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 lab-tested and 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 packs and hit a rugged trail on moonless nights — regularly switching between each of the lights as we went — to see which performed best on-trail. 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
Selling at a low price of $35 or less on Amazon ($59 list), the Coast HL7 blew us away with a combination of a 131-meter beam distance, relatively light 4.5 ounce weight, and best-in-class floodlight optics. While not everyone loves the battery pack placement in the back, that design approach makes a light more balanced. The Coast's beam distance and high scores in trail finding and close proximity give it price-to-performance value relative to other popular lights selling at similar or higher prices, such as the $55 Petzl Tikka XP, the $40 Black Diamond Spot, or the $50 Princeton Tec Vizz. While battery life is not great if you run at full power, you can either turn the brightness down when you don't need a full beam and/or carry extra 3 AAA batteries, which weighs only 1.2 ounces, to double the 3.4 hours high-mode life.
Incredible brightness and beam control
Short battery life
Black Diamond ReVolt
We're convinced the future of lighting lies in rechargeables, and we are excited to see a growing lineup that shuns the traditional alkaline batteries for USB rechargeable alternatives. The Black Diamond ReVolt is our favorite of these, due to its combination of strong performance, low 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). This light excels in battery life, especially for a rechargeable. Rechargeable batteries often perform better when new, 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 flexibility. If you hate buying (and throwing away) batteries, travel to remote regions where battery replacement is impractical, or use your light regularly, the ReVolt is a solution that will pay for itself in reduced battery costs coupled with excellent performance.
Good spotlight capability
Above average in almost every category
Works with regular AAA batteries
Medium length distance beam
Best for Budget-Minded
For now, the quality gap between low-end outdoor industry lights, such as the Petzl Tikkina or the Black Diamond Gizmo, and the entry-level lights found at Home Depot is too big. But, each year competitive offerings at the low-end improve. Today, the Energizer 3 LED is available for $12, making it impossible to ignore the value it offers for those looking for basic lighting, though it still could not match the inexpensive offering from Petzl. In 2015, with the Tikkina widely available for less than $17, and its batteries lasting longer than most other lights tested, our choice for Best Buy was an easy one. In the future, we expect technology to trickle down and construction to improve. It will not surprise us when excellent LED lights are widely available for less than $10.
Good battery life
Not as bright as alternatives
Top Pick for Trail Finding
Robust, bright, and boasting good enough optics, the Fenix HP25 is the light we'd most want in our pack when a backcountry venture goes wrong. It dominates the other lights in brightness. While there are competing products that are lighter and almost as bright with better battery performance, none have the power provided by the Fenix. It also provides one of the top-performing floodlights, with an evenly lit low-beam that will run for days. The downside is fairly evident with a relatively high price tag, heavy weight, poor high-mode battery life, and a 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 HP25.
Heavy with limited battery life at max power
Top Pick for Ultralight
If light and fast is your strategy, the Petzl e+LITE fits the bill. It weighs one ounce (30 g) and fits in the palm of your hand. It provides adequate light for work around the campsite and tent, and its brightest mode will shine a reasonable beam distance of 28 meters (about 90 feet). If kept in low-mode, the battery holds up a long time. And, if in an emergency, 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 weight. At $30, the e+LITE is a more expensive than other small, low-end lights, and you'll want to pick up extra packs of Energizer 2032 Batteries before you head out of town, but nothing comes close to this one on size and weight.
Lightest weight headlamp out there
Three lighting modes
Top Pick for Runners
Black Diamond Sprinter
The Black Diamond Sprinter is the most purpose-built light in our test. While others reviewed serve one specific purpose while still claiming general appeal, the Sprinter makes no apologies for its niche service. One tester pointed out that it seems as though someone at Black Diamond wanted this light for their own use, and went about designing it. It is that specific. It isn't the brightest, and the battery doesn't last too long. But the battery is fully integrated and rechargeable. The construction evenly balances weight on a bouncing runner's head, and the light is constructed so you can point a white light forward for illumination and a red light backward for safety. In short, this light is purpose-built for road running in the dark, and it excels.
Bright for such a diffused beam
Waterproof to 1m
No spotlight feature
Short battery life
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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?"
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
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.
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
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 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:
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 exposť 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
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.
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 to consumers.
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.
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:
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 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 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.
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.
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.
We found the brightest light to be the Fenix HP25. 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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, 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.
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.
If you are planning to be away from a power source for 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 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.
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. 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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