Hands free illumination – The complete Headlamp Buying Guide
Everyone from ultra-runners and trekkers to canoeists, rock climbers and to every day chores will likely need a headlamp (head torch). Why? They simply allow for hands free illumination, and lets be honest an awful lot of tasks you need both hands for.
Most headlamps these days have LED bulbs which is great not only because they are very powerful, but also lightweight and rugged and energy efficient. If you see a headlamp without LED, the first bit of advice is look elsewhere.
However, as with almost everything there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, different circumstances will require headlamps of a certain quality. Some tasks will require tougher lamps, others may need more or less powerful beams, and other tasks may require to you have a really adaptable headlamp.
In this post we will help you understand not only what to look for but also what situations each headlamp may be good for. The list isn’t exclusive as we couldn’t possibly assign a lamp to every single possible task. That being said you will come out of reading this post infinitely more knowledgeable in the world of headlamps (head torches).
Power and Brightness
The brightness of your LED headlamp will determine how far you will be able to see, and how far you need to see is determined by the specific activities you intend to use your headlamp for and your climate. Lumens are the standard form of measuring LED brightness. They are a unit of measurement that gauges the total quantity of light emitted in all directions by a light source. In most cases higher lumens = faster energy consumption and via versa. In most cases higher lumens = brighter light, however this isn’t always that case, as better headlamps will better focus light allowing for better light quality.
Going back to how much brightness is needed for each task: Some tasks will require brighter beams than others. For tasks that are close at hand such as reading, or writing you won’t need a particularly powerful beam. However, if you’re bushcrafting or trekking, it’s worth looking at a more powerful light (humid climates will also absorb more light energy than arid climates, so if your likely to be in a muggy area consider a more powerful light source).
Beam modes and brightness levels
Most headlamps offer at least a high and low mode. Others may offer three or more modes. Others also include strobe (or Flash) mode which acts as an emergency blinker. A few models even offer a choice of flash rates. (crazy times we live in!)
Low is the standard mode used for most tasks such as camp chores or walking along an easy trail at night. Mid level light is provided on some models simply to give people more choices, but it has its uses when you don’t want your battery to run-down as quick or only need a little more light than low mode. High (or Max) is a good option for situations where you simply need or want more light, in the pitch black of night in an area you don’t know this will be of great use.
For those with higher end headlamps you may get red light mode. Red light does not cause our pupils to shrink the way white light can, so it’s good for night-time use. You don’t have to worry about your eyes adjusting or straining, it’ll also not scare away the local wildlife so if you’re into bird spotting, then red light is for you!
Distance and Beam Type
Headlamps are tested to determine how far (in meters) they can project usable light.
Flood (or wide angle): Useful for general short-distance tasks such as up-close repair work and reading. Flood beams ordinarily do not throw light a long distance, but give you cover a wide area around where the centre of the beam is pointed.
Spot (or focused beam): This tight angled beam is best for long-distance viewing. In most cases this is a better choice to navigate a trail in the dark, or similar activity. This type of beam can still be used for close up work but recommended you put on the lowest power setting.
Flood / Spot beams: Adjustable headlamps are the most versatile. But sometimes it does mean they are not as good at either spot or flood beams. However, in any scenario you should have a headlamp that can do the job.
Photo: Robbie Shone/Aurora Photos/Corbis
Batteries and power input
In a survival situation, preserving battery power will be essential, as will having more than one battery option. Many survivalists will tend to opt for headlamps with both white and red LEDs to maximize battery life. The red light setting can be used for low-light tasks such as reading, as this setting is both easier on the batteries and eyes (as we’ve already mentioned). Brighter lights (white light) will run your batteries down faster, so if finding a power source will be an issue, you may want to cut back on the Lumens or numbers of LEDs in your headlamp. Remember generally less lumens = longer battery life.
If you are likely to need your headlamp in colder climates often, you should choose Lithium batteries over Alkaline, as studies have proved they perform better than Alkaline batteries in cold conditions.
If you’d rather use rechargeable batteries, think about using nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries as they also work well with headlamps and perform well in cold conditions. However please do note that some rechargeable batteries lose power when sitting idle, so it’s smart to carry Alkalines (excellent at holding their charge) as backups.
External battery packs
Some high-power headlamps use 4 batteries positioned in a battery pack on the rear of the headband and run a small cable from the pack to the headlamp. It lightens the load on your forehead but can feel clunky. You can also get batterypacks that clip to your belt, so you can still get the advantage of longer illumination, but you also reduce the weight on your head, however this pack can get in the way during certain activities. If you are going to be using your lamp for extended periods such as when you are caving, then these are ideal!
Usability – Comfort, Size and Weight
Much like your bug-out-bag, for your best headlamp choice, you want to select one that is both comfortable and lightweight, especially if you will be travelling frequently at night or needing it for prolonged periods.
If you plan on wearing your headlamp for extended periods or while you are running or climbing, a top strap can be a desirable option as this adds stability. Whether or not you choose to wear a top strap, make sure to adjust the band so that it fits snugly enough to keep the light in place while you shake your head. To eliminate neck strain, choose a headlamp with an adjustable light angle. Some of the top straps are even removable, so you can adjust the headlamp for your desired purposes.
Both the number of lights and type of battery will affect the weight of your headlamp. Make sure that the model you choose is the best headlamp for your needs, and of a weight that you can reasonably support for an extended period of time. We mentioned already about having separate battery packs, these could help lighten the load.
We’ve already established more LED’s often = more light. However, it also means more size. Depending on your needs, decide what the ideal size and number of LEDs is that you can reasonably support without the headlamp being too heavy or depleting the batteries too quickly.
Water resistant or waterproof?
The IP rating refers to Ingress Protection Marking or International Protection Marking. It rates the protection of mechanical and electrical parts against solid particles and liquids. If there is an ‘X,’ this signifies that there is no rating available for this criteria, as in the case of IPX4 where the ‘X’ indicates the item is not dust rated and has a water resistance of 4 (meaning it can withstand splashing but not submersion).
The majority of headlamps here at Heinnie Haynes are able to withstand some degree of exposure to rain and snow. (They can handle modest drops and jolts, too.) A few can tolerate shallow, short-term immersion. It’s well worth adding this to your consideration list!
Some headlamps are actually removable. This can be a great little feature so some people, especially if you want a headlamp that’s extremely versatile and you’re not 100% sure what you may encounter during your trip.
The IK rating refers to mechanical impact and measures how many joules of downward force the object can endure. For the majority of consumer products, shock resistance ratings are typically given in meters, indicating the height at which the item can be dropped from and still withstand the impact.
For survival scenarios or scenarios where you are likely to bash your headlamp (i.e. caving) it’s well worth looking at a lamp with a very high IK rating.
Please see the table for IP and IK ratings from Fibox.
|IP- 1st #||Protection||IP – 2nd #||Protection||IK||Protection|
|1||Solid objects over 50 mm||1||Vertically falling droplets (rain)||01-05||Impact <1 joule|
|2||Solid objects over 12 mm||2||Direct sprays 15 degrees from vertical (slanting rain)||06||Impact 1 joule|
|3||Solid objects over 2.5 mm||3||Direct sprays 60 degrees from vertical (small splashes)||07||Impact 2 joules|
|4||Solid objects over 1 mm||4||Spray from all directions||08||Impact 5 joules|
|5||Limited protection against dust||5||Low pressure jets from all directions||09||Impact 10 joules|
|6||Total protection against dust||6||Strong jets or splashes||10||Impact 20 joules|
|7||Submersion up to 1 meter|
|8||Long periods of immersion under pressure|
Additional Features to consider:
The ability to adjust the headlamp unit up and down is a very useful option. It lets you position the beam exactly where you want it. This is especially handy when reading.
On / off switches
If you’re examining headlamps, look at the buttons to see if you like how the their positioning for ease of use, also consider how easy it is the change modes (if buying online, reviews are really handy). Also, some switches lock to prevent the headlamp from being inadvertently switched on inside a pack, which for some people is ideal!
Last but not least: Regulated headlamps offer a steady brightness level throughout the life of the batteries instead of the light fading as the batteries become depleted. This is a great feature and deservedly popular!
However, when batteries are exhausted, the light of a regulated headlamp can go dark abruptly. This may leave you without light . . . not ideal. With an unregulated headlamp you get early warning that batteries are nearing the end of their usefulness, which is sometimes helpful. Not so if you still haven’t got spare batteries.
A reliable, quality headlamp not only makes an excellent addition to your survival, bug-out and general outdoor gear. The benefits of having a dedicated light source that stays put and offers you hands free illumination while you are hiking, running, climbing or simply reading or cooking outdoors.
Make sure you consider as many of the above as possible. By answering these questions early you can already eliminate a number of lamps which makes the selection process not only easier but means you’re more likely to choose the right one!