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 read. 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.
Today, almost all the headlamps on the market are rechargeable, providing super bright light for longer.
What is a Headlamp?
A headlamp is a small light source attached to a strap that fits around the head that 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, such as miners, search-and-rescue, surgeons, 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 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.
A headlamp can be used for a variety of outdoor activities in dark conditions or at night such as camping, caving, hiking.
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.
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, and 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.
Beam distance is an important feature in a headlamp.
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 have 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 have 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 beam 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: 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 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, headlamps with a flood or wide beam are the better choice.
The distance of the beam required would depend on what you are using the headlamp for, such as star-gazing.
Headlamp Run Time
A headlamp’s runtime 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 in different ways: some measure the run time as the time it takes for the light to completely diminish, while others measure the run time until the light simply loses its strength, but still omits a dull light.
Headlamp Brightness Levels/Modes
Most headlamps offer at least modes 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 blinker 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.
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.
Red Light Mode
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.
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 reading.
The tilt of a headlamp allows you to position the beam of light where you want it.
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 USB port, and some models use both batteries and USB. 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 batteries and USB 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.
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.
Most headlamps run on AAA or AA batteries, however, rechargeable headlamps are becoming more popular.
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 four 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, however, a four-battery pack can feel chunky and heavy. Some models come with top straps (some of which are removable) for added stability.
An LED headlamp made by energizer.
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 being rechargeable via USB ports.
Many models still have the option to use batteries but have added the option of recharging via a USB port. This is a good idea if you are heading into the backcountry or outback and need an extended amount of power – you can use the batteries until they die and then recharge your headlamp with a portable power source.
Most brands of headlamps offer the choice to plug in and recharge via USB or 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 battery.
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 drawcards of a rechargeable headlamp, whether it uses rechargeable batteries or a USB port 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 dual-function headlamp that takes both a rechargeable battery and has a USB port for recharging will take up less space in your backpack as you won’t need extra packs of batteries – just 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 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.
Rechargeable batteries or recharging your headlamp via a USB socket is more environmentally friendly than regular batteries.
Best Rechargeable Headlamp for Camping
Best Overall: Petzl Actik Core Rechargeable Headlamp
The Petzl Actik Core Rechargeable Headlamp is a high-quality, rechargeable, multi-beam headlamp that provides 450 lumens of power. Ideal for outdoor activities like backpacking, hiking, and running, the Petzl Actik Core has dual charging capabilities – it is compatible with 3 AAA/LR03 batteries and can be recharged via the Core USB-rechargeable battery.
The headlamp features a multi-beam design with two beam patterns – flood or mixed. It has three brightness levels and a red-light mode and runs up to 130 hours. The single-button design makes the headlamp very easy to operate in the dark, and it comes with a detachable, washable headband that features reflective accents for nighttime visibility.
- Multibeam design
- Runs for 130 hours
- Dual charge operation
- Has a detachable, washable headband
- Five-year guarantee
Best for No Bounce: Biolite 330 Rechargeable Headlamp
The Biolite 330 Rechargeable Headlamp is a lightweight, USB rechargeable LED headlamp with a battery pack that provides light in white and red modes, flood, and spot modes. Ideal for camping, hiking, and trail running, the Biolite 330 has a dimmer function for reducing light and a digital lock to prevent accidental discharge.
The headlamp is powered by a 900 mAh Lithium-ion battery that can provide up to 3.5 hours of light on a high-power setting and up to 40 hours of light on a low-power setting with a maximum brightness of 330 lumens.
Biolite 330 is tightly integrated into the head strap, providing a thin profile that is great for running and hard hiking as it minimizes bounce.
- Integrated head strap design
- Multiple light modes
- Dimmer function
- Digital lock
Best for High Performance: LEDLenser MH5 Rechargeable Headlamp
Designed for the outdoors, the LEDLenser MH5 is a powerful, high-performance headlamp with three light functions and 400 lumens of light power. It boasts an intuitive focus system that enables the light mode to change according to the environment and a variable pivot mechanism that allows the light to be adjusted or removed to be used as a handheld light.
The LEDLenser MH5 is powered by a large 5000 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery and has easy magnetic charging but can also be used with AA alkaline batteries. Light modes include a red-light mode, and a Patented Advanced Focus System provides optimal light transmission and seamless, crystal clear focusing on objects both near and far.
The LEDLenser MH5 up to four hours of light at the highest setting and up to 35 hours of light at the lowest power setting. It has a lock to prevent accidental discharge and comes with a seven-year guarantee.
- 400 lumens of power
- Can be converted into a handheld light
- Patented Advanced Focus System
- Magnetically recharged
- Can also be used with AA batteries
- Seven-year guarantee
Best for Light Power: Fenix HM 50R V2 LED Rechargeable Headlamp
If you want incredible light power, then the Fenix HM 50R V2 LED Rechargeable Headlamp is your best bet. Providing 700 lumens of light, this beast is run on a 16340 lithium-ion battery with 700 mAh of power and boasts an onboard micro-USB compatible charger.
The 16340 lithium-ion battery can be removed and recharged while you are camping from a battery pack or a solar panel, which is eco-friendly and great for the environment. The waterproof headlamp has a tough and durable casing and can be removed from the head strap and carried by had to be used as a flashlight and the light offers four brightness modes: turbo (700 lumens); high (400 lumens); medium (30 lumens); and low (5 lumens).
It also provides two beam types: spot and flood and has a battery indicator light to indicate when an extra charge is needed. A recessed on-off switch helps prevent accidental activation.
- Super bright – 700 lumens of power
- Onboard micro-USB compatible charger
- Eco-friendly – can be charged from a solar panel
- Four brightness modes
- Lock system to prevent accidental activation
- No red-light mode
Best for Design: Nite Ize Radiant 170 Rechargeable Hat Clip Light
The Nite Ize Radiant 170 Rechargeable Hat Clip Light boasts a compact design that clips securely onto hats. It offers red and white LEDs and four modes of light and is impact and water-resistant. The body of the light can be easily adjusted and tilted and it is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can be recharged via a micro USB cable.
The Nite Ize Radiant 170 Rechargeable Hat Clip Light provides 170 lumens of light and can be tilted up to 180° allowing for precise focus for intricate tasks. The headlamp has a detachable body that can be removed to be used as a handheld light.
The headlamp has four modes of light, including red and white light, and features COB technology which allows for an even field of light to be cast that reduces shadows and increases visibility. The body of the headlamp is impact and water-resistant (IPX4).
- Compact design
- Impact and water-resistant
- 180° tilt function
- Four light modes
- COB technology
- Not very powerful
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 cover 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
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 suppresses 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.