Hiker with bright headlamp

How to choose a headlamp

The key to finding the perfect headlamp is knowing what features are important to you. Think about the activities you plan to use your headlamp for – will you be camping on weekend trips with friends? Trail running on dark forested routes? Waking up early to catch the sunrise on skis?

Once you have a clear idea of how you’ll use your headlamp, you can think about what you need your light to do for you. Here are the main headlamp features to consider and help you make the right decision:

  • Brightness: The amount of LED light you need depends on what you’re doing.
  • Power source: Rechargeable lights and replaceable batteries each have pros and cons.
  • Battery life: How long do you need your light to last, and will it dim as it runs out of juice?
  • Beam pattern and distance: Find out if focussed or flood light is better for you.
  • Red-light option: Why do some headlamps have red lights? Mystery solved below (hint: it’s useful).
  • Other factors to consider: Kid-friendly headlamps, lock-out mode and more.

Headlamp brightness

Campers setting up a tent in the dark

Lumens are the standard unit for measuring brightness. You’ll see headlamps ranging from 15 lumens all the way to a whopping 750 lumens or more.

The headlamp’s optics focus the lumens, which directly translates to how much light goes where you want it. Well-known headlamp brands like Petzl, Black Diamond, Fenix and Princeton Tec have their optic technology dialled. When you’re looking at headlamps from a major brand, the number of lumens is a safe way to gauge how bright the headlamp is. Lower quality brands with a high lumen number may not seem as bright due to the quality of the light’s optics.

How bright should your headlamp be?

It depends on what you’re planning to use it for – brightest isn’t always best. Almost all lights have a high, medium and low mode, so a high-output light can still give you low output options. Some general tips:

  • Lower lumens: Good for setting up camp in the dark, reading in the tent, doing close-up work, walking the dog, keeping in an emergency kit, or using anytime you’re in a group (an extremely bright light can be annoying).
  • Higher lumens (200+): Good for running in the dark, night hiking, mountain biking or skiing.

Power sources

The power source for your headlamp can make a big difference in how useful it is for you, since no power means no light. If you’re looking for a headlamp for weekend epics, evening runs or walking your dog, then having a rechargeable light is a great option. But if you’re about to go backpacking around the world, having a light that uses a widely available battery, like a AA or AAA, is a very good idea.

  • Rechargeable lights: Give you hassle-free USB recharging with almost any power source from wall outlets, portable power banks, AC chargers or solar chargers (just don’t forget the charging cord, especially if it needs a custom charger). Easy to have light with full power ready to go, instead of squeezing the last power out of batteries.
  • Replaceable batteries: AA or AAA batteries are easy to replace almost anywhere in the world and provide instant power. But you’ll need to bring extra batteries, recycle used ones and buy new ones.

Some headlamps are powered by both USB or batteries, so you can get the best of both power-source worlds.

Battery life

In general, the brighter a light’s output, the shorter its battery life. When you look at headlamp specs on mec.ca, you’ll see the “burn time” listed. If a headlamp has multiple modes (low, medium, high or flashing), then the amount of time the battery lasts will be different for each mode. Think about what modes you’ll use the most and find a light that runs efficiently in those modes.

As the battery drains, some LED lights will get progressively dimmer. That might not be a problem if you’re on a week-long hike and moving slowly, hanging around camp or urban running in the evening.

But if you’re trail running or mountain biking at night, you’ll want your light to stay bright. If steady brightness is important to you, look at headlamps that have regulated output (check the product specs tabs on mec.ca). Regulated output lights have intelligent circuitry that lets the LED light stay at a constant brightness until the batteries can no longer support that output. Once that happens, the light dims to a low output, usually for an hour or so – hopefully giving you enough light to get to where you’re going safely.

Headlamp with external battery pack

Batteries and cold weather

Ever had your phone battery suddenly die in cold weather? Similar things can happen with headlamp batteries. If you need a light for prolonged cold-weather use, then look at headlamps with external battery packs. External battery packs can easily fit inside your jacket pocket to keep the batteries warm so you can get better performance from your headlamp.


Beam pattern and distance

Mountain biking at night with headlamp

The type of light a headlamp puts out can impact how helpful the light is for you. Most lights put out either a focussed spot beam or an even flood light, and some headlamps will do both. The beam pattern is listed on the specs tab for each headlamp on mec.ca.

  • Spot beam: If you’re looking for a headlamp to help you squeeze in one more run in the backcountry or make dawn patrol a bit safer, then a focused spot beam to light up things in the distance will serve you well.
  • Wide beam: If you’re using a headlamp around camp or working on problems at the bouldering crag after sunset, a wide flood beam is a better option.
  • Mix of both: Lights that have both a spot and a flood light are great for fast-paced activities like trail running in the dark or biking at night. The combo of beam types helps you see changes in terrain in front of you and what’s further ahead.

Beam distance

How far a light throws its beam is also important. But there are some inconsistencies around how different brands report beam distance. To get a realistic idea of how far a headlamp will light things up, take the beam type and the number of lumens into consideration, and then look at the claimed beam distance.

Red lights on headlamps

Headlamp showing red light mode

A red-light mode on your headlamp is surprisingly useful. Red light is less obtrusive at night, which makes it perfect for reading in your tent or waking up to answer the call of nature without disturbing your tentmates. Since red light doesn’t cause your pupils to constrict the same way white light does, it helps you keep your night vision. It’s also handy for viewing wildlife in the dark or star gazing.

Other useful headlamp features

Kids reading in the tent with a headlamp

Kid-friendly headlamps

Lights designed for kids are often smaller, brightly coloured, more lightweight and not as powerful. Features like automatic shutoff are great for young campers. Keep in mind that LEDs are bright enough to cause permanent vision damage, so make sure your little one knows how to use their light responsibly.

Waterproofing

Plan to use your headlamp on mother nature’s absolute worst days? Look into waterproofness. Water-resistance of electronics is usually rated on the IPX scale, from IPX-0 (no water resistance) to IPX-8 (essentially waterproof, though the manufacturer will define the parameters).

Headlamps built for the outdoors have at least some waterproofing, usually starting around IPX-4 (protection from splashes from any direction for at least 5 minutes) to IPX-7 (protection from submersion up to 1m for at least 30 minutes).

LightWeight design

Many of the headlamps for outdoor use are roughly the same size and weight. But if you’re the type that cuts your toothbrush in half to save grams, headlamp weight will be important to you.

As weight is usually goes hand-in-hand with features (lighter = less features, heavier = more features), it’s important to know exactly what you want from your light, and what you can do without. Once you have a clear idea of your needs, you can find headlamps that tick all your boxes and then choose the lightest.

Tip: For those truly looking to cut weight, consider lithium batteries. Lithium batteries are lighter than their alkaline and NiMH counterparts, and perform better in cold weather. But be warned that they’re also more expensive.

Lock-out mode

Some headlamps have a lockout mode, so a bump or accidental button press will not turn the light on. This feature is handy if you throw your light in your backpack or tool box.

Flashing or boost modes

Flashing modes are real eye-catchers, especially if you plan to cycle with your light. And boost or turbo modes can be great for moments where you quickly need extra brightness. Think: Which fork should you take on the trail? Or “What was that noise?”

“If you pack a spare headlamp, use it with a water jug or bottle (facing inwards) to create a lantern for your group.” – Terry S., MEC Head Office