If you are an outdoor lover and enjoy camping, hiking, mountain biking, trail running, or just getting out into nature, chances are you have used a headlamp before. But gone are the days of old-school AA and AAA battery-powered headlamps when the light used to slowly die just when you needed it. Today, almost all the headlamps on the market are rechargeable, providing super bright light for longer.
The best rechargeable headlamp has several features that make it stand out above its competitors. It will have at least 250 lumens of light; a variety of beam types and a good beam distance. It will also be compatible with rechargeable batteries and a USB recharging port and will have a run time of between 12 and 55 hours.
If you are in the market for a new headlamp, then I’ve got you covered. We’ll delve into the world of headlamps, explore the similarities and differences between battery-operated and rechargeable headlamps, find out more about lumens of light, and what you should look for in a headlamp when shopping for one.
What is a Headlamp?
A headlamp is a small light source attached to a strap that fits around the head and is used for a variety of outdoor activities in dark conditions or at night such as camping, caving, hiking, mountaineering, orienteering, backpacking, mountain biking, and skiing.
They can also be used by workers who need an additional light source to perform their tasks, such as miners, search-and-rescue, surgeons, and jewelry or watch-makers. They also come in handy during power outages when you are scratching around for candles!
While all headlamps have the same function, which is hands-free illumination, some models have superior features to others and the question of which headlamp to buy comes down to the light’s intended purpose. The features on a headlamp that you plan on using for caving or hiking in the dark will need to be far better than on a headlamp you just plan on using for rummaging around in the basement.
Headlamp technology has developed in leaps and bounds from old miner’s headlamps that had glass bulbs and worked off batteries to the high-tech headlamps today that have LED lights and are rechargeable by USB.
What are the Most Important Features of a Headlamp?
The fundamental purpose of a headlamp is to channel light to a target area so that you can see it more clearly in the dark. Thus, the most important features of a headlamp are the lumens and the beam distance.
Lumens (lm) are a measure of the total amount of visible light to the human eye that is emitted from a lamp or light source in all directions.
The higher the lumen rating, the brighter the light will appear; the lower the lumen rating, the dimmer the light will be. Also, a light with a high lumens rating will consume energy at a higher rate than a light with a lower lumens rating.
The best headlamps on the market will have lumen ratings of 250 and higher. A good entry-level headlamp like the FLEXIT Headlamp 2.5 has a lumen rating of 250 lumens with 180° halo lighting, which illuminates your peripheral vision on both sides. The deluxe model in the range – the FLEXIT Headlamp PRO 6.5 has a massive 650-lumen rating with 240° halo lighting, which illuminates your peripheral vision in all directions.
Beam distance is an equally important feature in a headlamp i.e., how far the light will reach. A headlamp with a beam distance of 300 feet will allow you to see 300 feet in front of you in good conditions, while a 400-foot beam length will allow you to see 400 feet away.
While lumens and beam distance are the two most important functions of a headlamp, it does depend on what you require your device to do. If you want to light up the immediate area in front of you for working, cooking, looking at something closely, then the lumen rating is important. If you want to see further away like on a hiking path, in a cave, or down an alleyway, then the beam distance is important.
The best headlamps on the market have good lumen ratings and beam distances, so keep an eye out for those features when shopping around.
What Kind of Bulbs are Used in Headlamps?
Headlamps use small LED (light-emitting diode) lights. Tinier and more energy-efficient than other electric lights such as incandescent bulbs, LED lights have become the standard for headlamps. They use a semiconductor to produce light, are also more easily adjustable than other types of lights, have lower power consumption, and excellent durability. The technology for LED lights continues to improve every year.
What to Look for in a Headlamp
So, with so many models of headlamps on the market, what sets one headlamp apart from another? What features should you be looking for in a headlamp and how do you know what to buy? Several main features differentiate headlamps that should be considered when shopping for one.
It does, of course, also depend on what you are buying the headlamp for – if you are planning to go caving in Mexico, you’ll a more specialized headlamp than one for making coffee on a camping trip. Let’s take a look at the different features found in headlamps and what you should be looking for.
Headlamp Light Output (Lumens)
As discussed above, lumens are a measure of the total amount and quality of visible light that is emitted from a lamp or light source. Lights with a high lumen rating consume energy at a high rate and produce a high quality of light as opposed to light with a lower lumen rating.
However, a high lumen rating doesn’t always necessarily equate to better light quality – a headlamp with a good quality of light can also be attributed to the headlamp maker, who focuses and directs the light in a certain way to utilize the lumens in the best way.
Headlamp Beam Type
The type of beam that headlamps omit can differ from model to model. There are three basic types of light beams used in headlamps:
Flood (or Wide):A flood or a wide beam is useful for general camping activities like pitching tents and cooking over a fire, as well as reading and intricate, up-close work like watch-making. Flood beams are broad-scope beams that do not cover a great distance.
Spot (or Focused or Narrow): Spot beams, also known as focused or narrow beams, are the best form of light for long-distance viewing. This type of beam is best for navigating terrain and hiking trails in the dark or exploring dark caves.
Flood/Spot Hybrid: This dual-beam type is the most versatile type of beam as it can be adjusted to cater to all activities from caving and hiking to camping and cooking.
Headlamp Beam Distance
Another fundamental element of a good headlamp is the distance that the beam casts. The distance of the beam required would depend on what you are using the headlamp for. For activities that require the light to span a long distance like exploring caves and nighttime hiking, headlamps with spot beams are the better option. For activities that require a wide light that doesn’t span a great distance but instead illuminates your peripheral area, headlamps with a flood or wide beam are the better choice.
Headlamp Run Time
A headlamp’s run time is how long the headlamp will last from the time it's fully charged until it needs to be recharged again. Manufacturers of headlamps measure the run time as the time it takes for the light to completely diminish.
Most headlamps offer at least a couple of selections of brightness – a high brightness mode and a low, dim-light mode. Others may offer three or more modes, including:
Strobe (or Flash) mode: This mode acts as an emergency flashing light and can be used in the case of emergencies. Some models may even offer a choice of strobe or flash modes with slow and fast options.
Low-mode: This is the standard mode used for general camping activities like pitching tents, unpacking and packing, and cooking. This is also the best option for walking along an easy hiking trail at night.
Mid-mode: The mid-mode is provided on some headlamp models to offer you more choice.
High (or Max) mode:The high/max-mode is best used when bright light is required.
Boost (or Zoom) mode:This mode can be found on certain models only. It omits an extra-intense and super bright light beam for just a few seconds, allowing you to have a quick look at something. This mode is highly energy-consuming and drains the batteries quickly, hence the reason it is designed to last only a few seconds.
User-Defined brightness mode: Some lights let you pick a brightness setting based on a sliding scale. For instance, on the Headlamp 6.5 Pro, you can push and hold the power button and it will start cycling through its brightness scale from 0% or off in smooth small increments up to 100% and then it cycles back to 0%. At any time you can let go and it will stay at the desired percentage of light.
The weight of a headlamp is another important feature to bear in mind when shopping for a headlamp. You want a model that is lightweight and comfortable to wear and not one that is going to feel heavy on your head.
Most headlamps are fairly small in size, weighing less than seven ounces with batteries included, however, some of the very high-powered models will weigh more due to having more features and functions.
Some headlamp models have extra paraphernalia like external battery packs and top straps that can add bulk. The heavier models are usually designed for specific purposes like climbing and mountaineering.
Many headlamps have a feature known as the red-light mode. The red light on a headlamp is designed to stop the pupils of the eyes from shrinking as they do with white light. The red light allows the pupils to stay wide, which allows better night vision and vision in dark areas. The red light on a headlamp also isn’t as blinding as a white light and is good for use in a group of people without blinding them.
The FLEXIT Headlamp PRO 6.5has red night vision and several red-light modes independently operated by their button including 360° red night vision, a flashing or solid red tail light, and an emergency strobe mode that can be used with or without the white spotlight. This model also has a rear-facing red light that is an amazing feature and essential for roadside safety.
Make sure the headlamp you settle on is water-resistant and weatherproof. It should be able to withstand some level of rain and snow, as well as shallow, short-term immersion if dropped in water. The design of the headlamp should also be fairly sturdy and be able to withstand bumps, jolts, and drops.
Another beneficial feature to look for on a headlamp is the tilt capability. Being able to adjust the headlamp up and down is an added extra as this allows you to position the beam of light where you want it. This is an especially handy feature if you are using a headlamp for walking a trail and really need to focus right in front of your feet.
The FLEXIT Headlamp PRO 6.5 has an adjustable and flexible low-profile center spotlight that allows the user to aim the direction of the spotlight directly at their focal point. The spotlight can hold its angle which is ideal for vigorous activity.
All headlamps will have on/off switches and switches to change the modes of the lamp from bright to dim or fast to slow strobing. Some switches have a lock function to prevent the headlamp from being mistakenly switched on in the pack or your backpack. It’s a good idea to try the headlamp on if you can and test the switches to see if they are comfortable to use.
Batteries and Battery Usage
Most headlamps run on AAA or AA batteries, some models run via a rechargeable 18650 Lithium-Ion battery, and some models can use all three. Again, the type of headlamp will depend on what the lamp will be used for.
Rechargeable USB headlamps are ideal for people who like hiking or trail running in the early mornings or evenings so they can be recharged when needed. Headlamps that use both disposable batteries and rechargeable are better options for backcountry camping or hiking so if the batteries die, there is an option for recharging the headlamp with a portable charger or just using extra disposable batteries.
Headlamps are designed to work with a variety of batteries and it’s a good idea to check what type of battery your choice of headlamp uses as this can affect the run time of the lamp. Lithium batteries are better than alkaline batteries in cold conditions, so go for a headlamp with lithium batteries if you live in a cold climate or plan to use the headlamp in cold weather. Rechargeable nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries also perform well in cold conditions and can be used in headlamps.
When it comes to battery usage, different headlamps can hold anywhere between a few and a few hundred hours of charge, however, when idle, rechargeable batteries tend to lose power, so it’s a good idea to carry alkaline batteries as a backup in case the rechargeable batteries die in your hour of need.
The FLEXIT Headlamp PRO 6.5 is equipped with a lithium-ion 18650 rechargeable battery that is USB-rechargeable. The battery can also be changed for a backup lithium-ion battery for emergencies or long trips where charging isn't an option and battery level indicator LEDs display the current charge level when the battery case is open. This model also has a kill switch that prevents the headlamp from accidentally turning on in a pack.
One of the more popular features of headlamps is whether they are regulated or not. Regulated headlamps provide a steady brightness level throughout the life of the batteries, rather than gradually dimming as the batteries drain.
This is a great feature for ensuring you have bright light at all times. However, once the batteries are empty, the headlamp can go dark rather quickly, and this may leave you scrambling in the dark for replacement batteries.
While it is a benefit to have constant bright light at all times from a regulated headlamp, an unregulated headlamp will at least give you some warning that the batteries are dying by the diminishing light.
External Battery Packs, Top Straps, and Other Extras
Some high-power headlamps require more than the regular two batteries and will have a battery pack on the rear of the headband that holds more batteries with a small cable running from the pack to the headlamp.
The rear battery pack lightens the load on your forehead, which is where the two batteries are usually stored. Some models come with top straps (some of which are removable) for added stability.
What is the Function of the Red-Light Mode on a Headlamp?
As we know, the red-light mode on a headlamp is for preserving your night vision, however, there are several other reasons why a headlamp with a red light mode is better than one without. Here are the benefits of the red light on headlamps:
Better Night Vision
When using a headlamp for camping or any activities in the dark, the white light on a headlamp can be blinding for those looking directly into the light. The red-light mode on a headlamp is there to provide better night vision and avoid “blinding” your friends or fellow campers.
The red-light mode on a headlamp can also provide a more peaceful sleep. Headlamps with white LEDs usually emit more light in the blue spectrum, which represses melatonin, a hormone that is associated with control of the sleep-wake cycle.
The white light from the LED can make it difficult for some people to fall asleep or wake up, and the softer red light can make falling asleep and waking up easier. This is the reason why many alarm clocks have red light numbers – so they don’t disturb your sleep pattern when you look at it during the night.
The red-light mode on a headlamp helps you to focus faster. The human eye adjusts faster to red light than to white light when transitioning from darkness to light as red light does not cause the human eye pupil to shrink to the same degree as more bluish/white light. This is why first responders and emergency professionals use red lights – to preserve night vision and lower the overall light signature in low-light situations.
Better Peripheral Vision
The red-light mode on a headlamp provides better peripheral vision than the white light from the LED. Eyes adjust to white light by the pupils shrinking, making it more difficult to see objects outside the cone of the light. Red light, however, is softer on the eyes and they don’t adjust as much as they do with white light, so peripheral vision is preserved.
Great for Stargazing Due to Less Light Pollution
If you plan on stargazing then red light is the best light by which to enjoy the night sky. The red-light mode on a headlamp creates less light pollution than white light and the stars are easier to see with the red light.
Easier to Spot Wildlife
The softer red light from the red-light mode on a headlamp is less startling to any wildlife they may be nearby. If you are camping, you don’t want to be startling any wild animals that might be roaming near the campsite, so a red-light mode is safer.
Potentially Fewer Bugs
Research shows that insects are attracted to bright, white, or blue light and softer yellow lights have been used for years as “bug lights.” The red-light mode on a headlamp falls into the same category as soft yellow light and is less attractive to little critters out in the wild. Studies show that it is more difficult for insects to see red light.
Rechargeable vs Non-Rechargeable Headlamps – Which is Better?
Gone are the days of having to stock up on batteries in case your headlamp runs out of power when you need it the most. Advancing technology is seeing headlamps moving from regular AA and AAA batteries to rechargeable 18650 li-ion batteries.
Many models that offer the 18650 battery also come with a ‘triple A’ battery cartridge that lets you use three AAA batteries in one 18650 slot. This is a good idea if you are heading into the backcountry or outback and need an extended amount of power – you can bring a couple charged 18650’s and a backup surplus of AAAs (disposable or rechargeable).
Most brands of headlamps offer a USB plug-in to recharge via a wall outlet, and some brands allow both disposable or rechargeable batteries in a single light. Most brands of headlamps are choosing to go rechargeable instead of throw-away batteries.
Let’s take a look at the benefits of a rechargeable headlamp versus one that uses throw-away batteries:
Rechargeable is Environmentally-Friendly
Rechargeable batteries or recharging your headlamp via a USB socket is more environmentally friendly than regular batteries. Although most alkaline batteries no longer contain mercury or other lead toxic materials, they still need to be recycled and if they aren’t, they leave a rather nasty carbon footprint. And if you are an outdoor lover and looking for a headlamp, the environment should be one of your concerns.
One of the biggest attractions of a rechargeable headlamp is that it is far cheaper in the long run to use. Rechargeable batteries may cost a bit more than regular batteries, but they work out cheaper in the long run than their alkaline-only-powered counterparts.
You can get several hundred cycles out of most rechargeable Li-ion packs, which works out to be far more budget-friendly than alkaline batteries, but if you have a headlamp that can take both rechargeable and alkaline batteries, it’s always a good idea to keep a few alkaline batteries around in case of emergencies.
Comfort, Weight, and Space
A rechargeable headlamp is lightweight, comfortable, and saves space in your backpack. A headlamp that takes charges via USB can take up less space in your backpack as you won’t need extra packs of batteries as you could just pack a portable USB power bank. This option is lighter and more comfortable than carrying several packets of batteries in case your headlamp light fades.
A rechargeable headlamp has far more versatility than an alkaline battery-powered headlamp. While a rechargeable headlamp also runs out of power eventually, most headlamps can take also take alkaline batteries as a backup, so if both your rechargeable batteries and portable USB power bank run out of power, you can always pop in a few alkaline batteries to give you light.
Assured Battery Life
Rechargeable batteries give you peace of mind in that many of them will display their remaining power, allowing you to see exactly how much power and light you have left, and whether they need recharging.
When it comes to selecting a reliable rechargeable headlamp for your outdoor activities, the model you choose depends on what you need the headlamp for. Whether you are a professional caver or trail runner and need a high-tech headlamp with all the bells and whistles or just want a basic headlamp that will provide a fair amount of light when you are cooking over your camp stove or reading at night, a rechargeable headlamp is your best option.
Anything can happen at any moment in time. Being prepared can make a major difference in how safe you remain during an emergency. It’s recommended that everyone has an emergency kit ready so that they are prepared anytime that the unthinkable happens.