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A standard flashlight (or your smart phone’s flashlight app) may work in a pinch, but when it comes to really illuminating the darkness, there’s no substitute for a good headlamp. They work well in practically every travel scenario, directing the light to where you’re looking and freeing your hands to attend other tasks. Campers and backpackers can now cook or read or go to the bathroom without trying to juggle their light source. They’re essential for changing a tire at night, should Murphy’s Law hit on that cross-country road trip. And they can also help you navigate hotel rooms and other locales during a blackout, or when you don’t want to wake your companions. You might even find yourself using them to help you find something in the dark confines of your backpack. Use them once in lieu of a hand-held device and you’ll become not just a convert. You’ll be an advocate.
Almost all of today’s headlamps use LED light because its rugged, energy-efficient, and long-lasting. But that’s where the similarities stop. In evaluating the right headlamp, consider your most common activities. Some cater to simpler scenarios like camping or backpacking, while others can cast an insane amount of light to let you hunt, bike, or run at night. Some run on a few AAA batteries, making it easy to replace wherever you end up in the world, while other others use rechargeable batteries typically fueled via micro USB ports, which may not be ideal if you plan on using your headlamp a lot without access to the grid. Light output is measured in lumens. The higher the rate, the more light, though some headlamps also use lenses and other technology to focus and direct the light to better use what lumens are present, and almost all headlamps have a handful of output modes as well as low-light or red-light settings, which are useful when reading a trail map in the dark without sacrificing your night vision. Some also include strobe modes, useful in emergency situations. Beyond that, consider the diameter of the light you’d want. Most headlamps cast a wider single beam, which fits most situations, while some deliver a focused beam that’s better for seeing longer distances; the better models offer the best of both worlds, with easy-adjust controls to turn the light from a flood to a narrow spot, or shift between light outputs. And almost all models tilt on their strap, helping you cast the light in the desired direction.
That was a lot to take in about headlamps. Still not sure which one you should buy? Read on to find the best headlamps today.
Best Overall: Ledlenser MH 6
With a max output of 200 lumens, the MH 6 offers ample illumination for most travel (and non-travel) scenarios. But Ledlenser’s Advanced Focus System really makes this model stand out. Unlike most designs, which use either a lens or a refractor to concentrate the light, the MH 6 utilizes both to provide a focused beam for long-distance viewing and a homogenous spill-beam for close-up reading, with settings suitable for cooking, cleaning up around camp, or navigating in the wild. The rechargeable batter juices up in four hours and runs for 20 hours at full blast. An easy-to-use dimmer can drop the light down to 20-lumen simmer, and it also comes with three light settings and a red-light mode. Ledlenser’s Temperature Control System also constantly cools the LED light to deliver the max lumen output. The 3.28-ounce light rides on a wide adjustable strap and swivels on a lower hinge to let you direct the angle of the beam.
Best Value: Nite Ize Inova STS
The Inova STS probably won’t win any points for style, and it’s not the most streamlined or svelte headlamp on the market, but with a price point below $30 it delivers a lot. Its bright 265 lumens break out into five distinct modes (high, variable dim, medium, strobe, and lockout, which keeps the light from unintentionally turning on in your bag) as well as two red LEDs that mirror the white light’s modes, with a pivot hinge that allows for 50-degree adjustment. Shifting between settings is a breeze thanks to its “swipe-to-shine” interface, which uses swiping to adjust rather than push buttons, often the fail point on lesser models. The headlamp runs on three AAA batteries (included), and includes a handful of features to fend off damage, including waterproofness down to one meter and impact resistance from two-meter drops. You can also accessorize; the Inova STS fits interchangeably with Nite Ize’s bike and helmet mounts as well as their strap brackets.
Best for Biking Enthusiasts: Light and Motion Solitude 250 EX
Dedicated cyclists already know the values of a good bike light. And the Solitude 250 EX is that—and a whole lot more. Designed to function as a head lamp, flashlight, bike light, and a free-standing light, this is a jack-of-all-cycling-trades device. It boasts 250 lumens engineered with the highest-level CREE LED firmware with a custom-engineered reflector to optimize the light. The rechargeable battery gets full in 7.5 hours, and runs on high for four, though you can stretch it out to 150 hours when on the camp setting (7 lumens), one of six settings that also includes pulse and SOS modes. Like most high-output sport-specific models, the batter pack is positioned on the back of the head lamp, with a coiled wire running to the tilting lamp; when used as a helmet light, the pack straps onto the rear of the helmet to evenly distribute the weight, and the lamp attaches to the battery if you want to use it as stand-alone light or flashlight.
Best Rechargeable: Black Diamond Iota
If a headlamp could ever be called cute, it’s the Black Diamond Iota. It comes in a handful of playful colors and boasts a svelte profile, with a body weight of only 1.9 ounces. But the Iota doesn’t just cash in on its good looks. It provides 150 lumens of light with a viewing distance of 40 meters, with an average of a three-hour burn time on its high setting—longer if you dim things or set it to strobe mode. Its “PowerTap” technology makes it easy to transition between modes, and a lock-out feature keeps it off when you toss it in your pack. It fits within the palm of your hand, and an IPX4 rating delivers some water protection. A three-level power meter, which displays for three seconds after you switch on the headlamp, lets you know how much battery is left. As with most models, it tilts easily to adjust the direction of the beam and rests on a thin, adjustable strap.
Best for Emergencies: Petzl e+LITE
Fernand Petzl—pioneer French caver, mountaineer, rock climber, and gear maker—released his first head lamp in 1973, but the company really changed the game in 2000 when they introduced the world’s first LED headlamps. And today Petzl still makes some of the best head lamps on the market. In many ways, the company has condensed all their head lamp knowledge into the e+LITE. It’s not the most tech-laden (for that look at Petzl models that let you custom-program your lumen output), but the e-+LITE reinforces the undeniable utility of a head lamp simply because it’s small and light enough to carry anywhere—it even comes with a carrying case. It can be stored with its two lithium batteries for ten years and works without fail, providing 50 lumens of continuous white or red light in both steady or strobe mode. It weighs a feathery 26 grams, handles full water submersion down to one meter for 30 minutes, shrugs off extreme temps that range from -30 to +60 degrees Celsius, and includes a locking on/off switch to prevent accidentally activation.
Best for Extremes: Ledlenser XEO 19R
When a measly triple-digit lumen headlamp won’t do (say, when mountain biking or hunting at night, or when you really want to turn night into day), the XEO 19R beats all comers. It delivers a blinding max output of 2,000 lumens, head and shoulders above the rest on this list. The light “system” (read: two actual lamps, rather than one, both positioned on the same housing) is powered via a rechargeable lith-ion battery that refuels in eight hours to flood your field of vision (and beyond) for four hours on full burn, and for 20 hours on low. Bonus: the battery pack can also charge your other devices in the field. It also layers on the tech: Optisense measures the light in real time to automatically adjust the brightness for intuitive hands-free modification, X-LENS utilizes multiple LEDs into one seamlessly projected beam, Advance Focus System uses both a reflector and lens to amp the lumen output, Smart Light expands the eight programs and functions within the light to let you use two energy-savng modes, and air intake valves cool the light to extend peak performance—all of this overseen via one control pad. At 16.85 ounces, it’s hefty, though the batter pack rides on the back of the two-way strap to help distribute that weight. And it also comes with a handful of add-ons, including a travel case, cleaning cloth and brush, a neoprene battery pouch, extension cord, and a helmet-mounting kit for your midnight singletrack exploits.
Best for Multisport Exploits: Princeton Tec Apex Pro
If your travel passion includes hiking and backpacking—and biking and sea kayaking and climbing and canoeing and caving—the Apex Pro has you covered. The two-strap design assures that the head lamp won’t slip during the most high-octane activities, while the overall profile has been slimmed down from previous models to fit the needs of professional runners and extreme adventurers. Powered by twin CR123 lithium batteries protected in a durable waterproof housing, the Apex Pro casts out a max of 550 lumens via two lamps—one Maxbright LED and four white ultra-bright LEDs, with a 35-hour burn time, controlled by dual buttons. Modes include spotlight at high and low, super-wide, pulsing flood-flash beam, and two additional flood settings to optimize output for far distances. The waterproof housing on the lamp itself is good for full submersion down to one meter. As with other models with serious power, the battery pack anchors to the back of the strap, evenly distributing its 6.1 ounces.
Best for Kids: Petzl TIKKID
Getting kids excited about camping isn’t hard. But arguing over ownership of the one light can quickly turn their first outing in the wild into a very awkward stalemate. Remedy that by scoring a kid-friendly headlamp like the TIKKID. Born of the same technology that brought us the first LED head lamp to the market, this easy-to-use and compact device delivers a kid-friendly 20 lumens of power—enough to let them see what they’re doing (and for you to see where they are) without worrying about constantly getting blinded when they look your way. The first kid-specific model in the Petzl line, the lumens have been set to limit the photo-biological risk and protect sensitive young eyes. Single-button function lets them cycle through three modes (a low setting ideal for reading, as well as high modes and blinking), with a phosphorescent reflector to help find the light in the dark, and other parent-friendly features like auto shut-off after one hour and a battery case protected by a flat-head screw. It runs on three AAAs, and is also compatible with Petzl’s rechargeable battery (sold separately)