The 7 Best Headlamps for Backpacking and Mountaineering in 2022

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The 7 Best Headlamps for Backpacking and Mountaineering in 2022

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.

Our 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.

Headlamp Reviews

Petzl Swift RL

Best All-Around Headlamp

My winner
The 7 Best Headlamps for Backpacking and Mountaineering in 2022 - Petzl Swift RL
Pros

Very bright

Lots of modes

Adaptive lighting

Locking power button

Comfortable

Rechargeable battery

Cons

Fewer battery options

Somewhat pricey

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.

Petzl Swift RL

Black Diamond Storm Headlamp

Best Headlamp for Backpacking

My winner
The 7 Best Headlamps for Backpacking and Mountaineering in 2022 - Black Diamond Storm Headlamp
Pros

Great value

Good light output

Good burn time

Light weight

Cons

Not a star performer in any category

Uses batteries

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 costs $50 and works great for backpacking. It has 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.

Black Diamond Storm Headlamp

Black Diamond Icon Headlamp

Best Headlamp for Mountaineering

My winner
The 7 Best Headlamps for Backpacking and Mountaineering in 2022 - Black Diamond Icon Headlamp
Pros

Very high light output

Good burn time at max brightness

Easy to use

Great beam distance

Cons

Heavy

Uses regular batteries

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.

Black Diamond Icon Headlamp

Zebralight 18650 Li-Ion Headlamp

Best Reliable Headlamp

My winner
The 7 Best Headlamps for Backpacking and Mountaineering in 2022 - Zebralight 18650 Li-Ion Headlamp
Pros

Very bright

Amazing burn time

Water resistant housing

Reasonable price

Rechargeable battery

Cons

Few light settings

No wide beam

No special features

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. $90 is a screaming deal for such a bright headlamp.

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.

Zebralight 18650 Li-Ion Headlamp

Petzl NAO+

Best Bright Headlamp for Caving and Canyoneering

My winner
The 7 Best Headlamps for Backpacking and Mountaineering in 2022 - Petzl NAO+
Pros

Bright

Lots of brightness levels

Adaptive lighting

Comfortable

Rechargeable battery pack

Cons

Not the brightest

Expensive

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.

Petzl NAO+

Black Diamond Spot 350 Headlamp

Best Budget Headlamp

My winner
The 7 Best Headlamps for Backpacking and Mountaineering in 2022 - Black Diamond Spot 350 Headlamp
Pros

Affordable

Good max burn time

Red light for basic tasks

Easy to use

Cons

Uses AAA batteries

Low burn time on high

Not very bright

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.

For $40, the Spot 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.

Black Diamond Spot 350 Headlamp

Petzl Bindi Ultralight Headlamp

Best Lightweight Headlamp

My winner
The 7 Best Headlamps for Backpacking and Mountaineering in 2022 - Petzl Bindi Ultralight Headlamp
Pros

Ultralight

Good max burn time

Comfortable

Easy to use

Reflective headband

Cons

Not very bright

No wide beam

No rechargeable option

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.

Petzl Bindi Ultralight Headlamp

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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.

Max Brightness

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.

Cost

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.

Reliable Brands

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.

Summary

We find the best headlamp for backpacking in 2022 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.

Common questions

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I consider myself a citizen of the West. Currently residing in my hometown, Salt Lake City, Utah. Between my career as a wildlife biologist and my many outdoor hobbies (mountaineering, skiing, backpacking, climbing, canyoneering, caving), I’ve seen just about every nook and cranny of the Wild, Weird West.

*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.

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