Tech

Looking for a New Headlamp? One of These Is Worth Buying.

At their best, headlamps make you feel like a superhero with other-worldly vision. The latest options, packed with brilliant LEDs, can crank out up to 1,000 lumens and light up a trail or road sign from hundreds of feet away, plus they weigh just a few ounces. And they keep your hands free to read a map, assemble a tent, or replace a tire in the dark.

Take a look here at quick info on the best models from our testing, then scroll down for buying advice and more in-depth reviews of these and other headlamps—for a variety of uses.

3 headlamps on a white background

Trevor Raab

Modern Tech

Pushed by the demands of backcountry hikers, climbers, ultra runners, and tradesmen, headlamp manufacturers have also developed smart features that give you greater control over the size and intensity of the beam to suit your needs. Petzl, for example, built a sensor into some of its models that automatically adjusts the beam’s brightness based on lighting conditions. Black Diamond and BioLite have memory functions that put the lamps in the most recently used brightness mode when you power them on. Coast and Ledlenser let you change the beam pattern from spot to flood by simply twisting or pulling the housing around the lens, making them easier to operate with gloved hands.

The Many Colors of Beams

Headlamps are often outfitted with multicolor LEDs. Understanding which is best for what purpose requires brushing up on your biology. “Color is not in the retina. It’s not some reflex tied to wavelength,” explains Bevil Conway, who has a Ph.D. in neurobiology and runs a National Institutes of Health–funded research lab that studies color and cognition. “It’s actually this quite elaborate, sophisticated operation of interpretation that the brain is doing.”

That process starts when the millions of rods and cones at the back of the eye absorb light. These photoreceptors are tuned to react to different wavelengths and operate under different lighting conditions. Rods only respond in very dim light, whereas the three types of cones—respectively most sensitive to long, middle, and short wavelengths—do the work under normal circumstances. So choosing between white and colored light lets us see our surroundings in different ways.

Red: This common colored light, processed from long wavelengths, is best for preserving your night vision because it doesn’t oversaturate your rods. That means they will still work (and you can still see) when you turn the light off. Switch to red when you want to chat face-to-face with a buddy without blinding them or when you want to hide from bugs. (Most insects have photoreceptors that can’t register red light.)

Green: Although it’s rare to find in headlamps, green light makes it easy to see at relatively dim settings. Thank your L- and M-cones for that; both are most sensitive to yellow and green light.

Blue: Rarer still, dim blue light is the hardest to see with and, contrary to popular belief, won’t help you track a trail of blood when you’re hunting. That’s because your relatively few S-cones absorb the long wavelength red and reflect shorter, blue wavelengths that don’t look markedly different under your headlamp. Limit the blue to mood lighting.

White: To see the most detail and color, stick with this neutral light. But in total darkness, use the highest settings judiciously. Bright light creates a glare that causes our rods to shut off, thereby hampering our night vision in the process.

Rechargeable vs. Single-Use Batteries

Although we didn’t directly test battery types, it’s worth weighing your options. Models that use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are great for long-distance efforts, saving you from packing any replacement on top of the power bank or solar charger already in your kit. Those running on alkaline or lithium batteries cut out downtime that comes with charging and can be more affordable up front. We’re big fans of the dual-power models that continue to proliferate and offer the greatest flexibility.

How We Tested

testing headlamps in the field

Trevor Raab

Every headlamp on this list has been evaluated and used by our team of test editors. We research the market, survey user reviews, speak with product managers and designers, and use our own experience. We ran them through several use scenarios, like submerging them elbow-deep into a bucket of water and clicking through all the buttons and settings, and dropping them from seven feet up onto a concrete slab to assess their impact resistance. Plus, we ran, hiked, and wore them around the house in the dark, just like you would, to gauge their fit. But we also put them through a battery of tests in the Pop Mech Test Lab to get some hard numbers and back up or refute the manufacturers’ claims.

Measuring Brightness

Buying a headlamp based on its advertised lumens is tempting, but it won’t tell you the full story. Conventional headlamp design causes light output to decrease over time, often starting as soon as you press the power button. This is partly caused by the variable nature of electrical circuits, but it’s also a byproduct of manufacturers regulating power delivery to balance brightness, battery life, and heat management.

Still, comparing the lumens of different headlamps gives you some idea of how they will suit your needs. So for the latest round of evaluations in the Pop Mech Test Lab, we measured the lumens of each model while it was on its brightest setting by using an integrating sphere, a hollow instrument with a white reflective interior that scatters light evenly inside and a lux meter for measuring that light. Test Editor Brad Ford built our sphere and calibrated it with the help of product engineers at two companies that make portable high-performance LEDs.

lumens graph

Staff

We recorded the reading on the lux meter every 30 seconds for the first three minutes, then again at the 5-, 10-, 15-, 20-, 25-, and 30-minute marks. (This is similar to the widely adopted standardized methodology used by manufacturers, if you were wondering.) The findings showed how close our test samples came to their advertised maximum lumens and how steady or rapidly their brightnesses declined over time.

None of our test results exactly matched the manufacturers’ claimed lumens, but most were within a reasonable 10 percent margin. The Energizer Vision Ultra stood out as one of the most accurate, though it reached this peak at the one-minute mark instead of immediately after being powered on.

Light Output Over Time

As expected, every headlamp on our list grew progressively dimmer during our half-hour test. Two of our top picks—the BioLite HeadLamp 750 and Coast XPH30R—had the largest swings, due to their optional 30-second burst modes. When we tested them on their brightest non-burst setting (500 and 490 lumens, respectively), their consistency improved significantly. The BioLite, in particular, proved to be an incredibly stable—though much dimmer than promised—performer, thanks to its Constant Mode tech (see review on p. 67 for more on this). During the test, its brightness dropped by 7 percent compared to the average decline of 60 percent among the lamps we tested.

time graph

Staff

Testing in the Field

Another way to assess a headlamp’s effectiveness is to measure its beam distance. After dark, we found the farthest point where each headlamp was bright enough for us to clearly identify a silhouette of a person, painted neutral gray, by moving the silhouette along a line of reflective traffic cones, each spaced 25 feet apart. The headlamps were on their brightest mode and set to their most focused spotlight beam shape. See reviews on the opposite page for the results of our top three performers.

To find how long each headlamp lasts on a full charge or new set of batteries, we ran them on their highest setting until the bulbs faded, flickered, and died.


—BEST OVERALL—

BioLite HeadLamp 750

Weight: 5.3 oz | Max lumens: 750 | Beam distance: 375 ft | Run time: 36 hr 57 min | LED colors: White, red

HeadLamp 750

BioLite
amazon.com

$99.95

  • Constant Mode keeps a steady brightness even as the battery is dying
  • Only one button to operate many settings

BioLite’s new 750 takes the title of most comfortable full-size headlamp. The first thing we noticed when we slipped it on our head was how the wide headband distributed the weight so that there weren’t any irritating pressure points. This also helped it stay put, as we didn’t experience any slipping.

When it comes to the electronics, BioLite has baked in some helpful tech, the most noteworthy of which is the Constant Mode. Many headlamps, even if you leave them on the highest setting, will dim after several minutes as your eyes adjust to the light. And the 750 still does that, turning down the power gradually as the battery loses juice, unless you hold a button on the battery pack to turn on Constant Mode. We found it more for peace of mind, knowing that the headlamp wouldn’t subtly dim on us and we could have 500 lumens—or 250 on medium mode or five on low—at our disposal. (That’s another thing to note: You only get the HeadLamp’s full 750 lumens in 30-second bursts, after which it’ll return to the high setting of 500 lumens.) Once the battery can no longer sustain the current setting, the light drops down to five lumens so you still have something to see by.

Until we got the hang of operating the 750, clicking through its red and white floods, spot, strobe, and combined flood and spot via the single button on the front unit proved slightly confusing. The trick is to click through in half-second increments; waiting too long caused the headlamp to shut off. But this has its own benefit, since we could turn the headlamp off when it was in a certain setting and turn it back on in the same mode, rather than having to cycle through from the beginning. We eventually came to appreciate the fine level of control. Also along those lines, the front light on the 750 isn’t so embedded in the housing as the one on the Biolite 330 below, making it easier to tilt the light down and back up.

Finally, a small feature but one worth noting: The charging cable is three feet long. That means you can plug it into the rear unit (which has a solid and strobing red light, handy for runners) and feed it into a pack or pocket to a portable charger for additional battery life.


—BEST VALUE—

Energizer Vision Ultra HD Rechargeable

Weight: 2.8 oz | Max lumens: 400 | Beam distance: 250 ft | Run time: 4 hr 41 min | LED colors: White, red, green

Vision Ultra HD Rechargeable

Energizer
amazon.com

$19.95

The cost of rechargeable tech has come down considerably over the years. But the initial investment can still be a barrier, be it for an electric vehicle or a headlamp. Energizer bucks that trend with the affordable, lightweight, and surprisingly powerful Vision Ultra. The addition of the red and green LEDs made the lamp feel all the more valuable, even if we mostly stuck to using the white and red lights. And we liked the adjustable frame that let us tilt the housing down as much as 90 degrees. A drawback is the lamp’s relatively short run time.


—BEST FOR JOB SITES—

Coast XPH30R

Weight: 5.3 oz | Max lumens: 1,000 | Beam distance: 375 ft | Run time: 9 hr 39 min | LED color: White

XPH30R

  • Lamp can pop off of the band for use as a flashlight
  • Easily adjustable

By virtue of its removable head strap, this dual-fuel model transitions from headlamp to flashlight in seconds—useful for all those spots your head can’t fit into but your light source needs to. We also appreciated that one end of the lamp body is magnetic, so we could hang it from a nearby metal surface while we worked. As for light modes, the XPH30R has four settings (white light only) and easily transitioned from floodlight to spotlight when we twisted the bezel around the bulb. Its run time was notably shorter than the other high-output lamps in the test, but 9.5 hours is at least long enough to get you through most workdays.


Other Great Options

We still recommend these headlamps from our previous rounds of testing.


Black Diamond Icon

Weight: 8.3 oz | Max lumens: 500 | Beam distance: 415 ft | Run time: 70 to 175 hours | LED colors: White, red, blue, green

Icon

Black Diamond
amazon.com

$78.44

  • Heavy
  • Max brightness drops quickly

This lamp impresses with its staggering number of useful features. The entire light, including the battery pack, is water- and dust-proof. (You can even change the brightness settings while it’s submerged.) You turn the Icon to maximum power with a simple press of a button on the side of the housing, and the four bulb colors are easy to cycle through. Given that range of colors, the Icon is useful for almost any activity, from reading and midnight geocaching to search-and-rescue and hunting. This headlamp is one of the heavier models we tested, and though it runs on four AAs (no recharging, sadly), it lasted for days on its highest power settings.


Black Diamond Spot Lite 160

Weight: 2 oz | Max lumens: 160 | Beam distance: 198 ft | Run time: 2 to 60 hours | LED colors: White, red

Spot Lite 160

Black Diamond
amazon.com

$24.94

While the 160’s max output of (you guessed it) 160 lumens won’t light up your entire campsite, it’s enough to cook with or illuminate the guts of your car in a dark garage. Its small size makes it a great option for minimalist backpackers or trail runners, too. The buttons are easy to push, even underwater, and the red light is a nice bonus on a lamp that costs so little. A handy locking feature prevents the light from turning on accidentally when stashed in a backpack, and the simple but secure strap kept it solidly mounted on our heads when we ran. We wish it were rechargeable, but the price and weight make it a useful low-cost option.


Ledlenser H14R.2

Weight: 12 oz | Max lumens: 1,000 | Beam distance: 984 ft | Run time: 4 to 40 hours | LED colors: White

H14R.2

Ledlenser
amazon.com

$99.95

  • Plenty of power
  • Easy to adjust

Few lights have as much power or afford you as much control as this one. Adjustments are easy. Focus the beam from flood to a single point by pulling out or pushing in the lens housing. Change light intensity in large increments by clicking the button next to the lens, or spin a dial on the battery pack for fine-tuning—both are easy even when you’re wearing gloves. You can wear the battery pack on the back of the head strap or stash it in a backpack using the included extension cord. A blinking red light on the battery helps others see you, even when your light is off.


Biolite 330

Weight: 2.4 oz | Max lumens: 330 | Beam distance: 245 ft | Run time: 3.5 to 40 hours | LED colors: White, red

HeadLamp 330

BioLite
amazon.com

$59.95

  • Lightweight yet still powerful
  • Lens can be difficult to tilt up and down within the housing

This is a simple, easy-to-use headlamp that kicks out a ton of lumens for the price. One of the lightest in the test, it still packs enough power for you to see down the trail or set up camp if you arrive after dark. Its streamlined shape won’t catch on branches, and the thin strap holds the 330 in place surprisingly well; we found that it didn’t bounce around no matter how fast we ran. The battery is rechargeable, and the controls make it easy to click from white to red light. The tilt function could be better—the lens is so small and flush in the housing that it can be difficult to tilt up and down—and you get only a few hours of light on the highest setting, but it’ll get the job done when you’re running, doing home projects, or on camping trips that don’t involve massive overnight treks.


Petzl Swift RL

Weight: 3.5 oz | Max lumens: 900 | Beam distance: 492 ft | Run time: 2.5 to 100 hours | LED colors: White

Swift RL

  • Lighting automatically adjusts
  • Easy-to-read battery life display

This little lamp produces a ton of light with an impressive run time, thanks to Petzl’s Reactive Lighting tech, which helps save juice by automatically adjusting the strength of the beam for your needs. The Swift also comes with the most useful battery-life display of any light we tested. While most lamps blink when the battery starts to run low, this one uses five LED dots to show you exactly how much power you have left.


Streamlight Bandit

Weight: 1.3 oz (w/ headband), 1.4 oz (w/ visor clip) | Max lumens: 180 | Beam distance: 24 ft | Run time: 2 to 9.5 hours | LED colors: White

Bandit

Streamlight
amazon.com

$22.28

  • Lightweight and compact
  • Inexpensive
  • Visor clip lets you attach the light to a baseball cap
  • After a year of use, the run time has diminished
  • Not very bright, it’s better for up-close tasks

It may not be the brightest headlamp in this test or the longest lasting, but for $24, the Bandit is almost the cheapest. It’s a nice little lightweight headlamp to have handy for small jobs around the house when you need to illuminate your work area or shine some light into a dark outbuilding. At 180 lumens in high and flashing modes and 35 in low, the Bandit is more ideal for up-close jobs—its light pattern is more broad than spot. Our tester used it most often to root around in a shed in the early morning hours and set up at flea markets before sunrise. The soft, elastic head strap held the lamp firmly in place so our tester’s hands were free to carefully unwrap antiques. An included visor clip lets you angle the light up and down to your liking or remove it from the strap to be worn on the brim of a cap (a bonus for hikers and runners). The Bandit has a weather-resistance rating of IPX4, meaning it can withstand a steady downpour for a decent amount of time. One thing to note: Our tester has kept his Bandit handy in the console of his truck for more than a year. Over time and through four seasons of varying temperatures, its run time on high has dropped from two hours on a full charge to about an hour and 15 minutes. That said, it charges right up as it did from day one, with no issues. And for a little more than twenty bucks, it’s just as easy to keep a backup Bandit around.


5.11 Response XR1

Weight: 6.3 oz | Max lumens: 1,000 | Run time: 2 to 24 hours | LED colors: White, red

Response XR1

5.11
511tactical.com

$80.00

  • Straps can be too tight for people with large heads

The Response’s look practically screams tactical. In that vein, it’s a hardy headlamp with controls that are big enough to click through the settings with gloves on, like you might do at a work site. And its burly, ridged aluminum body can handle its share of drops and boasts a water- and dust-resistance rating of IP54.

About the settings: We like how 5.11 kept them relatively simple. The one big button is split into halves, with one controlling the (incredibly bright, 1,000-lumen) spot bulb and the other the white and red flood beams. We clicked one to turn on which light we wanted on max brightness, then clicked it again to cycle through the descending beam strengths. Where some headlamps can feel overly complicated, the Response’s simplicity was refreshing.

What wasn’t refreshing was how tight the headband was. Our tester has a large head and, even with the straps fully extended, he would have appreciated still more room. Fitting the Response over a helmet could be a challenge. The upside of this is that, along with the grippy strips on the undersides of the straps, the headlamp stays snugly in place despite being somewhat bulky. And on the head isn’t the only way to carry the Response; you can pop the light out of the clamps on the strap and slide it into a shirt pocket or through a pack strap using the built-in clip.


Coast HL8R

Weight: 11.9 oz | Max lumens: 800 | Beam distance: 702 ft | Run time: 4 to 62 hours | LED colors: White

HL8R

  • Long battery life
  • Easy to operate

Simply put, the HL8R is a workhorse, delivering plenty of lumens backed by a long battery life. You can easily adjust the size of the beam by twisting the lens and then fly through brightness settings using a large dial on the side. The HL8R is also shockproof, it fits around a hard hat, and, when you want less weight, you can pop the battery off the strap and store it in a pack or pocket.


Coast FL85R

Weight: 3.9 oz | Max lumens: 700 | Beam distance: 656 ft. | Run time: 1.75 to 8.5 hours | LED colors: White, red

Weighing less than four ounces and small enough to fit in a pocket, the FL85R pumps out 700 lumens. And adjusting the focus is easy—just twist the lens housing for one of the longest-reaching spot lights in the test. (The wide-angle flood is equally impressive.) Coast includes two big control buttons, making it easy to flip between white and red LEDs, especially handy when the light’s on your head where you can’t see it.

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