The following appeared in the 2020 Nov/Dec issue of Adirondac Magazine
By Tom Hart
Advances in headlamps make lighting your way during the dark hours of winter an easy task. But before we go any further: Even on trips intended for only daylight hours, always pack a headlamp. Do not end up in a rescue report, lost with a failing cell phone flashlight.
Advances in LEDs, battery technology, and design have led to many good headlamp choices. A light output in the range of 250 to 400 lumens is good for hiking. The light should also last at least nine hours on a medium setting, and a day on reserve.
Online reviews often remark that a manufacturer overstates battery life without recognizing that a standardized test method result is being reported. Manufacturers often use a “burn time” rating, measuring time to an output equal to 10 percent of the original. Be sure to check what measure is being advertised.
Water tightness or “ingress protection” is important. IPX waterproofness ratings are helpful. An IPX4 headlamp can be splashed with water, IPX5 is “storm proof,” IPX6 resists waves, IPX7 works after thirty-minute immersion in one meter of water, and IPX8 is good for five-meter depth.
Another important factor is whether the headlamp can be locked in an off state. It’s a bad sign when someone asks, “What is that glow coming from your pack?” Placing the headlamp in a plastic tube or case is a necessary fail-safe if it does not lock.
Also consider battery type. Lithium batteries work better in the cold and have longer burn times than alkaline batteries. Many models offer a hybrid approach, which allows use of either rechargeable lithium-ion batteries or single-use batteries.
What should you buy? Black Diamond (BD) and Petzl offer very good headlamps. BD Storm and Spot each offer protection from water immersion and have battery life indicators and lock-out mechanisms. The previous level of lighting is retained, while a touch on the side of the light takes you immediately to full brightness and back again. The battery case no longer uses a sealed compartment with a little knurled nut that was hard to use—a simple lever works much better. Some reviews miss a major point, that the battery compartment is not waterproof: It does not need to allow immersion and still work. You do have to dry out the compartment after use, as one should with any headlamp.
BD also offers the Revolt. This is a rechargeable, dual-battery unit worth considering.
Petzl uniquely offers reactive lighting in its Reactik and NAO models. Light intensity automatically changes, dimming when you are looking down and brightening when looking farther away, saving battery life. Friends who have them swear by this feature.
Petzl’s new IKO line features a unique “designed to be forgotten” semi-rigid headband that provides great airflow and effectively balances a lightweight LED panel with the battery pack at the rear of the headband. With a 100-hour burn time using a rechargeable battery pack on a low setting, this is a model to consider.
Many models include red in addition to white LEDs. Red light preserves night vision and should be used in a group setting to avoid blinding others. We’ve all been there when someone turns your way and shines a bright beam in your face! Red light also does not attract swarms of night insects.
Very bright headlamps are useful for activities needing longer beam distances, such as skiing, climbing, biking, and rescue work, which can be as simple as leading someone out of the woods. Try walking behind that person to light both your way and theirs.
Petzl and BD offer high-end headlamps with 900 and 700 lumens, respectively. Fenix offers high-powered lights with up to 1750 lumens and as much as 400 hours of low-level burn time powered by high-end lithium-ion batteries. Long burn time and durable, weatherproof designs make these good alternatives. Although they’re good to light up the woods when needed, one should dim them to levels more appropriate to avoid the mall-in-the-woods effect for others.
Words to the wise
Using fresh batteries and having a spare set packed is common advice. Not bad, except imagine changing your batteries in the dark! You might think, “I’ll be with people who have lights.” Remember, most accident reports start with “the group was separated….” Carry a lightweight flashlight using a single AAA battery as a secondary light source costing less than ten dollars so you can change those batteries.
Finally, many headlamps come with a strobe option that is useful for signaling if long line-of-sight, like above tree line, is available. You can also use the red strobe setting to cheerfully flash back at your holiday lights!
ADK member and environmental scientist Tom Hart reviews gear for Adirondac from his home in Lake Placid, New York.