I had been meaning to write about this topic for sometime now, and in anticipation of it, I went ahead and bought a few more headlamps. Partly because I found a new need for them, and partly for this post. And then this topic came up on the member Discord a while back, and I was surprised to learn my thinking on this matter was more common that I thought, but also it meant I needed to test one additional light before publishing this.
So, with that said: what makes for a good headlamp?
Generally there seems to be three camps of thinking with headlamps:
- Why would you own anything other than a headlamp?
- All you need is a 90° flashlight, then you have a headlamp and flashlight.
- I really don’t care, I just want something so I can be hands free sometimes.
I fall into the last camp, the don’t really care camp. But I actually made the progression through all three, roughly in that order. When I hiked a ton in my younger years, I was firmly in the first camp: give me the best headlamp and nothing else matters. Then when I started getting into higher end flashlights, I toyed with the fools idea of camp #2 (Armytek Wizard review here).
And now my general advice is: buy something small, something inexpensive, which has a red light option, and some level of water proofing to it. That’s all you need. A bonus feature is a control for ‘going direct to red’ which means a button that turns on the brighter white light, and one that turns on the nicer red light. It’s not a must, but it is extremely nice to have.
Black Diamond Spot Lite 160
And it turns out a few folks agree with me on this thinking. So let’s dive into some of the headlamps I have and run through them really quick:
- Black Diamond Ion (discontinued, you aren’t missing anything): this is a much older light and is largely hated by people. That’s because it “features” a touch control. No no, not buttons, but a touch sensitive grid area on the front. Using swiping and tapping and holding you control the entire light. It does have direct to red, but you have to remember which way to swipe, guess wrong and you shall be blind. It’s comical. It works great though and is insanely small. There are better options. But one pro is that it is not going to easily be turned on while kicking around in your bag.
- Black Diamond Spot Lite 160 (current version is 200): this is one of my favorites right now and the next version of that same format the Ion held, just with normal buttons. It is tiny, yet puts out more than enough light in either red or white beams. It has a great control lockout so you don’t have to worry about it turning on accidentally. The only downside is that there is no direct to red control. So if you want that, you are forced to make sure red light is the last used mode, and then light remembers that and turns back on to red. Risky. However the water rating is great on this one and generally it is simple to use and no fuss.
- Nitecore NU25: I snagged this on a whim from Drop and I am glad I did. This is a super cool light. It is tiny, weighs next to nothing and has all the features. Direct to red, and everything you could want. The singular downside on this light is that it has a built-in rechargeable battery. Which is ideal if all you use the light for is around the house, but shitty if you want to take it out to the woods as you can’t easily swap the battery. You have to charge it. But hold that thought, because there’s a third light on this that is an up close flood light that is warmer in color and higher in CRI (they say >90 CRI). Which means you could accurately read maps or treat wounds with that light. And even though you can’t swap the battery, the battery in this is rated at 160hrs for the long end — so unlikely to be an issue for most camping and it can be used while being charged. The water and impact ratings are also no joke.
- Armytek Wizard Pro: this was my first (and likely last) foray into a 90° light. This is a very good flashlight and I really do like it. But I rarely use it. As a headlamp it is too heavy and really overkill. There’s also no red light. As a handheld light the 90° can be fussy to work with. But the magnet on the tail means it works great to stick to something while you are working on something close up — that’s nice. The price is good, and the ratings are great, but it’s not the best on this list for a headlamp. Like most compromises, it is compromised by its very nature.
- Petzl Zipka(REI Link): the huge draw of this light is that there is no head strap flopping all around. The strap is a thin retractable cord, so the package overall is super neat and tidy. I don’t find this uncomfortable, but I also would not choose to wear it. There’s some really nice features on this light, with AAA batteries and a rechargeable battery pack option, direct to red, and a very bright light. But the biggest feature is the compact and clutter free design.
Look, my advice remains, to look for specific features and spend as little as possible:
- Red light: you want a red light because it really helps when you use the light at night but don’t want to disturb everyone and also don’t want to feel blind the moment you turn the light off. Camping and have to pee at night: then red light is the winning combination. At home, and want to check out a sound you heard in the middle of the night without the entire neighborhood thinking someone has broken into your house and is searching it by flashlight? Red light. Drop something next to your partner in the middle of the night and don’t want to light up the entire room, waking them up, red light.
- Direct to Red Switch: I list this as a nice to have, but many see it as a must. The thing is: you need to know how to make sure your light is going to turn on to red. For me, I always leave the lights on red mode so they turn back on to that. But that doesn’t work for everyone.
- Some level of water resistance: a headlamp by it’s very nature is on your head, and your head gets wet when it rains. You are going to want something with some level of water resistance. Also, if you take a light camping you want water resistance too.
- Not too bright: bright is great, but not needed here. You want something over 100 lumens and you can stop there. The power draw beyond that isn’t worth the extra light and really you won’t need the extra light most of the time. The only caveat is if you are trying to use the light to bicycle at night, then more light is needed with more throw to the beam. Outside of that, for walking and working, a little over 100 lumens should be fine.
- Cheap: you don’t want to spend a ton, because headlamps get beat up, the straps get worn out, and they get lost if they are small enough. There’s just no need to spend a lot, $40 is an ample budget for really good headlamps.
- AAA Batteries: light, powerful, and easy to find at any store. This should be the base power source you are looking at.
That’s it, that’s my advice. I will now leave you with my top picks:
- Nitecore NU25: just get this if you need something and don’t have extreme use cases in mind. It’s fantastic and the non-removable battery is a non-issue for most people. I used this throughout a power outage and at the end of it, I recharged it for 30min to top it off. Didn’t even come close to draining the battery. The high CRI mode was fantastic for washing dishes and being able to see that they were clean. It also weighs very little, impressive all around. I think even for camping, most people take phone charging batteries, and that could work for this too.
- Black Diamond Spot Lite 160/200: if charging makes you anxious or you want to pack the light in an emergency bag, get this. The headband is comfortable and it only needs two AAAs. It packs nicely as you can leave the batteries out of it to protect the light from corrosion. Before I really tested the Nitecore, this would have been my top pick. I was lucky to grab a couple 160s during the close out when the 200 model came out.
- Petzl Zipka (REI Link) If you can find this for a good price, get it. It offers more light and longer run times due to the three AAA batteries. Direct to red, which is nice, but the headband is pretty meh. That said, if you want the most compact option, this is it. The huge value really is in the compact package without dangling straps, and the fidget factor is high. Careful taking it off your head though, the strap snaps back quickly, as I learned the hard way — twice.
Buy any of those and you’ll be happy. Headlamps are great, I keep them in all my bags — just don’t over think this one (he says over a 1500 words later).
Bonus Kid Recommendation
If you have kids, just get the Black Diamond Wiz. They last forever, turn off automatically, and are hard to blind people with. Thank me later, it’s excellent.