Headlamp or Flashlight for Hiking: Which Is Better?

August 13, 2020

Headlamp or Flashlight for Hiking: Which Is Better?

For an outdoor enthusiast, any time of the day is ideal for hiking. But while most night hikes are often planned, unforeseen delays on daytime adventures might force you to hike in the dark as you head back. So, when hiking, you should always be prepared for any situation and always have a good light in your pack, just in case.  However, to view trails in the dark, which option should you choose between a headlamp and a flashlight? 

Flashlights are ideal for overall power and battery life because they aren’t limited to size and weight which would be comfortable to wear on your head. However, while headlamps may pack a little less punch and battery life than large flashlights, modern headlamps with state of the art LEDs and batteries are getting very close in competing on power and battery life.  Plus, they increase flexibility by leaving your hands free to focus on climbing, crawling, hauling gear, and other activities.

Interested in learning more about these handy outdoor devices? Then you are in the right place. In this article, we will compare the headlamp and flashlight, discussing the pros and cons of each to help you make the best decision for your nighttime hiking adventures.  




Should I Use Headlamps for Night Hiking?

As the name suggests, headlamps are types of lights that are placed on a user's head. These devices are ideal for backpacking and hiking due to their hands-free use.  While hiking, it is best to always have your hands free for whatever Mother Nature tosses your way, or to haul your gear.   

Trails can be tricky to maneuver at night. Besides being similar to an unknown maze, these tracks usually contain rocks, tree roots, twigs, and even animals.  Any of these obstacles can prove harmful, and it is very convenient to have your hands free to catch yourself, move obstacles, run, or fight off an angry bunny on the trail.  Ok, leave the bunnies alone, but you get the point.  

A headlamp has several advantages that'll make night time hiking both fun and safe.




Benefits of Using Headlamps 

 

Hands-Free Use

Backpackers will agree that there's a lot more to do when hiking than holding a flashlight or other source of light at night. Headlamps eliminate the need to hold on to a light source, consequently allowing you to put your hands to better use.

High-quality headlamps like theSTKR Flexit Headlamp 2.5 are designed using quality materials in the form of bands, foam, and felt that lead to a comfortable wearing experience, especially when worn for long periods of time. This allows you to use your hands for other purposes like setting up a tent, carrying firewood, cooking, reading a map, or even grabbing a quick snack.

Lightweight and Easy to Use

You'll find that most light sources (especially powerful ones) tend to be bulky and, at times, too heavy. Headlamps are designed to be lightweight and easy to use. Moreover, headlamps provide extra security since they rarely slip off or fall when running. You won't have to worry about your headlamp falling and rolling away when hiking at night.

Besides being lightweight, almost all headlamps are compact enough to fit inside the tiniest of camping bags. When backpacking, space and weight are crucial. Especially since you'll need to fit as many devices in the bag to have a successful adventure.

Look where you are going 

Headlamps allow the user to better focus on the task at hand.  Since the light is tethered to your head, you are sure to always have lighting in the direction of your vision.  Sounds silly, but if you have to hold a flashlight during a long hike, it is inevitable that your arm will get tired, or you will get lazy.  Plus, eye-hand coordination does come into play. 

With a handheld flashlight, the odds of your light source not matching your focal point is high.  Even the bouncing or swinging of your hand while holding the flashlight will cause the light and focal point to not coincide with the natural rhythm of your head and eyes when you walk.  This will cause the lighting to actually be distracting.   With the high risk of falls during night hikes, it's crucial to have a light source that'll allow you to view where you're going at all times.

Versatility

In extreme situations, you can use your headlamp as a flashlight without compromising your visibility. Just because it's a headlamp doesn't mean it must always be placed on your head.

By holding your headlamp carefully in your hands, you can use it to focus on an object that you want to view further.

Modern Headlamps Usually Come With Advanced Features

Newly designed headlamps boast incredible features that make hiking at night not only fun but alsosafer. Some headlamps on the market offer spot lighting and flood lighting.  This will light up the focal point, but also the surrounding areas so you can catch details with your peripheral vision.  A great feature when you are hiking the trail and want to see off into the distance but still be aware of tree roots and rocks on the trail, or that noise coming from the side of the trailSTKR Concepts really coined this design feature with their FLEXiT Headlamp 2.5, and continues to improve on it.  

Headlamps now also offer a variety of power options from alkaline to rechargeable lithium batteries.  Some even offer multiple power and charging options.  The most desirable are ones that offer multiple power options, but also USB charging.  With USB, you can charge virtually anywhere from your home, car, power bank, or even a solar powered charging station. Some are even solar themselves so you no longer have to worry about your batteries being used up.

You'll also find that new headlamps allow for focus settings whereby you can increase or reduce focus of the lighting to your liking.  Small tight light beams can see far off into the distance, while short wide lighting can light your entire tent.




Cons of Headlamps

Not As Powerful as Flashlights  

Although some headlamps come with enhanced light-emission features, they don't compare to the light produced by flashlights. This can be challenging, especially when hiking in unfamiliar trails where you may want more light to navigate or over long periods of time.

Not Ideal for Group Hikes

The light produced by headlamps will be focused directly on your fellow campers' eyes, and you don't want that! As a result, headlamps are ideal for use when hiking alone or in small groups.  If you are in a group, just be mindful of your hiking buddies and try not to blind them.  In fact, most hiking is single track so you and your hiking buddies will likely be in single file, so a headlamp will not be an issue until you stop to talk.  Just dim it, turn it off, or remove it from your head.  

The Spotlight Can Be Limiting

When using most headlamps, a spot light is only focused in the exact direction you're facing. While the spotlight helps in focusing, it can cause tunnel vision.  When your eyes focus only on the very bright spotlight, your pupils “pinpoint” (Miosis), making the areas to the side seem even darker.  This can give the person wearing the headlamp “tunnel vision”.  To counteract this, innovative lighting company STKR Concepts incorporates what they call “Halo Lighting” into their headlamps.  You get a focal point and area lighting all from the same headlamp.  

Headlamp Battery Life

Compared to flashlights, lightweight headlamps often have smaller batteries than larger flashlights, so they can't be used for extended periods without a recharge or battery swap. As a result, night hikers using headlamps are always advised to use lower brightness settings to prolong battery life, and always check your headlamp for a full charge or install new batteries.  Maybe even pack spare batteries before embarking on night hikes

If you have a headlamp that does not allow you to swap batteries, and you plan to hike for hours during the night, you'll need to carry a power bank or an alternative power source to charge your headlamp when it starts to dim out.  The best Headlamps offer rechargeable batteries that can also be swapped out (not built into the light).  We know that STKR has a new headlamp in development that offers this unique feature.




Should I Use a Flashlight for Hiking at Night?

Though often forgotten by many, a flashlight is arguably among the most important camping or backpacking equipment. Besides their portability and ease of use, flashlights are often the only source oflight when night hiking or camping.  Yes, sometimes you can’t even count on the moon to light your way.  If that is the case, you better have a quality flashlight by your side.

You can use these crucial devices when setting up camp, when walking on trails, and even during emergencies to call for help.




Benefits of Using Flashlights

Wide Viewing

Due to poor night vision, humans require powerful light sources when hiking at night. Flashlights generally have increased power and can be manipulated to illuminate different areas. This feature is ideal, especially when hiking in unfamiliar areas.  

With a flashlight, you also get the comfort of viewing several meters ahead, which plays a pivotal role in keeping you safe. Whether it's a bear, a slithering snake, or a broken branch ahead of you- a powerful flashlight will help you spot the threat and avoid potentially dangerous outcomes.

Usage of Batteries

When hiking in the wild, you'll need a consistent source of light. Although rechargeable sources of light allow for increased versatility, they can disappoint when you're stuck in the woods without any power sources.  For long trips, you might consider a light with batteries, or be sure to have a charging option.

The benefits of alkaline batteries is that you can carry several batteries as you plan for your hike. Packing several sets of batteries will allow you to make replacements when necessary, thus putting your flashlight to good use.  If you have enough batteries, you don't have to use a flashlight sparingly to avoid low battery situations when deep in the wild. 

With a battery-powered flashlight, you can hike comfortably, knowing a replacement battery is just a pocket away.

However, the best option is a flashlight that offers all options.  Such as theB.A.M.F.F. DUAL LED Tactical flashlight by STKR Concepts.  The higher end models of the BAMFF line offer rechargeable 18650 lithium batteries that are swapable (not built into the flashlight).  You can bring several high capacity lithium batteries on your adventure.  In fact, the BAMFF Flashlights also come with a special battery holder that allows the user to also run them with alkaline batteries in a pinch.  With the battery options on the BAMFF flashlights, you will always have a powerful flashlight at your side ready to light your way

High-Quality Flashlights Have Zoom Features

Almost all high-quality flashlights come with zoom capabilities that allow you to either narrow or spread out the beam. Zoom or light adjustment features can help you focus on a particular area of interest or even view far ahead.  On the other hand, the BAMFF Flashlight by STKR has DUAL LEDs so you can have wide and spot lights at the same time.

Allow Group Hiking

If you love night hiking with like-minded backpackers, you'll find a flashlight useful for your escapades. Unlike headlamps that focus light on other people's eyes, you can control the direction of a flashlight, thus making it ideal for use in groups.

Can Create Distress Signals

Courtesy of their superior light-emitting capabilities, flashlights can come in handy in distress situations. Advanced flashlights come packed with features that allow users to control illumination patterns, making it easy to call for help in emergencies.

When it comes to self-defense, you can improvise with your flashlight and use it as a weapon. Although some flashlights are designed to be compact and lightweight, they can still come in handy when used in emergencies.

Powerful Light Source and Power Source

Modern flashlights can really be a powerful light source. Larger flashlights can produce 1000 lumens, and be a power bank for items such as your phone.  You can plug your phone via USB directly into these larger flashlights and catch a quick charge.  Maybe enough to get you out of a pinch if you become lost and need that cell phone!  In regards to power and lumens, beware of cheap, non-branded lights making false claims about the lumen brightness.  There are a lot of less than reputable companies selling flashlights with false claims on the market.  Buy from reputable brands and dealers to ensure you get what you pay for.     

Modern Flashlights Come With Advanced Features

You'll find that new age flashlights come with a host of features. Most flashlights are water-resistant, allowing for use during extreme weather, and even diving. Some flashlights like ourB.A.M.F.F. Dual LED Tactical Flashlights use a rechargeable battery and can last for up to 7 hours.




Cons of Flashlights

Holding Flashlights for Long Is Tiresome

Regardless of size or compactness, holding a flashlight for long tends to lead to hand fatigue. You'll find that flashlights that come packed with several features and capabilities are usually larger, meaning they can't be held long without fatigue creeping in.

Headlamps can be worn for hours non-stop without discomfort; however, the same can't be said about flashlights.

Easy to Drop

While some might have handles, flashlights are usually easy to drop, especially after long, tiresome hikes, or even during emergencies. And once these devices drop, chances are they'll get damaged, especially if they fall on hard, rocky surfaces.

Can Attract Unwanted Attention

Due to their superior power in terms of brightness settings, a flashlight might warrant unnecessary attention. It's hard to enter stealth mode when using a flashlight as wild animals, or nearby hikers can easily spot the bright light.  




Headlamp vs. Flashlight: Which One Should You Choose?

Both headlamps and flashlights are appropriate sources of light that will make your life easier when hiking at night.

Carrying both can come in handy, but if you must choose one between the two options, consider the following questions.

  • Do you plan to perform on-site activities? If you're planning to do some on-site activities, then a headlamp will come in handy. Hiking with a headlamp is ideal if you're hiking towards your tent or a safe place out in the wild. Using a headlamp will leave your hands free to do other activities such as collecting wood, picking up edibles, or even prepping up your sleeping area.
  • How long do you plan to hike? If you intend to hike for several hours at night, you'll need a powerful light source that'll last long enough. A flashlight can come in handy for a long nighttime hike, especially since you can replace batteries when the brightness begins to dim gradually.
  • Are you hiking in familiar territory? For neighborhood hikes, there's no need to go all out and acquire an ultra-powerful flashlight- a headlamp would suffice. But if you're planning to night-hike in an unknown area, you'll need a great view of the surroundings, meaning a flashlight will be preferred.
  • Will you need to crawl, swim, or even run during the hike? If you're planning to go all out in your nighttime hike, it's advisable to prioritize comfort. Holding a flashlight might prove too much for your hands, especially when crawling or navigating past twigs and rocks. A headlight is recommended if your hiking area requires intense hand activity.
  • Are you hiking in a high-risk area? No matter your level of experience, it's always advisable to expect the unexpected, especially when venturing into new territories. A flashlight is an ideal option when you're hiking in high-risk areas, as you can use it to make a distress signal during the night. You can even use a flashlight to defend yourself when push comes to shove. A headlamp can't do much when it comes to emergencies.
  • Are you hiking alone? If you're hiking alone at night, using a headlamp is recommended as you'll have your hands free to do other activities. But when hiking as a group, headlamps can create an uncomfortable experience, even leading to eye damage. Group hikes work well with flashlights since the direction of light can be controlled easily, thus focusing on the trails as opposed to the mates' eyes.



Factors to Consider When Buying a Light for Night Hikes

Whether you choose a headlamp or prefer a flashlight, here are some of the basic features to consider.

Bulb 

You're hiking at night (in the wild), and relying on moonlight for sight is a bad idea. Always check on the quality of bulbs before making a purchase. LED bulbs work best for both flashlights and headlamps as they produce bright light and last long.  

Charging Options

Are you a fan of a rechargeable headlamp, or would you want a flashlight that uses a battery? Both options are ideal, but if you go for a rechargeable lighting device, ensure it charges fast and has several charging methods, including USB.  Bonus if the light also accepts alkaline batteries.

Battery-powered devices are ideal if you'll be camping or backpacking away from civilization for a while. Should you opt for a battery-powered device, pack as many batteries as possible-you'll need them for your night hikes!

Additional Features  

Always go for lighting products that come packed with additional features like water resistance. A headlamp or flashlight that can be easily adjusted to provide different lights is ideal. The more features your light has the better your night hiking experience.

Comfort

Comfort and hiking rarely go hand in hand, but you can try and make your hiking adventure a bit less stressful by getting comfortable lights. If you opt for a headlamp, ensure it has comfortable bands and is light enough for continuous use. With flashlights, go for products that are light enough but compact nonetheless.

Durability

Your headlamp will be scratched by branches and get soaked in sweat as well as mist and raindrops. Similarly, your flashlight will fall and get scratched, especially when hiking in high canopy areas with little visibility. As you buy your light source, take the time to ensure it's made from durable material. Low-quality lights will disappoint and have you eagerly waiting for sunrise.




Final Takeaway

Night hiking can either be intentional or as a result of unforeseen circumstances. Either way, you'll need to be well prepared if you're to enjoy the hike and get to your destination safely.

A flashlight produces brighter light and is more powerful, making it ideal for long hikes. You'll also find a flashlight useful in emergencies, especially since you can flash it strategically to make a distress signal.

On the other hand, a headlamp is convenient as it allows for increased flexibility, leaving your hands free to handle other objects. Night hikers also love the headlamp's ability to stay in place, especially when running or in the event of falls.  

Both the flashlight and headlamps come with several advantages. The best option, however, depends on your hiking preferences. Carrying both in your camping bag might come in handy if you want increased versatility when hiking at night.


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