Everything You Need to Know: Headlamps

November 13, 2020
Sean O'Dwyer, Mountain-Hiking.com
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference

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Everything You Need to Know: Headlamps
Hiking Headlamps. Photo by Sean O'Dwyer of Mountain-Hiking.com

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Special thanks to our friends and partners over at Mountain-Hiking.com for writing this article. Check them out for the best mountain hiking trails, mountain hikes, and nature walks.

A great hiking headlamp doesn’t cost a lot — and you can’t beat the convenience.

For hikers and campers, headlamps are essential pieces of gear. Whether you’re hiking out at dusk after a long day, or hiking in at night to a glorious summit sunrise, a headlamp will keep you on track and safe.

If you don’t already own one, fall is the perfect time to buy a headlamp. Every year, the end of daylight savings seems to catch many casual hikers off guard. Suddenly, sunset is at 4:30 p.m. — which, in fairness, is crazy. November is now the best month to find terrified hikers stumbling around the woods, hoping to find their way back to a trail with the world’s meekest lamp.

There are four safety concerns with using your phone’s flashlight on trail…

  1. Your phone’s flashlight isn't good enough: it’s just not bright enough to illuminate the terrain under your feet or to pick out crucial trail blazes in the dark;

  2. It drains your phone’s battery quickly: and let’s face it, you’re already probably at 25%;

  3. It ties up a whole hand: on rugged trails, especially at dusk and in the dark, you need to be hands-free for balance and safety or to use your trekking poles to keep you upright;

  4. It makes you anxious: if the first three points don’t make you feel concerned, imagine how anxious you’re going to feel about dropping your baby and smashing its screen.

Headlamp Possibilities

But it’s not just that headlamps reduce safety concerns. They also give you more options for adventure. Headlamps are your portal to night hikes and sunrise hikes. They also help make camping out so much better; from setting up camp to moving around at night, they add so much ease.

Many headlamps also have a strobe mode that can act, in an emergency, as a flashing beacon.

Even if you do not identify as outdoorsy, a headlamp is a wonderful tool. Everyone should own one. They’re great around the house for doing repairs that put you in tight spots, or any time you’re outside and want some light but need to keep both hands free.

How to Choose a Hiking Headlamp

Hikers do not need to buy the most expensive models. At the upper end, headlamps are designed with rock climbers and cavers in mind. For hikers, even a cheap headlamp is infinitely better than a phone flashlight.

The white headlamp above on the left is a Foxelli MX20 (165 lumens, 50m beam) that costs $10.

The aquamarine headlamp on the right is a Petzl Tikka (300 lumens, 65m beam) that costs $30.

Both lamps have a single button on top for switching the lamps on and off, and for switching between their lighting modes.

Headlamp Specs

There are several specs to consider when researching which headlamps to buy. Here are the most important things to focus on…

  • Bulb Type — Almost all headlamps today use LED bulbs which are extremely bright and energy efficient. Both my headlamps, shown above, are LED-based and are at least a year old — and I haven’t had to replace their batteries yet.
  • Power Supply — Both headlamps use standard alkaline AAA batteries, which are fine in the warmer months. The Tikka, however, can also use rechargeable lithium or Ni-MH batteries which perform much better in the frigid winter months. (Although I haven’t experienced it personally, alkaline batteries are known to bonk suddenly in the cold.)
  • Lumens — With a maximum of 165 lumens, the inexpensive MX20 has been absolutely fine for most night hikes. FWIW, I tend to use my headlamps on their lowest setting which is plenty bright unless the clouds roll in — and it helps the batteries last much longer.
  • Light Modes — Both headlamps shown have five settings: low, medium and full power, as well as a strobe function and a red light setting. (The red light is useful in-camp for preserving night vision.)
  • Water Resistance — Both models are IPX rated for at least moderate rain. I’ve had no issues with either.
  • Tilt Feature — Both models sit against the forehead but have the ability to tilt the lamp housing forward to direct the beam either away from, or more toward, your feet. This is a must-have feature.
  • Weight — Lamp marketing seems to fetishize weight but my head and neck can’t tell the difference between the MX20’s 91g and the Tikka’s 82g.

Modern hiking headlamps are now so cheap, you can probably afford to keep two in your backpack: a good one for regular use, and a cheap one for back-up. You’ll never know when you’ll need to loan one to a friend who forgot theirs — or to a stranger stranded in the dark.

Of course, a headlamp is also one of the ten essentials you should pack on every hike.

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