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How to Choose a Headlamp

October 23rd, 2012

A Few Key Features to Look for in a Headlamp

It’s late October, and many of you are already logging early am or post-work miles in the dark. If you’re planning to keep your runs going strong even though you have fewer daylight hours to work with, you’ll need some illumination, and a headlamp can be a great option. Read on to learn key features, and check the end of the post for some top picks.

How much light do you need?

Of course, a headlamp must have enough light for your activity and environment. And if your runs have you spending many hours in the dark, you want a light that will stay bright throughout.

Intensity – Lumens

While you may be more familiar with watts (a measurement of energy usage that appears on your bulbs at home), headlamp light is measured in lumens. Lumens measure the brightness of a light at its source, not the amount of energy it uses. A headlamp that maxes out at 40 or 50 lumens can offer plenty of light for a night run on city streets, while tackling trails in the deep woods could require a lamp that can produce 100+ lumens for adequate visibility.

Duration – Battery Life and Burn Time

The light output for most headlamps will gradually decrease as battery life decreases. But some headlamps are designed to provide steady light that only dims slightly over the duration of the battery life. These headlamps with ‘regulated light output’ offer the advantage of consistent lighting, but beware: the light will cut out abruptly when your batteries run out of juice. If you make sure to slot in a fresh set of batteries before heading out, you should be fine with either light type for at least 8-10 hours.

Another measurement of light duration is known as ‘burn time.’ This will tell you how many hours a headlamp can produce usable light at a minimum of two meters. Although your headlamp won’t be producing an optimal amount of light when the batteries are low, it’ll likely be enough light for you to see your way out of an emergency situation. Many headlamps will list the burn time for the various light settings, but if only one burn time is listed, you can assume it’s for the lowest light setting.

What kind of light do you need?

Beam Type

In addition to light output, light pattern and distance are worth considering. A focused or spotlight beam will produce a crisper, more concentrated light that allows you to see farther ahead. A floodlight type beam will provide a more diffuse light to help you see peripherally. Check out the type of light a headlamp offers under our ‘Product Details’ tab for the lamp. The words ‘focused light’ indicate a spotlight beam and the words ‘wide beam’ or ‘floodlight’ indicate a more diffuse light.

Many headlamps are adjustable, and allow you to switch from a spotlight to a floodlight depending on your needs. If your runs may find you in super dark conditions (like a new moon in the backcountry), you might want a lamp with a ‘boost’ setting, which will seriously up your lumen output for a short period of time.

Product Details Tab Listing Key Specs

Beam Distance

Beam distance tells you how far a lamp will project usable light (read: light as bright as a full moon on a clear night).  Keep in mind that beam distance is measured when the batteries in the headlamp are brand new, and will decrease as the battery life wanes.

You’ll find info about a headlamp’s brightness, beam distance and burn time under the ‘Product Details’ tab on the product page. Use the chart under this tab to compare the settings of a headlamp. Note that the lower the setting, the longer the burn time.

A Note on Depth Perception

Some runners who use a headlamp might find that having a light source directly above their head can throw off their depth perception a bit. That’s where you might want to team up your headlamp with a waist-level flashlight. Multiple light angles highlight trail obstacles, decrease shadows, and can help you feel more stable.

How Important Is Weight?

When you’re using a headlamp for running, weight is always going to be a key consideration. It’s particularly important for longer runs, as even a few ounces on the head over long distances can cause strain and fatigue.

Measuring Weight

Most manufacturers will measure the weight of a lamp in grams, and the average headlamp weighs less than 200 grams (or 7 ounces). For the headlamps we carry, the weight is listed underneath the product’s description on the product page, below the colors. Some headlamps will list two weights (one with batteries, and one without).

Can You Use Lithium Batteries?

If your headlamp is compatible with Lithium Ion batteries, you can use them instead of alkaline batteries to drop a little weight. Lithium batteries will also offer superior performance in cold conditions. Only use lithium batteries if your headlamp specifies that it is compatible with lithium batteries (you’ll find this info under the ‘Product Details’ tab). Using lithium batteries with non-compatible headlamps can damage the headlamp’s circuitry.

Our Picks

Putting it all together, what are some of the top choices for different running needs? We’ve made it easy with a few picks from the selection of headlamps we carry:

For Bright, Focused Light: Petzl MYO RXP 2
A single high-output LED with temporary boost up to 205 lumens helps you see clearly.

For Low Weight: Black Diamond Cosmo
At just 58g (2 oz) using only 2 AAA batteries, this lamp feels barely there.

For Regulated Output: Princeton Tec Apex Pro
This model provides long-lasting, steady light and offers 5 light modes.

For Wet Conditions: Black Diamond Storm
A waterproof housing gives you confidence in wet weather that your light will keep shining.

For Versatile Lighting: Black Diamond Spot
Choose the light you need with a large single LED for focused light and 2 smaller LED’s for flood.

For All-Night Runs: Petzl Tikka XP 2
Plenty bright with good burn time, this model is compatible with lithium batteries to decrease weight, and has a comfortable strap and safety whistle for emergencies.

Want to make your own decision? We have many more options available. View all headlamps we carry.

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  • Eric

    So what would you say the best all around one is for night runs through neighbour hoods with low lighting? Runs last about an hour.

  • Matt

    Good question, Eric. Your best bet is probably the Black Diamond Gizmo, which offers a good amount of light and is also nice and lightweight. You might also want to check out the Princeton Tech Byte.

  • Eric

    Thanks. I don’t mind spending more money for a bright light. In fact I would really like the best and brightest light I can get. Any further advise?

  • Casey Ross

    IF you need a quality light that is super bright and lasts all night check out AYUP lights. IF you go a Rogain or Ultra you’re bound to see plenty of people with these. They are pricey but well worth the cost website is http://www.ayup-lights.com