Your headlamp is your best friend in the mountains. No matter what kind of adventure you have planned, you should always have one in your backpack. Headlamps allow you to get on the trail before dawn, and keep hiking well after dusk. They’re also a must-have in any survival situation.
But there must be a thousand different models of headlamps for backpacking out there. Will a cheap one from the store work, or is it worth it to spend $200 on a good light source? The answer is, as always, “it depends on what you’re using it for.”
In this guide, I’ll compare some of the most popular headlamps on the market. I’ve weighed them by their strengths, weaknesses, and the kind of adventures they’re intended for. I’ve also included some tips on how to shop smart for a new headlamp.
My Review Process
Lighting has been a crucial part of my work and hobbies over the last ten years. As a Cave Ranger for the US Forest Service, I surveyed undiscovered caves and studied native bat species. As a skier, climber, and mountaineer, I’m regularly on the trail before dawn.
These adventures have made me obsessive about finding the perfect headlamp. I’ve tested extensively, weighing strengths and weaknesses, designs and new tech.
The result of that research is this guide. Here, I’ll compare headlamps by the situation that fits them best, so you can find the right light for your next big trail or climb.
Types of Backpacking Headlamps
Headlamps fall along a spectrum of cost and general “high tech-ness.” The most basic version is a headlamp with a single bulb which turns on and off. These commonly use batteries and aren’t very bright.
On the other end of the spectrum are headlamps like the Petzl NAO+, which have large external batteries stored at the back of the head.
Headlamps like this feature lots of different beams, adaptive lighting, and red bulbs for low light use. They often use rechargeable batteries.
Every headlamp falls somewhere along this scale. You want something that will provide enough light for enough time, without weighing you down.
Each activity requires a different balance of brightness, battery life, and weight. So what you should buy depends mostly on how you plan to use it.
If you have lots of different hobbies, it’s wise to get something that can do many different jobs. To this end, the Petzl Swift RL is an excellent choice. This is my personal choice for skiing, climbing, backpacking, and mountaineering.
It features a max of 900 lumens, adaptive lighting, and 100 hours of battery life on low. The power button has a locking feature to prevent accidental battery drain. The strap is very comfortable and keeps it in place nicely. The battery is also rechargeable.
But there are a few drawbacks to the Swift RL. Though it has a rechargeable battery, you can't open the battery compartment. So once it’s dead, you can’t just put a fresh battery in. The modes are a little tricky to cycle through quickly. It’s also one of the more expensive lamps on this list.
When you’re backpacking, your main goal is to stay lightweight and cover big distances. So you want something with a good battery life that’s not too heavy. Brightness isn’t as important, because you’ll mostly be using it around the campfire or night hiking short distances.
To this end, a cheaper headlamp with a good burn time is ideal. The Black Diamond Storm as a max output of 400 lumens. But, if you use it on low lumen output, it will run for 150 hours. That’s huge, unlike the total weight, which is only 4.2 oz (with batteries).
However, there are other options that are brighter, have a longer battery life, and more lightweight. Batteries are also not ideal for backpacking. If you’re planning something big like the PCT, you may want to find something you can recharge with a solar panel.
This is a dependable headlight for backpacking available at a great price.
Mountaineering often involves climbing before dawn or into the night. When you’re focused on technical climbing in exposed terrain, you need something very bright and reliable.
The Black Diamond Icon does a great job of meeting these requirements. It has a beam distance of up to 140 m, which is enough to light up a whole pitch with ease. It will run for seven hours using its brightest mode, which produces 700 lumens.
But, like the Black Diamond Storm, the Icon uses batteries. This may add some weight to your kit. The headlamp itself is also much heavier than others on this list at 10.6 oz. It's also tied for the most expensive headlamp on this list.
Zebralight has made a name for themselves among cavers and mountaineers as one of the most high-quality products available. Their lights focus on battery life and durability over all else, winning them very high marks for reliability. Zebralight is probably the most waterproof headlamp on the market.
The Zebralight 18650 Mk IV uses a simple one button design with three brightness settings. The max output of the MK IV is a whopping 1,600 lumens. On low, it’s capable of running for 17 and a half days before powering down. That’s a pretty astounding figure.
The Zebralight's housing is a water resistant, durable aluminum case that you can take off and use like a flashlight. It uses an 18650 lithium ion rechargeable (and replaceable) battery. This gives you the most options for battery power of any light on this list.
The Zebralight has got it where it counts. But it lacks many of the modes and features the other lights on this list have. It doesn’t have area lighting, or adaptive lighting, or a power indicator. It’s also not the most comfortable.
However, the low price point makes this a screaming deal for such a bright headlamp.
Demanding adventures like caving and canyoneering require high performance lighting. When you’re underground or in a deep slot canyon, your light is your lifeline. Ideally, you want a bright, versatile headlamp with a good burn time that's comfortable to wear all day.
The Petzl NAO+ is one of the most high-performance headlamps available. It features focused, flood, or mixed lighting. It also has an adaptive light mode. This lets it adjust to the ambient light conditions to brighten or dim the light. This saves power while maximizing light quality for the conditions.
It’s also very ergonomic and durable. Lastly, it uses a rechargeable lithium ion battery, which you can buy separately for more battery life.
But it’s not the brightest headlamp on this list. 750 lumens is good, but not the best. People who want the most lumens possible may look elsewhere for a brighter headlamp. It’s also very expensive.
If you’re going for a car camping trip, or need something basic to keep in your backpack, there’s no need to spend hundreds of dollars. The Black Diamond Spot 350 is a great option for basic use.
This budget headlamp offers 350 lumens with a burn time of 36 hours on low. You can dim the white light to save power, or use the secondary red light for low-light jobs like reading or getting settled in your tent. The Spot operates with a single button, which is easy to use.
But for anything more intense than camping, the Spot is better as a backup light. It uses a store bought alkaline battery and has a burn time of just 3.75 hours on high. This isn’t enough for any extended night activity, especially in dangerous terrain.
For dynamic activities like running, it’s important to find a headlamp that won’t bounce around on your head. If you’re looking for a good backup headlamp, it’s also a good idea to find something ultralight.
The Petzl Bindi does a great job of providing just enough light for short outings in a featherlight package. It weighs 35 grams, as much as seven nickels, the lightest headlamp on this list by a mile.
It produces 200 lumens of white light at max and can run for up to 50 hours on low. For quick jogs around town, or for emergency use, this is perfect.
But lightweight construction comes with lots of drawbacks. The brightness, battery life, and lack of modes severely limit what the Bindi can do.
How to Shop for A Headlamp
Searching for the right headlamp can be daunting. Here are some things to look for to help you identify high quality in a headlamp.
Brightness of a light is measured in units called lumens. Ideally, you want the highest number of lumens possible. But, more brightness means less battery life. Try to find a balance between brightness that suits your intended use and battery life.
More technical uses, like mountaineering and rock climbing, require brighter light (more than 350 lumens). High-powered lights usually cost more than $100.
For basic uses, like car camping or backpacking, you can get away with a less bright light (100-350 lumens). Expect to pay $50-$100 for a “basic use” headlamp.
Battery Life and Power Source
The last thing you want is for your light to die before you’re off the mountain. There are a few ways to mitigate this. The first is to get a headlamp with the largest burn time possible.
Another is to carry a backup power source. If your lamp uses AAA batteries, keep more on hand. If you’re going multi-day backpacking, pick a rechargeable headlamp so you can charge it at night with a power bank.
Modes and Beam Type
Most modern headlamps feature both a focused beam of light and a wider “area” light. Focused beams illuminate objects further away, but drain your power faster. Area lighting is good for low-risk activities and saving battery life.
Some headlamps, like those made by Petzl, also feature “Reactiv Lighting.” This function uses a light sensor which adjusts the brightness of the headlamp to the environment. Adaptive lighting saves a lot of power and makes your lamp much easier to use.
Weight and Comfort
In a perfect world, headlamps would run forever and weigh nothing. But in our world, there’s always a balance. Having a more comfortable headband also tends to increase the weight.
So consider again how much battery life you need, and how long you plan to wear your headlamp at a time. Lighter is always better, but you shouldn’t sacrifice extra battery life if you need it.
In general “lightweight” headlamps have one housing, which contains the bulb and batteries, on the front of the head. They’re much less bulky and won’t bounce around as much if you’re running or cycling.
Heavier headlamps (more than three or four ounces), have one housing on the front for light and another on the back where the batteries are stored. The Black Diamond Icon is a prime example of this.
Headlamps range anywhere from $20 to over $700. If you’re going to be in treacherous terrain in the dark, don’t skimp. But if you’re just using your light for camping or walking around your neighborhood, something inexpensive will work fine.
The two biggest name brands in technical lighting are Petzl and Black Diamond. They both have good track records for making high quality headlamps. Other reliable brands include Zebralight, Fenix, and Princeton Tec.
How Do I Choose A Headlamp?
Pick a headlamp that balances brightness, battery life, functionality, weight, comfort, and cost for the way you plan to use it.
We find the best headlamp for backpacking in 2023 is the Black Diamond Storm. The best for technical mountaineering is the Black Diamond Icon. The best all-around headlamp is the Petzl Swift RL. The best for battery life and reliability is the Zebralight 18650 Mk IV.
More than 300 lumens is good enough for general use while backpacking. Battery life is more important than brightness.
The Zebralight 18650 Mk IV can produce 1,600 lumens of light on high, the highest on this list.
Petzl, Princeton Tec, and Streamlight all make tactical lights used by the US Armed Forces.
Yes. If you plan to be in the backcountry for a long time, having a rechargeable light and a solar panel is ideal.
For basic car camping, 100 lumens of light is fine. But having more light will make your nightly camp chores easier.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.