A good light for backpacking is a required and essential safety item and a category for which there are no shortage of options available – and considering the convenience and hands-free operation provided, headlamps are the most popular option for backpacking lighting needs. What follows is an overview of features to consider when selecting a headlamp for backpacking and thoughts on lighting needs for the trail.
The Backcountry Headlamp
With headlamps offered in a variety of weight classes and with light output ranging from barely capable of illuminating a camp for basic tasks, to headlamps that could be bright enough to double as an airplane landing light, some form of balance must be sought in this regard. For backpacking we need a headlamp that checks a few boxes – a headlamp should be lightweight, bright enough for both trail and camp, have acceptable battery life, be easy to use at 3am in the morning, and be durable and waterproof.
While these are the basics, other features can undoubtedly be nice to have. With USB connections and power outlets tough to come by in the wilderness, some way to lockout the light can prevent the light accidentally turning on inside your pack during the day and draining the battery is a great feature to have. Locking out the light, if equipped, can be performed through a manual switch or power button sequence, or – as is the case with the Zebralight H53w that I use, simply by unscrewing the battery compartment cap slightly. Whatever method here, you’ll be assured that you have light at the end of the day and peace of mind on the trail, but this is also something that needs to be easy to do – nobody wants to have to fully remove and insert batteries daily.
With LED headlamps dominating the market, these days it’s pretty easy to find headlamps that are both bright and light(weight). Usually something in the 3-5 ounce range – with batteries – is a good range to target. Lighter options do exist (example the Petzl e+LITE) but usually sacrifices will need to be made in regard to light output, battery life, comfort, or all 3. Heavier than this range and we are generally looking at headlamps that might be better suited for other activities and will begin to take up more pack space.
Look for a headlamp that is comfortable and waterproof as well – I at times wear my headlamp from dusk to dawn – a wide and adjustable headband helps here and this is another area were lightweight lights have the benefit of less bounce and just less to wear. For water resistance, some headlamps can oddly be lacking so it’s good to check the spec sheet here, and the more waterproof the better – some headlamps may only be splash resistant. Others have a waterproof main housing, but the battery compartment could still get wet in the rain and will have to be dried out later if this happens.
In the power department you have a few choices and many headlamps are available that can utilize standard batteries or rechargeable batteries, have a built in rechargeable battery, or can use both in some cases. If you’ll be taking frequent trips throughout the year, I’ve found rechargeable headlamps to be ideal. When using disposable batteries in the past (Energizer lithium batteries are high performers), I’ve inevitably ended up, after a few trips, with a collection of batteries in unknown states of partial charge. When using rechargeable batteries or rechargeable headlamps, all one has to do is charge things up before a trip and you can start your trip on a full charge every time, and without having to take along too many spares.
Photo: Mark Wetherington
However both a disposable or rechargeable approach can obviously work. Keep in mind that many headlamps with built-in rechargeable batteries will lose capacity over time. With my headlamp of choice using a single AA battery, I go with Sanyo Eneloop batteries that are both replaceable and rechargeable and spares are easy to bring along. This is especially helpful during shoulder season and winter trips when daylight is limited and I find myself using my light much more. Either way, output of the light will be, depending on the light itself, regulated or unregulated. A regulated light will maintain a more consistent output of light over the life of the battery at the cost of overall time. Unregulated lights will gradually diminish the light output as the battery discharges, but will frequently have extremely impressive run time specs (at least on paper), but many of these hours will be at a quite dim light output.
Lumens and Light Temperature
But how bright of a headlamp do we need? It all comes with tradeoffs, and more light means less battery life. A light with a wide range of adjustment, and that you can easily and intuitively adjust is ideal in this regard. For basic hiking on a trail at night, I’ve found about 50 lumens or more to be a good target number. You won’t be able to see far, but you will be able to see your feet, the trail, and a bit of the trail ahead.
Around camp, lower light levels are called for and perhaps 25 lumens will do for going about some camp chores in darkness. Once in the tent, a light output of just about as low as possible can be very nice to have for not blowing out your night vision and when you only need to find things very close at hand. This level of light can be obtained in a couple ways. One strategy is for a lower output, secondary red light to be designed into the headlamp, the red light being especially helpful for preserving night vision. The other method is to simply have an extremely low mode and level of light built into the regular LED in the order of just a few lumens. I’ve found both approaches to work about equally as well. For off trail, searching for a blaze in the distance, or any time you need to see as far as possible high modes are needed – over 150 lumens. Some lights on the market today can output many times more than even this figure. For a backpacking light however, where battery sizes are smaller and we’re looking to go as light as possible, these modes will quickly drain batteries and are best used only for short periods of time as needed, with lower modes preferred for all around use.
For checking the map in the tent at night, low levels of light are called for.
On longer trips, more battery life is always better and can vary greatly by season. While in the summer I can make a single battery in an AA headlamp last for a weeklong trip, I might be going through an entire battery in a couple nights in late November. Taking along a spare battery, or a way to recharge a rechargeable headlamp with a built-in battery (battery pack or solar charger) in the field is one way to know you’ll always have battery power and if you have a headlamp with a battery level indicator like the Black Diamond ReVolt, all that much better.
Light color is another factor to consider. Possible red LED aside, headlamps on the market today are made of mostly cool white LEDs that are brighter on the stat sheet, but may be a little cold and on the blue side for some. Other warmer LED headlamps are also out there that provide light more like an incandescent light bulb and render colors more naturally. Some brightness will normally be sacrificed however. Other LEDs emit a light in the neutral category; somewhere in between. It all comes down to personal preference in this regard. Beam pattern of the main LED is also something that should be evaluated. Beam types are most often full flood, or a combination hot spot (a brighter, longer distance center spot) combined with a dimmer flood pattern (spill) around the hot spot. Full flood lights can serve one around camp well and illuminate wider areas with brighter light, but less far. Hotspot / spill lights do sacrifice some close-in illumination coverage but will help in finding that next blaze at a distance. Other lights, like the Princeton Tec Axis, have an adjustable beam pattern and some lights may use multiple selectable LEDs to achieve this effect.
Center hotspot and spill example
Other lighting can be nice to have for camp if you don’t mind packing the extra weight, and on some more relaxed trips I have been known to bring along a Snow Peak Hozuki mini lantern for the tent at night – especially nice for a little reading on long winter nights. Any spare light you bring along is not always frivolous and can improve the camp experience a bit while serving as a backup light source as well. Flashlights can be useful on the trail – automatically by being held lower to the ground more shadows are created that can help when navigating bumpy trails. However, a headlamp can also be held and used like this or attached to one’s waist for the same effect.
Overall, the best backpacking headlamp might be the one you think about the least on the trail and a myriad of options are available – finding the perfect solution in this category is often a result of a series of compromises and finding the best balance in regard to your own lighting preferences. For a list of outdoor-ready headlamps that you can sort and filter by many of the considerations and features discussed above, check out this page at REI.