Headlamps: What should you buy?
Headlamps: What should you buy?
by Chris Hodges
With a multitude of options available on the market these days, how can you root through
all the available options to find exactly what you need, and, ditch the options you don't? There's a
plethora of different emitters, functions and power sources available from a myriad of Brands.
Let's address each of these in order, so that we may shed more light (pun intended) on what's
First, many Brands (Petzl springs immediately to mind) use what would be considered "older
technology" in most current headlamps, at least by what's available on the flashlight market. What
appears most are the LED "cell" type emitters (Nichia 219c, for example), which provide a
relatively high price point/performance ratio (e.g. Pietzl's Tikka or Zipka headlamps). Nichias are
well renowned for their ability to throw a decent amount of light, in a "flood" type pattern, with
minimal battery draw (this is obviously dependant on a bunch of different factors, which, due to
space, I'm not going to address in this Blog). Usually, these emitters are wired in parallel, to
achieve the desired effect(s). Other times, there will be the option of "cell" type emitters paired
with a traditional "die" type emitter, such as a Cree R5 (e.g. Black Diamond Revolt). So, in one
headlamp, you may have the ability to not only increase or decrease brightness in a flood-type
pattern, but, have the ability to have a focused lamp to help you focus on a particular task or area.
Then, we get into the higher-end flashlights from manufacturers like Surefire and Nitecore, where
there are a plethora of die-type emitters that not only give a much higher amount of lumens, but,
give you options on the color of the emitter(s), from a high CRI (Color Rendering Index) to the
ultra white color of a Cree XM-L. These lights perform very much like your standard high end
flashlight, with the appropriate throw, lumenosity and power. However, these traits come at a
A good percentage of headlamps use your "standard" type alkaline batteries to get the most
performance, with some manuafcturers recommending NON RECHARGABLE Lithium cell
batteries to get peak performance- this includes run times, and, MOST importantly, the ability to
function in a wider range of tempuratures. For example, your standard alkaline, or, even Nickel
Metal Hydride (NiMH) rechareables struggle to function in temps cooler than 32 degrees farenheit.
On the other hand are the Lithium batteries of the rechargable or non rechargable type, which have
an operating range of -40 degrees to 150 degrees (where it would get that hot in Nature is anyones
guess, but, there you go). The other plus for Lithium Ions is the higher voltage range (standard
CR123's, for example are 3.0V nominal, whereas the rechargables are 3.7V), which means
increased lumens as well as heat. Another bonus of Lithiums is their chemistry, which allows for a
much longer storage/shelf life (up to 10 years in most cases), and, obviously being nice to the
environment through being rechargable. Just be aware that there is a marked difference in price,
with some rechargable's retailing for upwards of 20$ PER BATTERY in the case of something
like an AW 18650 3100MaH battery (I use BatteryJunction.com for most of my battery purchases-
they are located in CT). Also, I should mention here that a battery, even though they LOOK the
same are MOST definitely NOT interchangable in some cases. Perfect example is the ubiquitous
CR123 Lithium battery- if you try running a rechargable 3.7V cell in a light rated for only 3.0V,
you risk permanently damaging your light! You should also be aware of how MANY batteries
each headlamp you are looking at uses, and, whether or not you want to lug the extra weight
around on your next backpacking excursion. Ditto for bringing spares- a AAA headlamp is
certainly alot more handy than one that has a 18650 battery PACK that may weigh close to a
pound plus with the appropriate batteries installed. However, DO be aware that that "heavy" pack
of 18650's WILL have a much increased runtime over a headlamp that has, say 3 AAAs. And, in
the case of the Black Diamond brand, they offer the ability to recharge your headlamp via your
standard cell phone charger, which some people may prefer. Now that we have the Power side of
the equation addressed, what about functions?
This is one subject I'm going to be rather brief on, as I believe it is up to the users preference as to
which modes they do/dont need. Want a light that has both white LEDs then a switch to go to
Green and/or Red for game tracking or night vision? Awesome. You'd prefer a light that only has
one K.I.S.S. mode- it's either on or off? Great! What you should do to be an informed consumer in
this regard is use the wonderful world of Google to help you fill in the blanks as to what modes
each particular light has or, doesnt have, and, as important, how easy each mode is to access.
There's nothing more irritating than buying a headlamp, only to have to sit and figure out, in the
dark, what each mode is and how to access it. There's some lights that give you the ability to Auto
dim or brighten, while others require you to press and hold the switch to access various modes.
Bottom line? Do your due diligence to find how each lamp or light functions (Goinggear.com, for
example, has a SUPERB YouTube channel that does EXACTLY that!).
In closing, I will say that there are some superb "light duty" headlamps out there that I swear by (I
carry a Petzl Zipka with me on EVERY outdoor outing) that give you a simple UI (User Interface)
with decent runtimes from the batteries they use- these are typically ones that use your garden
variety AAA or AA alkaline/Lithium L91 cells. However, I also use Princeton Tec's Lamps that
use CR123 cells, should I require a bit more luminosity/runtime than my Zipka. I, however, have
very limited experience with headlamps that use either an external battery pack or a larger integral
battery pack with something like an XM-L Cree emitter. It's not that I find them cumbersome- its
just that I use other lighting sources, should I need something that packs a bigger "punch". Again,
Dear Reader, this is where YOU come in. You want a headlamp that throws as much light as a
standard set of car headlights with decent runtimes? they are indeed out there- it's entirely up to
you. But, as I alluded to earlier, there is a price to pay for all that light, whether it be cost or
weight. Do you want to haul around a headlamp that you could signal low flying aircraft with, but
weighs 5 lbs on an "ultralight" backpacking excursion? Maybe you do. Again, do your due
diligence. Go onto those lighting specific sites like Goinggear.com, or, if you REALLY want to
learn the nuts and bolts of how all these lighting implements work, get yourself a free membership
at CandlepowerForums.com, like I did years ago, where just about every lighting manufacturer has
their own dedicated threads where they explain the newest and greatest gear. Bottom line? Get the
gear that matches what your true needs are, so that you're not left in the dark!