When it comes to backpacking, you want to invest in the brightest headlamp you can find. The trouble is, there’s a lot of competition for that title. So how do you go about finding the brightest headlamp for your camping and backpacking adventures? Read on—we’ll light your way to the answer.
Best Overall - Editor's Choice
PETZL – Blackube 500 Lumens USB Rechargeable Headlamp
Best Headlamp for Running
BioLite HeadLamp 200 Lumen No-Bounce Rechargeable Head Light
Best Budget Headlamp
Lighting Ever LE LED Headlamp Flashlight
Best Ultra Lightweight Headlamp
Nitecore NU25 360 LM Rechargeable Headlamp
What to Look For In A Headlamp or Flashlight
Here’s a list of the most important aspects to consider when shopping for the brightest headlamp on the market.
As investments go, headlamps are pretty reasonable. You can expect to get a high output headlamp for $50 or less, though there are certainly higher-priced models out there. As a rule, you should purchase the most powerful headlamp you can find.
When you’re backpacking, you want to keep your load as light as possible. The last thing you want is to be saddled with a cumbersome light fixture that you’ll only use in the dark. That’s why the best hiking headlamps are ultra-light, with some weighing in at just one ounce. As long as the unit is powerful enough to get the job done (see Lumens and Beam Distance, below), a smaller and lighter headlamp will hold you in better stead than a bulky one.
As a rule of thumb, flashlights are designed to be more rugged than headlamps, given the fact that they’re heavier and therefore more likely to be dropped during use. On the other hand, an extremely bright headlamp offers the advantage of a hands-free experience, which can make up for its shortcomings in this department. You’re less likely to drop the light in the first place if you can use both hands to brace your fall.
Still, it’s best to start with a quality product. Look for a backpacking headlamp made of sturdy materials that can withstand everything from foul weather to the occasional fall. The exterior should be composed of heavy-gauge metal, with durable straps that can be removed for washing.
Lumens and Beam Distance
Speaking of power, you’re probably wondering: How many lumens do I need for a headlamp? A lumen is a unit of measurement, referring to the sum of light emitted per second in any direction. The higher the lumen count, the brighter the light will be.
The count can range from 2 to 4,000, though you’re not likely to find those higher numbers even in the strongest headlamp on the market. A count of 250 to 500 is more likely.
The lumen count may refer to the brightness of the light, but having the brightest headlamp lumens doesn’t necessarily mean that the light will be of better quality. A high output headlamp will have a bright light and strong light concentration. That’s where the beam distance comes in.
If the lamp is of 250 lumens with a beam distance of 120 feet, you might be tempted to think that it’s a better choice than a lamp of the same lumens with a 90-foot beam distance. However, in this case, the 90-foot distance is preferable. Why? Because the same amount of light will be spread over a smaller area, thereby increasing its quality.
There’s a big difference between water-resistant and waterproof. That’s where the IPX scale comes in.
The scale runs from 0 to 9, and provides useful information regarding how much water exposure the brightest headlamp can take. An IPX rating of 0 means that the headlamp has no water resistance whatsoever, while a rating of 8 means it can be submerged in deep water (more than 1 meter) for up to 30 minutes. (The IPX9 rating refers to high-pressure spray, and is rarely used).
Most headlamps will fall somewhere in the middle of the scale. In general, a rating of 4 (which will resist splashing due to rain and puddles) should be sufficient.
The most powerful headlamps will typically use either replaceable batteries or a rechargeable power source. Disposable batteries make for a more lightweight product, which is a definite plus. You can also carry the batteries with you instead of relying on outside power sources for recharging.
However, with a rechargeable unit, you won’t have to worry about running out of batteries on long thru-hikes. That’s where external battery packs come in handy. These models allow you to recharge the device from any remote location, usually by solar power. The downside is that the battery packs are bulky and awkward to carry—far more so than disposable batteries.
The burn time, or runtime, refers to the amount of time an LED headlamp can retain its charge. It can also mean how long the batteries will last before the light begins to dim. It’s important to take note of this number before packing for the trip so you’ll know how many hours of light you can expect to get.
What is the red light for on headlamps? If you enjoy watching the night sky on your camping excursions, look for a lamp with this feature. Red light will give you better night vision and accentuate the blue-green nature of the starlight. As a bonus, red light is also less disturbing to the wildlife.
Other modes and features
Here are a few other things to be aware of when shopping:
- “Flash” or “Strobe” mode for battery conservation
- Oversized buttons
- Tilt feature for focusing on maps
- Lock switch so the light won’t accidentally turn on in your pack
What Is The Most Powerful Headlamp On The Market?
With an IPX rating of 6, this powerful headlamp is ideal for tough weather conditions. It weighs in at just 2.3 ounces—and that’s when the battery is installed. Speaking of which, the PETZL requires a single AA battery, which are both portable and easy to come by.
The light is of 500 lumens and offers a 250 foot beam distance. A strobe light function is included with the floodlight option, and the spotlight offers an SOS mode. The headband is both adjustable and detachable, well-suited for both adults and children.
- Bright, intense light
- Comes with its own carry case
- 1PX6 waterproof rating
- Small buttons make it difficult to switch modes while wearing
- Main LED light tends to wear out quickly
Best Headlamp for Running: BioLite HeadLamp 200 Lumen No-Bounce Rechargeable Head Light
The Biolite offers a stress-free alternative with a USB rechargeable power source, making it possible to travel without lugging any batteries along. The runtime is a whopping 40 hours on the low setting, with 3 hours on high. These qualities make it an excellent choice for thru-hikes.
This 200 lumens headlamp offers four settings, including a red light function. Best of all, the unit is so slim and lightweight, you’ll hardly notice that you’re wearing it. That’s what makes the Biolite so attractive to trail runners.
- Compact, weighs just 1.7 ounces
- Red light option
- No-slip technology
- Many color options available
- Strap can become warped with frequent wear
- Relatively high price point
Best Budget Headlamp: Lighting Ever LE LED Headlamp Flashlight, Headlight with Red Light
The low price tag is what sets this offering apart from other backpacking headlamps. It can be had for less than the price of a pint of beer at your favorite watering hole, and will bring many more hours of enjoyment.
Four lighting modes are available, including a red flashing option. The lamp tilts up to 90 degrees, making it easier to see the trail in front of you. It weighs in at 3.2 ounces, which is heavier than some of the competition, but still light enough for comfort.
The LE Headlamp offers an IP rating of 4, meaning it can withstand splashing but not submersion. Three AAA batteries are required.
- Affordable price point
- Red light option
- Tilt feature
- Flimsy construction
- Low burn time
- Requires 3 batteries
Best Ultra Lightweight Headlamp: Nitecore NU25 360 LM Rechargeable Headlamp
As the name suggests, Nitecore offers a bright beam with superb concentration. The LED light is of 360 lumens, with a 264-foot range. There’s a red light mode for night vision, and the headlamp is equipped with a built-in USB rechargeable battery.
But the defining feature of the Nitecore is its weight, which comes in at less than one ounce. This makes it ideal for long backpacking journeys—it can be tucked into a pocket during the day and called into duty as soon as the sun goes down.
- Red light option
- Superb light quality
- USB rechargeable battery
- Some shipping issues reported
- Only 3 light modes available
While you might be tempted to find the brightest headlamp for your backpacking adventures, the light quality isn’t the only aspect to consider. It’s just as important to find a durable, lightweight, versatile unit with a good waterproof rating. If you manage to locate all these things in one package, then you’re in for many happy days and nights on the trail.