A headtorch is an essential bit of kit for many outdoor activities. It not only helps you see where you are going but also helps other people see you. As a mountaineer and trail runner it’s something I’ve found to be of an everyday necessity all year round. It’s performance is of paramount importance to me, whether it be running rough mountain trails at night or climbing through an icefall, in can be the difference between making it and not. Weight, durability, brightness, ease of use, cost, comfort and stability are all key factors when deciding which head torch to buy.
So, what is the best headtorch for you? Let’s look at 6 key features to look out for.
This is a good place to start! The brightness of a head torch is measured in lumens, in short the amount of visible light that the human eye can detect. It’s only recently been introduced in labelling of headtorches, previously – back in the days when I was using the retro light bulb, we referred to watts (units of power). Lumens definitely provides more clarity with the use of LEDs but for reference a 60W bulb would have a luminous flux of around 700-750 lumens. How those lumens are focused however makes a big difference to the perceived brightness as will be explained later.
Head torches will vary in lumens from 20lm all the way to over 1000lm. How bright you want it to be will depend on your activity, whether that requires just you to be seen or whether you need to floodlight the path in front of you.
Many headtorches offer a manual dimming function, often with a memory, that means you can quickly switch to a lower brightness, handy if you are looking at a map, encountering fog which reflects back a lot of light, or if you want to extend battery life. It’s unlikely you’ll ever need greater than 1000lm unless you intend to blind everyone on the street or the trail. Also such levels of brightness are not sustainable as they rapidly drain batteries.
We cannot look at brightness without looking at light output. Unregulated Light Output headtorches will exhibit brightness decay fairly rapidly as soon as they are switched on and over time, particularly on their highest output setting. In contrast, Regulated Light Output headtorches show almost zero variation in rated lumens over the rated battery life – clever technology and worth looking out for if you need a reliably bright output to last longer. There’s also a new breed of headtorches that use a Managed Light Output. These torches use light-sensing reactive technology to monitor the incoming light and adjust brightness accordingly. The top end of this market even allow users to monitor and adapt the light output via a Bluetooth app for maximum control of output and battery management.
Manufacturers will list their battery life on the product. Again how long you need the battery to last will depend on what you are doing. For head torches that have higher levels of brightness, the battery life will be shorter. What you really need to know is how long the battery will last at the advertised number of lumens. This information will usually be displayed on the packaging but be aware that battery life, unless stipulated, refers to how long the light will last until it finally dies and won’t necessarily be at the advertised level of luminosity.
In addition to battery life you’ll want to decide whether to choose a head torch with rechargeable batteries. Where possible this is definitely a good choice. A rechargeable lithium-ion battery, if well made, will always be much more efficient at pumping out power than standard alkaline batteries, especially at low temperatures. Also if you are a regular user of your head torch, then you will quickly go through batteries, it’s often cheaper to buy a spare rechargeable battery than to keep buying standard batteries. The only time I might not use a rechargeable torch is if I’m on a remote expedition and have very little access to solar power to recharge.
There is one last additional feature that is new to headtorches and which can help to improve battery life and that is reactive lighting. This means that the headtorch detects incoming light and adjusts the brightness accordingly, thereby saving battery power. Neat.
The distance the beam will reach depends on the brightness of the torch as well as the ability to focus. Not only that but it’s worth checking whether you can swivel the head of the torch to point straight ahead or down at the ground, and that they stay in that setting. Beam distances are also listed on the packaging, from just a few metres up to a few hundred metres! Anything much over 200 metres is not going to be that useful to you but it can be fun trying to light up the side of a mountain!
Headtorches will often either have one very powerful LED or many less powerful ones. The ones with the single powerful LED are more capable of producing the longer distance focused beam. One last point concerns torches with fixed beam patterns. It’s worth being aware that some are more adjusted to walkers or mountain bikers than to runners, in that they might be too narrow and not flood the whole width of the footpath.
With higher lumens and a longer battery life often comes increased weight. I personally would never run with a head torch that weighs much more than 200g on my head. It needs to fit comfortably with stability and have an even weight distribution of the torch vs battery ends. You should be able to shake your head and it not move. Some manufacturers offer an extension lead that means you can tuck the battery pack into a pocket or backpack which is a handy bit of kit, especially if you are out in the cold and want to keep the battery warm to get the most output from it.
Can you turn it off and on easily? What about if you are wearing gloves or have cold fingers?! Will it stay off if you leave it inside your bag all day? Just like mobile phones, the manufacturers are forever adding little smart features onto headtorches. It’s important that you can work out how to use them all and most importantly that the torch doesn’t easily switch on when left in a bag, there’s nothing more annoying than pulling out a fully charged torch and finding it’s been left on all day!
Here are some things that don’t all necessarily come as standard…
Just a brief mention here, the head torch needs to be at least an IPX4 which means it’s splashproof, anything more than that is great, anything less it won’t last a day (or night!). It will not only need to take the weather but also endure being stuck at the bottom of a bag every so often.