gloves often or not, a light that is difficult to operate with gloves on will be difficult without gloves too.
Chris McNamara performing a gloved ease-of-use test. The black box in the foreground is our "light coffin," a light-proof box rigged up with a data logging light meter that allows us to precisely record brightness decay over time.
The winner, in this case, was any light with one big, simple button. The Black Diamond
models, though overall easy to use, have stiff buttons that are more difficult to push than others.
The worst performer with gloves was the Petzl e+LITE
. While the e+LITE
is quite simple to control and operate bare handed, the little control knob is just too small to grab with gloves.
Gloved-use tests involved trying to operate the light one handed using a winter glove. Bigger buttons with tactile feedback and dial controls were generally the easiest in gloves.
If you are planning to be away from a power source for days, consider a portable solar panel
like the Instapark Mercury 10
or Anker 15W Foldable Dual Port
to recharge your headlamp. Another option would be an external battery. Here is our Current Favorite External Battery
Some headlamps, like the Black Diamond Icon
, offer rechargeable kits. The Black Diamond NRG Rechargeable Battery Kit
is a battery pack that allows for extensive use without the need for buying a lot of extra batteries.
Meagan Buck Porter lights up and lights up, as the sun fades. Indian Creek, Utah.
Headlamps are relatively inexpensive considering how useful they are, and many end up buying more than one. Whether you are looking for a light to use on backpacking trips or to store in your car's glovebox "just in case," we hope you have found our review, ratings, and test findings helpful in selecting the right product to meet your needs.