Gear Review: Petzl NAO headlamp

Petzl NAO

Petzl NAO
$175, 7 oz.

Stepping outside my tent during a black night in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, I turned in the direction of our food stuff sacks hanging from a tree more than 300 feet away—and saw them lit up brightly in the beam of this headlamp. Then I swung my gaze back to the ground before me to watch where I was walking, and the Nao’s beam instantly switched over to wide-area mode, brightly illuminating a broad perimeter around me. And it did this without me touching the device.

The NAO is the first headlamp to employ a light sensor and microprocessor to detect the distance its light is traveling to hit an object, automatically adjusting the amount of power going to its two high-output LED bulbs, ranging from seven lumens (for reading a book or map) to 355 lumens (a very powerful spotlight). The feature has obvious benefits for users who are constantly looking around, like climbers and ultra runners and hikers: I loved the hands-free lighting adjustment while hiking in the dark for a couple hours at the outset of a 27-mile traverse across the southern Wind River Range in Wyoming. But I also found it convenient simply for backpacking and camping in the Eagle Cap, Olympic Mountains, Capitol Reef National Park, and Idaho’s City of Rocks and Smoky Mountains.

Petzl says the technology extends the life of the rechargeable lithium ion battery by making the headlamp operate more efficiently. I found it never came close to losing a full charge on trips of up to five days, when I used the headlamp for a total of four to five hours. Petzl estimates the battery’s life at 300 cycles, beyond which its capacity is reduced by approximately 30 percent; assuming several multi-day trips per year and one full recharge per trip, that’s a lot of years of use before seeing any diminished battery life. It comes with a USB cable that’s compatible with all USB chargers (phone, computer, solar charger, etc.), and can be replaced with two AAA batteries. If you’re really detail-oriented, you can download free software from Petzl to fine-turn brightness, burn times, and distance settings for specific activities, and store multiple activity profiles and customized lighting levels. Downsides: it’s very pricey and not ultralight.

NOTE: I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu. See more reviews of backpacking gear I like by clicking on the “backpacking gear reviews” tag in the tag cloud in the left sidebar.

—Michael Lanza


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