The Hunt for the Best Headlamp
Which headlamp, of many, is the best? To find out we took 28 top headlamps and put them through a gauntlet of side-by-side tests. Each product was both lab-tested and extensively field-tested. We used industrial light meters to measure brightness and built an automated "light coffin" rigged with a data-logging light meter to measure battery life. Then, we loaded our packs and hit a rugged trail on many a moonless night – regularly switching between each of the lights as we went – to see which performed best on poorly-defined trails. Find out which headlamps we loved, which to stuff in your bag for a backcountry epic, and which are best left on the store shelf.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Headlamp
Black Diamond ReVolt
Best for Budget-Minded
Top Pick for Trail Finding
Top Pick for Ultralight
Top Pick for Runners
Black Diamond Sprinter
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Analysis and Test Results
As headlamps have grown in popularity, the number and range of choices have increased to a mind-numbing level. 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 retail 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?"
That's where we come in. We tested over 70 headlamps over the course of a year, eventually narrowing it down to 28 finalists which we put through the wringer in at least one intensive six-month test period. Over half the products we have 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 decision, 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 we tested and included them in our beam comparison widget so that you can see for yourself the actual output of each headlamp, side-by-side.
An Evenly Lit Beam is Ideal
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 close proximity situations such as around the campsite.
These photos give you a sense of the quality of those optics. 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 just bright or dark spots. In our trail finding tests, the beams with light artifacts made it harder to see the trail accurately, and surprisingly, it made us tired (we think because the eye and brain were having to do more work to interpret the trail through the light artifacts).
Introducing the OutdoorGearLab Light Coffin
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.
Don't Believe the Hype
After studying more than 90 products over multiple years, and putting half of those lights through at least one intensive six-month test, we are left with more than a little bit of skepticism about the marketing ethics of manufacturers. Our first rule for buying is this: manufacturers' specs are misleading, most 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 you get all giddy reading the manufacturer's specs and say something naive like: "Hey Skippy, this shines a 50-meter beam for over 150 hours!" Umm, how can we break this to you? It's a lie.
While the manufacturers' marketing department might crack an evil smile at the prospect of fooling millions of consumers into believing that their claimed brightness is maintained throughout the claimed run-time, the engineers designing these lights know that idea is wildly disconnected from the reality of beam distance performance. We think misleading consumers in this way is wrong and it needs to be stopped. We hope to help do just that by literally and figuratively shedding light on the subject.
Most manufacturers report three major specifications. They will describe the lumens in their lights, the distance a beam will go in high mode, and the amount of time the batteries will burn in that high mode. They may report other stats, but these three predominate.
Lumens Are for Light Bulbs
Pretty much every headlamp includes a spec for lumens, but we recommend ignoring this spec. Why? Because lumens are a measure of light energy in any direction. This is a good way to spec a light bulb, but often misleading for estimating the quality of a focused beam. In the case of headlights, it is important to consider the quality of the optical lens system which focuses the light into a beam, and ideally creates an evenly lit beam of light. 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:
Battery Run-time Specs Are Misleading
Battery run-time specs are not to be trusted because:
*Editors Note. In a refreshing move, since publishing our first complete review and expose on truth in advertising, Princeton Tec has modified their claimed high mode run times on the Vizz and other lights. The new numbers now much better align with our battery life tests.
How Good People End Up Becoming Bald-faced Liars
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 and misleading 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 an industry 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 about a dozen top manufacturers of flashlights, head lights, and major retailers, including REI.
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 taken part in the developing, and created yet another way of calculating battery run-time that we consider to be self-serving and very deceptive to consumers.
We Did Our Own Measurements
Exasperated with manufacturers' wild claims for battery run-times, we measured battery run-time ourselves using a data logging light meter and the ANSI standard as our guide. We believe our measurements, based on the ANSI FL1 standard, provide a much more realistic estimate of effective "high mode" run-time, and better fits consumer expectations of high-output performance. You can read the full details of our testing methodology in the How We Test section of this review.
Types of Lights
There was a time not long ago when there were a lot of different types of lights, many using different bulbs to achieve brighter light (incandescent, halogen, LED). In today's market, every lamp we tested uses LED lights due to their extraordinary brightness and low-energy requirements. Today, there are really only four major feature varieties:
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 different performance metrics. Below we'll summarize each rating metric and the products which performed best and worst.
In our trail finding test, we took each light to a vaguely defined trail section where we could look out hundreds of meters in the distance, and also hike along sections of trail. Not surprisingly, beam distance was a key feature of the top performers, but the optical quality of the light also made a bigger difference than we might have guessed. Those 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 feel tired, and required much greater attention than an evenly lit beam. We also found that narrow beams were OK at distance because the focused light could see well ahead, 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 ahead.
The top scoring lights in our trail finding tests were the Petzl NAO, the Black Diamond Icon, and Fenix HP25. Of these, the NAO was a standout, offering nearly perfect optical clarity and a bright, evenly lit beam that was comfortably wide. The Fenix could shine the furthest of any light we tested, but the beam is more narrow. While we like being able to see incredibly 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 objects closer. Reactive is a 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 the trail, getting bright when we peered into the distance, and adjusting to just the right light level for hiking when we looked at the trail just steps ahead.
It is important to note that these same high performing lights also suffered from poor battery life in their high output mode. Only the Icon lasted more than 9 hours based on the ANSI standard, and the NAO only 2 hours.
When you consider battery life and trail finding together, then the best performer was slightly less bright 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 all again the next night.
We found the absolute brightest light to be the Fenix HP25. The Fenix throws a long, narrow beam more than 22% farther than the next strongest light. With such an authoritative victory in brightness, the Fenix won our Top Pick award. The 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 what we consider to be near-perfect close-proximity lighting around the campsite with a wide, evenly lit beam.
Further adding utility, all three offer variable brightness so you easily can set the level just 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 narrowly focused, which reduces peripheral vision, and left us moving our head too much around the campsite for comfortable use.
Additionally, especially around other users and light sources (like a campfire), the Reactive Lighting technology in the Petzl Tikka RXP and NAO 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 a pretty expensive initial purchase price.
Battery life could have been 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 actual measurements. For high-mode lighting, our "light coffin" data gave us a quantitative guide for how performance faired. We then granted an overall battery life score based on the light coffin performance, the 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 all your batteries before you even get a chance to use it.
The top performing light on battery life was the Black Diamond ReVolt which was unique in offering a 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 much longer run-time (as well as much lower initial cost). For many people, 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.
The Black Diamond Icon also deserves honorable mention for battery run-time because it had the best battery life of any light we tested offering greater than 75-meter beam distance (about 250 feet). While a handful of lights could shine a beam further, they died out much more quickly, as can be seen 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 highly regarded 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, we need to note that the NAO dominated our trail finding test (9/10 rating) due to its stellar combination of a super-bright light, wide and evenly lit beam, and nearly perfect optics. While the battery held up, we loved the NAO. 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 in front of us.
The Petzl e+LITE is the clear winner on weight, gracing the scales with an ethereal 1.1 ounces, or 30 grams total (batteries included).
The heaviest light was the Fenix HP25, 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 primarily, with a little bit of consideration of periodic tasks like changing batteries.
The Black Diamond Gizmo is the easiest to use light in our test. It offers a very simple and intuitive single button to turn it on and off. Anyone would be able to figure it out and master it immediately.
The worst scoring products were those whose operation required reading the manual. The Nitecore HC50 is the very worst with the lowest score of 3 of 10. Initially, we were delivered a product that wouldn't turn on at all. We never got that one to work. We purchased a new one and, while it did indeed work, we never did feel we 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 of you who do often need to wear gloves when using a light will find this information helpful, so it is worth mentioning. We put on medium thickness winter gloves for this test, and assessed how easily we could operate each light without taking our gloves off. Additionally, whether you use gloves often or not, a light that is difficult to operate with gloves on will be difficult without gloves too.
The winner in this case was any light with one big, simple button to push. 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 really quite simple to control and operate bare handed, the little control knob is just too darn small to easily grab with thick gloves.
If you are planning to be away from a power source for many days, consider a Solar Charger such as the Instapark Mercury 10 or Poweradd Apollo 3 to recharge your headlamp. Another option would be an External Battery.
Some headlamps, like the Black Diamond Icon offer rechargeable kit options. The Black Diamond NRG Rechargeable Battery Kit is a great battery pack that allows for extensive use without the need for buying a lot of extra batteries.
Headlamps are relatively inexpensive considering how useful they are, and many people end up buying more than one. But whether you are looking for a light to use on backpacking trips, or just to store in your car's glovebox "just in case", we hope you have found our review, ratings, and test findings helpful in selecting just the right product to meet your needs. If you are still struggling with what to get, consider taking a look at the guidelines we offer in our Buying Advice article.
— Jediah Porter and RJ Spurrier
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