Everyone should own a headlamp. Whether you’re going on a backpacking trip, walking the dog in the evening, or car camping with friends, a hands-free light is an essential tool and is sure to become one of your favorite gadgets.
With all the technical data to sift through and seemingly endless choices on the market, it can be a real challenge to figure out what to buy. We researched and tested dozens of headlamps to put together this list of the very best.
BRIGHTNESS – Lumens and beam distance are the most important specification that will help you determine how bright a headlamp is. Those who frequently hike at night will want a headlamp with a higher lumen count and longer beam distance. If you just need a headlamp for walking the dog or to keep in your car, a lower lumen count is typically more affordable and will likely work. Brightest headlamps: Petzl Actik CORE, Black Diamond Spot 350, Fenix HM50R, and Ledlenser MH10 Best headlamps with a good balance of brightness and cost: Black Diamond Spot Lite 200 and BioLite HeadLamp 200
RECHARGEABLE VS. NON-RECHARGEABLE – Rechargeables are more eco-friendly and reduce battery waste, but they tend to have shorter burn times. Non-rechargeable batteries last longer for extended backcountry trips, but cost more and create more waste. If you want to go the rechargeable route, we recommend picking up some Eneloop AAAs. For headlamps that take standard batteries, consider picking up some long-lasting Lithium batteries, which are lighter and more efficient than Alkaline. Best rechargeable headlamps: Petzl Actik CORE and BioLite HeadLamp 200 Headlamps with the longest battery life: Black Diamond Spot 350, Petzl Tikkina, Petzl Actik, and Princeton Tec SNAP
BEST RECHARGEABLE HEADLAMP
WEIGHT: 2.8 oz.
MAX LUMENS/BEAM DISTANCE: 450 lm./ 295 ft. (90 m.)
BURN TIME LOW/HIGH: 130 hrs./ 2 hrs.
PROS: Rechargeable, bright, comfortable, performance lighting (doesn’t dim as battery depletes), easy to use, locking feature
CONS: Expensive, shorter burn time, not fully waterproof
BOTTOM LINE: The Petzl Actik CORE is a user-friendly headlamp with the Petzl dependability we’ve grown to know and love. The Actik CORE is more expensive than the standard Actik (it’s AAA-powered bro), but it weighs a tad less and burns 100 lumens brighter on its max setting. While both models have the option to use longer lasting AAAs or the rechargeable CORE battery pack, the Actik CORE model includes the rechargeable battery. Both models are super easy to operate and emit a quality beam that’s a combination of spot and flood light. If you’re looking for a trustworthy rechargeable headlamp the Petzl Actik CORE is an excellent choice.
BEST VALUE HEADLAMP
WEIGHT: 3 oz.
MAX LUMENS/ BEAM DISTANCE: 350 lm./ 280 ft. (85 m.)
BURN TIME LOW/HIGH: 200 hrs./ 3 hrs. 45 min.
PROS: Long burn time, bright, comfortable, waterproof (IPX8), battery life reader, locking feature, excellent value
CONS: Slight learning curve for the different modes
BOTTOM LINE: The Black Diamond Spot 350 has been a tried and true favorite of hikers and climbers for years. The newest model has a longer burn time and an even brighter LED than ever. It’s sleek, comfortable, and stays the brightest for the longest out of any of the headlamps we tested. We highly recommend this feature-rich, high-quality headlamp, and we think its price point makes it an exceptional value buy compared to the competition. Black Diamond headlamps do take a bit more time to learn than many other models, but that’s to be expected for a light with so many features and modes.
BEST ULTRALIGHT HEADLAMP
WEIGHT: 1.9 oz.
MAX LUMENS/BEAM DISTANCE: 200 lm./ 210 ft. (64 m.)
BURN TIME LOW/HIGH: 60 hrs./ 1.5 hrs.
PROS: Ultralight, compact, affordable, comfortable, waterproof (IPX8), locking feature
CONS: Slight learning curve for the different modes, max output is dimmer than some others, short burn time
BOTTOM LINE: If you’re looking for a headlamp with most of the features of the popular Spot 350, but want something a bit lighter and more compact, the Black Diamond Spot Lite 200 is your match. It’s a high-quality affordable option and very comfortable on the forehead. Though the two-AAA-battery system of the Spot Lite 200 limits its burn time and max output, we still find that it works great for the most common uses on trail. For ultralight backpackers in need of a dependable headlamp that will easily cover most situations, this is an excellent choice.
BEST HEADLAMP FOR RUNNERS & WALKERS
Weight: 1.75 oz.
MAX Lumens/ Beam Distance: 200 lm./ 164 ft. (50 m.)
Burn Time Low/ High: 40 hrs./ 3 hrs.
PROS: Ultralight, compact, rechargeable, comfortable, locking feature
CONS: Short burn time, not fully waterproof, small on/off button
Bottom Line: The BioLite HeadLamp 200 is the most comfortable headlamp on the market with it’s smooth headband and ergonomic design that sits flush on the forehead. The BioLite is our top choice for activities like running, since it’s ultralight and doesn’t bounce or slip on impact. The burn time of this rechargeable headlamp is relatively short, so it’s best suited for evening walks or shorter outings close to home. But if you don’t spend much time using a light each night or you carry a power bank, it could still be used for multi-night trips.
MORE: If you’re looking for more lumen-power, BioLite’s 330 is a bit brighter and has a slightly longer burn time with a small battery pack at the back of the head.
BEST BUDGET-FRIENDLY HEADLAMP
WEIGHT: 3.03 oz.
MAX LUMENS/BEAM DISTANCE: 250 lm./ 196 ft. (60 m.)
BURN TIME LOW/HIGH: 120 hrs./ 2 hrs.
PROS: Affordable, long burn time, easy to use
CONS: No red mode or strobe, not fully waterproof, max output is dimmer than some others, no locking feature
BOTTOM LINE: The Petzl Tikkina is a simple, long-lasting option for an unbeatable price. If you just need a headlamp to meet basic needs, this is your guy. Petzl designed the no-frills Tikkina to be easy to use, with very little learning curve or special features. Press the button once for low, twice for medium, or three times for high, and that’s pretty much it. The Tikkina has the ability to use three AAAs or you can buy a rechargeable CORE battery for about $30. For its price and functionality, this is a perfectly good choice for backpacking, hiking, emergencies, working around the house, keeping in your car, or pretty much whatever.
MORE: If you want something lighter and more compact with a few more features, check out the Petzl Zipka.
BRIGHT HEADLAMP WITH GOOD BATTERY LIFE
WEIGHT: 3.2 oz.
MAX LUMENS/BEAM DISTANCE:: 350 lm./ 262 ft. (80 m.)
BURN TIME LOW/HIGH: 120 hrs./ 2 hrs.
PROS: Bright, long burn time, performance lighting (doesn’t dim as battery depletes), easy to use, rechargeable battery option
CONS: No locking feature, not fully waterproof
BOTTOM LINE: The Petzl Actik is an all-around strong headlamp. It’s most attractive qualities are its ease of use, unique hybrid-energy option, performance lighting, and long burn time. It runs on either three long-lasting lithium AAAs or a rechargeable CORE battery (not included). That said, if you’re planning to use the rechargeable CORE battery, it probably makes sense to pick up the Actik CORE model listed above to save a bit of money. This model is better for those who plan to go the non-rechargeable route in order to get longer burn times. Both Actik models are dependable, high quality, and easy to use.
ULTRALIGHT HEADLAMP WITH LONG LASTING RECHARGEABLE BATTERY
WEIGHT: 1 oz. (1.8 oz. with strap)
MAX LUMENS/BEAM DISTANCE: 360 lm./ 266 ft. (81 m.)
BURN TIME LOW/HIGH: 160 hrs./ 5 hrs.
PROS: Ultralight, compact, affordable, rechargeable, waterproof (IP66), battery life reader, locking feature, charges quickly
CONS: Wide beam easily shines in camping partner’s eyes, short burn time, strange head strap connection clip
BOTTOM LINE: The incredibly lightweight NITECORE NU 25 has a lot of really useful features in an affordable package. The 360 lm. “turbo mode” only runs for 30 seconds before stepping down to prevent overheating, but the high mode (190 lm.) is still plenty bright for the most common uses on trail and around camp. The NU 25’s main limitations are its short battery life (in our testing, the NU’s burn time was much shorter than listed) and the fact that it’s hard to keep the light from shining in your camping partner’s eyes due to its wide beam pattern. For shorter backpacking trips or home use, the NU 25 is an excellent, budget-friendly, ultralight option.
HEADLAMP THAT PERFORMS WELL IN EXTREME COLD
WEIGHT: 2.8 oz.
MAX LUMENS/BEAM DISTANCE: 500 lm./ 860 ft. (262 m.)
BURN TIME LOW/HIGH: 128 hrs./ 14 hrs.
PROS: Performs well in cold conditions, rechargeable option, very bright, durable metal housing, waterproof (IP68), battery life reader
CONS: Uses uncommon batteries, no red mode or strobe, slight learning curve for the different modes, no locking feature
BOTTOM LINE: If mountaineering or alpine climbing are your game, you’ll probably appreciate the features of the Fenix HM50R. This headlamp has a large side-button that’s easy to press while wearing gloves, making it a great choice for chilly trips. The HM50R comes with a rechargeable battery for everyday use, but accepts CR123A batteries that perform in extremely low temperatures. For most people, the Fenix HM50R would be overkill, but this torch has a quality build that will withstand hardcore, foul weather adventures.
VERSATILE HEADLAMP THAT CAN ALSO BE USED AS A LANTERN OR BIKE LIGHT
WEIGHT: 3.5 oz.
MAX LUMENS/BEAM DISTANCE: 300 lm./ 164 ft. (50 m.)
BURN TIME LOW/HIGH: 155 hrs./ 10 hrs.
PROS: Versatile use options, long burn time, easy to use, multi-purpose mounts
CONS: Max output is dimmer than some others, Not fully waterproof, no red mode, no locking feature, bulky on forehead
BOTTOM LINE: The Princeton Tec SNAP is a great choice for those who want one light to cover many different activities. It comes with a headband, a 2-way carabiner housing for hanging it like a lantern, and a bike handlebar mount. We like the idea that the mounts can be left where they belong (on your bike, in your tent, in your pack), and the light can easily be popped into place when you need it. Another handy feature of the Snap is that it can be stuck on metal surfaces with its magnetic end, which we found particularly useful when working on household projects. While it’s a little bulky and heavy, we still think the Snap is a fun hands-free light that can move with you from activity to activity.
VERY BRIGHT HEADLAMP THAT’S GOOD FOR CAVING
WEIGHT: 5.6 oz.
MAX LUMENS/BEAM DISTANCE: 600 lm./ 492 ft. (150 m.)
BURN TIME LOW/HIGH: 120 hrs./ 10 hrs.
PROS: Very bright, rechargeable, easy to use, long burn time for rechargeable battery
CONS: Expensive, heavy, bulky, not fully waterproof, no red mode or strobe, no locking feature
BOTTOM LINE: The Ledlenser MH10 is the bulkiest of all the headlamps we tested with a large battery at the back of the head. The battery pack makes it a powerful choice for activities like caving or winter sports where beam distance matters. We like that its functions are simple and straightforward (like a ring adjustment that narrows & widens the beam), the beam is one of the brightest we tested, and among rechargeable headlamps it has a long burn time. The Ledlenser is great for spelunking, but it’s not our go-to for typical backpacking trips because it’s too heavy, bulky, and expensive.
The following headlamps didn’t make our final list, but they’ve still got a lot of good things going for them. You never know, one of these headlamps might be perfect for you:
Petzl e+LITE – a fine choice as a backup or emergency light source, but it’s too dim for use as a primary headlamp in our opinion. It could work for ultralight backpackers who rarely use headlamps, but don’t expect to feel confident doing any nighttime activities with the e+LITE. For most users, it’d be well worth carrying the extra .9 oz for a more substantial light like the Black Diamond Spot Lite 200.
Princeton Tec Sync – a decent headlamp for those who want good features on a tight budget. The rotating mode selector is simple and straightforward to use, but requires two hands to adjust since the the entire lamp wants to twist as you turn the selector knob. We’ve been impressed with the Sync’s relatively long burn time and consider it a good value for the money, but at the end of the day you could upgrade to one of our favorite headlamps for $10-20 more.
Critical Headlamp Considerations
LUMENS – In essence, lumens are a unit of brightness emitted from a light source. While it’s a somewhat helpful descriptor, the lumens measurement does not factor in the quality of the beam pattern, but only the total sum of light in any direction.
Two lights with the exact same lumens can have tremendously different light quality depending on the beam width and the optical quality of the lens system. After testing many headlamps, we have concluded that lumens are not a reliable way to compare performance and that beam distance is a better indicator.
Rechargeables: Using a headlamp with rechargeable batteries is more environmentally-friendly and reduces battery waste. They’re also great for saving money on batteries but, they tend to have shorter burn times. Rechargeables are great for everyday use, running, and short trips when you can charge them easily and often. For extended backcountry trips, you may have to carry a charger/cords, power bank, or solar charger.
Note: Most headlamps that take regular batteries can be made rechargeable by using rechargeable batteries like the Eneloop AAAs. However, this may reduce the overall burn time significantly. We put Eneloop rechargeables and Li-ion AAAs head-to-head and tested them in two Petzl Actik headlamps. The Eneloops kept up surprisingly well for the first few hours, but, in the end, the non-rechargeables lasted many hours longer.
Availability: For thru hikes, it’s a good idea to choose a headlamp that uses batteries that are easily accessible. Coin batteries are lightweight, but uncommon in stores.
Alkaline vs. Lithium: If your headlamp uses traditional AA or AAAs, you may be able to upgrade to Lithium for a longer burn time, better efficiency in extreme temperatures, and less weight. Lithium, a particularly light metal, has the highest energy density of all battery cells and is approximately 30% lighter than alkaline batteries of the same size. Lithium batteries are best for high or moderate-drain headlamps, but can be too powerful for some low-drain models. We suggest reading the manufacturer instructions for battery recommendations for your specific headlamp to see if you can take advantage of the benefits of lithium.
BURN TIME (BATTERY LIFE) – The amount of time the battery will be able to sustain the light without recharging or changing batteries. Often, the burn time is far greater when you switch to your low setting, whenever possible.
WEIGHT – Get the lightest headlamp with the features and power that you want. If you just need a basic light and don’t care about anything fancy or super bright, a minimalist headlamp will do the trick. For those who need that extra bright light, it’s worth carrying a lamp that weighs a couple more ounces. We try to keep our headlamps as light as possible (usually 3 oz. or less) without sacrificing a good 100-lumen mode with a long burn time.
DURABILITY & WEATHER RESISTANCE – We look for headlamps that are made of quality materials that can stand some abuse. To denote this, manufacturers use an IPX rating system to identify how weather resistant something is. Essentially, any product that claims to be waterproof, must denote an IP Code, which tells us more specifically how protected electrical components are from water and dust. By using this international standard, consumers are protected from vague marketing terms like waterproof and water resistant and can make more informed decisions.
For most hiking and backpacking we’re only concerned with our headlamp being weather-resistant enough to deal with some rain and ambient humidity (IPX4), however, extra water, dust, and shock-proofing are always good. If you need a completely waterproof headlamp look for a model with an IPX8 or IPX7 rating. IPX7 will be waterproof in one meter of water for 30 minutes, while the IPX8 can be submerged longer.
LIGHT MODES – Depending on your chosen activity, certain light modes will suit the situation best.
Red Light: Uses very little energy and does not cause your pupils to dilate at night. Great for camp chores and does not attract flying insects like white light. Less irritating for groups or couples. Great for stealthy midnight peeing without disturbing your tentmate.
Strobe: Makes you visible when hiking, biking, or running along roadsides. Could be used as a signal in emergency situations.
High (Spotlight): Condensed, focused, bright light usually directed towards a distant object. Good for night hiking, looking for trail signs, spotting climbing anchors, or using as a bike headlight.
Low (Floodlight): Also called ‘proximity mode.’ Conserves battery power and produces a wider beam of softer, dimmer light usually directed downwards to see nearby (or proximal) objects. Great for cooking in camp, setting up tents, familiar night hikes, etc.
COMFORT – A well-designed lamp should have the strap adjustments necessary to secure the light snuggly without putting too much pressure on your forehead. Some headlamps distribute the weight between the front and the back for better balance and less bouncing. This is especially important for runners or for those who choose a lamp with a larger battery pack. The band should be made of a durable, but soft, wicking fabric and adjusters should not slip or loosen on their own.
SIMPLICITY – Choose a headlamp that matches your style. If you love techy features and versatility, you might opt for a lamp with more features like the Black Diamond Spot 350. But for those who dislike having to remember patterns to cycle through functions, the simple Petzl Tikkina or Actik might be best. For winter sports where gloves are required, choose a headlamp with a large, single button.
HAVE BACKUP – Always top up your charge or replace your batteries before you leave home. For long trips, it’s very wise to think about what you’ll use as a backup light if your headlamp should fail in the field. There’s nothing more dangerous or uncomfortable than being without a light when you need one. Most of us will have a cell phone that is equipped with a flashlight and that will cover your butt. But if you don’t, consider carrying a small, ultralight backup like the Photon Micro Light or Petzl e+Lite.
Why Trust Us?
We fully understand how tough it is to find trustworthy gear advice, and that’s one of the main reasons we built CleverHiker. We live for outdoor adventure, and we take these guides very seriously. Here are some of the reasons you can trust us:
Our choices are completely independent and based on personal experience.
We’ve logged over 10,000 trail miles and test outdoor gear for a living.
We own and field test every product we recommend, which is sadly not the norm.
We travel to industry trade shows to learn about upcoming product innovations.
We constantly update our guides when new products launch.
We treat our recommendations as if they were for our family and friends.
We’re lifelong learners and we’re always open to constructive criticism. If you think we’ve missed a product or got something wrong, we’d love to hear your feedback.
We hope this guide helps you find the perfect gear for your needs. If you have more questions or a suggestion, we’d love to hear from you! Sign up for our newsletter to stay updated on our latest posts then visit our Facebook page and Instagram to join the community conversation.
If you found this guide helpful, please give it a share on social media! Also, be sure to check out our CleverHiker Gear Guide to see all of our top gear picks.
Thanks for reading and happy trails!