Headlamps top the list of outdoor gear. A hands-free light frees you up to do whatever you need to do with your hands when it’s dark, from setting up a tent to tying on a bass popper to dragging a deer out of the woods. The best headlamp to get depends on what you want to do, because of factors such as weight, brightness, battery life, ruggedness, and of course price. We’ve scoped out all the information you need to track down the best headlamp for you.
- BEST CAMPING HEADLAMP: BLACK DIAMOND SPOT 350
- BEST HEADLAMP FOR HUNTING: PETZL TACTIKKA + RGB
- BEST HEADLAMP FOR FISHING: BESTSUN 2000 LUMENS
- BEST RUNNING HEADLAMP: BIOLITE HEADLAMP 330
- BEST HEADLAMP FOR BACKPACKING: NITECORE NU25
- BEST CHEAP HEADLAMP: PETZL TIKKINA HEADLAMP
Features to Consider When Shopping for the Best Headlamp
While headlamps improve each year—with new iterations boasting brighter outputs, better battery life and greater customization—the essential features you need to look for when shopping for a headlamp remain relevant: Light output, run times, color/dimming settings, weather protection, and comfort.
Light output is measured in lumens, a metric that explains the capacity of total light a lamp can emit. Typically, the higher the lumen count—which for headlamps can range from the low hundreds into the thousands—the brighter the light. But the focus of that light can also determine how bright it appears.
A related element is beam type. Flood beams are wider (allowing you to see the campsite) while spot beams are tighter (allowing you to focus on the trail in the distance). Many headlamps let you toggle between both types of beams.
Perhaps intuitively, run time tells you how long your batteries—whether AAA or rechargeable—will effectively last. However, that answer is slightly more nuanced than it may sound. Run time is not equal to battery life. Instead, it marks how long a light can operate before losing 10% of its original brightness. So, a headlamp with a run time of a couple hours could actually offer some illumination for a couple of days. (Adding to the confusion, some manufacturers still use an old run-time number that measures how long a lamp provides any level of usable light).
Some headlamps will have you seeing red. And green and blue, for that matter. Color and dimming settings let you control the brightness. While such features might not matter as much for, say, the best running headlamps—which have the job of making you detectable to oncoming traffic—the best headlamps for hunting depend on stealthier settings. Color and dim light settings can also be useful around the campfire, where you want to be able to see what kind of beer you’re grabbing from the cooler, but you don’t want to blind your campmates in the process.
Waterproofing is often expressed as an IPX rating. Do you need the best waterproof headlamp (IPX8), which can survive being fully submerged? Or does IPX4, which protects against splashing water at every angle, suffice?
Finally, focus on fit and function. Do you need a lamp that can swivel in all directions? Do you need a sweat-wicking headband to keep you comfortable on big climbs? Or can you go with something a little cheaper (and bulkier) that will be just fine for rummaging around the shed? The function you intend for your headlamp dictates the kind of performance you need.
Of course, many headlamps offer extras—for instance, some lights can remember your previous brightness setting when you turn it back on—but having a good grasp on the basic features of hands-free lights will go a long way toward helping you locate the best headlamp for you.
Do You Need a Headlamp for Camping?
Whether you want to check if that burger’s done or find your way to the outhouse, you need a headlamp if you spend any time at campsites. The best headlamps for camping are versatile and easy to use. A wide-angle setting will help you see the whole picnic table, a spot setting will light the trail if you’re hiking in, and a red or dimmer light setting will allow you to read in the tent without disturbing your tent mates. Other determinations depend on where you typically spend your nights in the woods. A little waterproofing is always helpful, but if you prefer adventures in arid climes, you can probably scale down the IPX rating. Rechargeable and AAA batteries both have pluses and minuses, but if you’re typically at remote campsites, it’s a lot easier to pop in replacement batteries than it is to find an outlet to recharge depleted ones.
Best Camping Headlamp: Black Diamond Spot 350
MANY BRIGHT SPOTS
This Black Diamond headlamp, with several user-friendly features, offers long-lasting light from trailhead to tent spot. Black Diamond
The 350 in the name refers to 350 lumens of maximum brightness, which is enough illumination to navigate even technical sections of a hike, and more than enough to see the package of hotdogs. The AAA batteries should last 200 hours on the lowest setting, and the IPX8 rating means the Spot can run for 30 minutes under a meter of water. But usability is what sets this Black Diamond apart, making it the best camping headlamp. Hold down a button to dim the brightness to exactly where you want it, and the next time you turn the Spot on, it smartly remembers the previous setting, meaning you can focus on shuffling through your topo maps—or a deck of cards—rather than on your brightness settings.
Do You Need a Headlamp for Hunting?
Hunting deer from a tree stand typically involves walking into the woods before sunup, and leaving after sunset. You want to do that with the minimum amount of disturbance, so the best headlamp for hunting has all the functionality of a camping flashlight with the added option of stealth. Colored lights are the defining feature of hunting headlamps. Blue light is helpful for detecting a blood trail in the dark, and red and green are less likely to spook game and are easier on the eyes—an important factor if you want to be able to see well in first shooting light.
Best Headlamp for Hunting: Petzl Tactikka + RGB
STEALTHY AND LIGHT
Easily toggle between powerful brightness and night vision with this compact hunting gear essential. PETZL
Red, green, and blue light modes help you stay undetected, while the 350 lumens of this best headlamp for hunting provide all the brightness you need once you’ve tracked down your buck—all packed into 85 grams. The mixed beam, powered by a rechargeable hybrid system compatible with AAA batteries, offers a shift in focus when you’re on the move, and is capable of lighting up to 90 meters in front of you. The detachable headband can be washed between hunts, and the IPX4 rating, while not totally watertight, means a little rain shower won’t damage the lamp.
Do You Need a Headlamp for Fishing?
The best headlamp for fishing is one that can tilt and swivel in all directions. Adjustable beams let you see farther or nearer, whether you are trying to cast where a trout just noisily ate something or working on getting the hook out of its mouth.
Waterproofing is also an important component when searching for a headlamp for fishing, but if you do most of your angling from the boat and don’t think you’re likely to drop the lamp into the lake, you can actually skip the fully submersible options.
Best Headlamp for Fishing: BestSun 2000 Lumens
ADJUSTABLE AND AFFORDABLE
This zoomable headlamp has five modes of LED lighting and 2,000 lumens for less than $30. BESTSUN
This BestSun’s blazingly bright capability can be changed to fit the needs of every angler. The zoomable, rechargeable headlamp has five modes of shine that can pivot up, down, and all around, casting a beam up to 500 meters in front of you or just bright enough to let you tie a knot. The elastic headband, featuring a strap that goes over the top of your head, is also easily adjustable. While the IP65 rating means this headlamp can’t be submerged, splashes won’t bother it at all.
Do You Need a Running Headlamp?
If you get your workouts in early in the morning or late at night, you need a running headlamp. A hands-free light will help you see where you’re going—and help drivers see you. The best running headlamp is one that is lightweight and stays on securely, so look for a tight, comfortable fit. Moisture wicking straps are important, too. Think of your running headlamp as a sweatband that helps you see.
Best Running Headlamp: BioLite Headlamp 330
NO BOUNCE, NO ABRASIONS
This comfortable headlamp stays in place when you’re on the run. BioLite
The BioLite 330′s ultrathin, seamless, and lightweight design sits flat on your forehead and won’t slip, even when you sprint. Its Lycra strap wicks moisture, and the 330 lumens offered by this best running headlamp can spray a spot 75 meters. The 3.5 hours of rechargeable battery life won’t suit the needs of ultradistance runners, but for most athletes just trying to get that 5K in before sunrise or after dark, this hands-free light will really shine.
Do You Need a Headlamp for Backpacking?
When your pack is stuffed to the brim with camping gear, it’s smart to cut weight wherever you can. That mindset should start at the top with your headlamp. The best headlamps for backpacking are not only lightweight, they are amply bright, with enough energy to last a long time. Traditional batteries let you pack replacements, but backpacking headlamps with micro-USB charging could actually save some pounds if you’ve got a lightweight portable energy supply.
Best Headlamp for Backpacking: Nitecore NU25
ULTRALIGHT AND PLENTY BRIGHT
Thru-hikers will appreciate how this headlamp packs in power without racking up the pounds. Nitecore
Less than an ounce. That’s how much the Nitecore NU25 weighs. Sure, the headband adds .18 ounces, bringing the total to 1.17 ounces, but that’s still uber light—making it the best headlamp for backpacking, when every ounce makes a huge difference. While the tilt of this rechargeable headlamp is limited, and a dimmer is absent, the 360 lumens will brighten the spirits—and the trails ahead—of anyone carrying a heavy pack.
Best Budget Headlamp: What You Get for Less Than $20
As far as camping gear goes, headlamps are far from the most expensive item. So it could very well be worth your while to spend an extra $20 for more advanced features and performance. But if all you need is something to light your way from the fire to the tent, there’s no reason to shell out extra bills. Budget headlamps typically offer fewer lumens and shorter run times than more expensive counterparts, and are often heavier. Yet you can still find something with waterproofing, multiple brightness settings and sufficient battery life for a single Andrew Jackson.
Best Cheap Headlamp: Petzl Tikkina Headlamp
LIGHT ON YOUR WALLET
For occasional camping trips—or power outages—this budget buy is a bright idea. PETZL
Nothing about the Tikkina will land it on any highlight reels, but this is the best cheap headlamp because it is affordable, functional and easy to use. The sufficient 250 lumens are powered by AAA batteries (with an optional rechargeable battery add-on), and the light has a run time of 120 hours. It has no dim control, but does have an IPX4 waterproof protection rating.
Best Headlamp FAQ: People Also Ask
How many lumens do I need for night hiking?
If you have a headlamp with at least 100 lumens, you’ll find the trails to be plenty bright for that nighttime hike.
What headlamp does the military use?
The military uses tactical headlamps, which are compact and durable. They feature bright LED lights and seamless mode-switching to accommodate rapidly changing conditions.
How do you know when headlights need replacing?
Sticky buttons or wear and tear on the head strap could signal it’s time for a replacement, but the bigger impetus for buying a new headlamp is typically a changing need. If you’re doing more night fishing than you once were, it’s likely time for a headlamp with different features.
A Final Word on Shopping for the Best Headlamp
Lumens, battery life, expandable headband, lengthy beam. Locating the best headlamp comes down to focusing on the brightness, run time and comfort that will fit whatever activity you do in the dark.