By Michael Lanza
A headlamp is unquestionably essential gear for hiking, backpacking, climbing, trail running, ultra-running and ultra-hiking and other backcountry activities that sometimes push into darkness. But with so many to pick from, how do you choose which one to buy? Price? Brightness? Design and range of lighting modes? Go with a brand you know and trust? This review cuts through the information overload to help you pick the right headlamp for your adventures.
I selected the five headlamps covered in this review based on extensive testing on backpacking, camping, long dayhikes, climbing, and other backcountry trips, and I’ve field-tested dozens of headlamps over a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear, formerly as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog. The freshly updated picks below represent the five best models for backcountry users.
For dayhiking, backpacking, and similar pursuits, I favor models that meet five simple criteria:
• Lightweight—no dayhiker, backpacker, runner, or climber needs a bulky light that weighs more than three to four ounces.
• Versatile and bright enough for everything from reading in the tent and managing camp chores to hiking rugged trail in complete darkness—and if needed, for route-finding off-trail.
• Intuitive and easy to use, so I don’t have to consult instructions more than once, take off my gloves to operate it, or use a tool to change batteries.
• Projects a beam that’s focused and even, not blotchy and uneven.
• Preferably rechargeable so I’m not repeatedly buying and throwing away batteries.
I apply those standards when choosing which headlamps I’ll review at The Big Outside, with the exception of being rechargeable, because rechargeable headlamps usually cost more up front (although not over time), and I cover a variety of headlamps at a range of price points.
The headlamps below are listed in order of weight. Please share your experiences with any of these models, or another you like, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
The 5 Best Headlamps
|Knog Bandicoot||$35||2 oz.||100 lumens||Yes|
|BioLite Headlamp 330||$60||2.4 oz.||330 lumens||Yes|
|Black Diamond Spot350||$40||3 oz.||350 lumens||No|
|Petzl Actik Core||$70||3 oz.||350 lumens||Yes|
|Princeton Tec Vizz||$50||3.2 oz.||420 lumens||No|
The Knog Bandicoot could upend this entire category, for multiple reasons—beginning with the fact that it’s rechargeable, lighter, and cheaper than many battery-powered models. The Bandicoot’s unique silicone housing seamlessly merges the strap, body, and LEDs, stretches to fit any noggin, and is so light you may forget you’re wearing it. With five modes and four brightness levels, including high-power, proximity, and red, it’s bright enough for trail running, biking streets after dark, and certainly for hiking a trail in the dark.
On late-summer backpacking trips on the Teton Crest Trail, in Yellowstone’s Bechler Canyon, and elsewhere, the Bandicoot held a charge for up to four nights and early mornings of normal use (with early sunsets), including one morning when we rose two hours before first light, when it illuminated camp chores and the trail quite well. With a lockout mode, easy-open housing to plug directly into any USB port (no cable needed) for recharging, and a charge indicator, the Bandicoot makes giving up the battery habit very affordable.
Read my complete review of the Knog Bandicoot.
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On multiple backpacking trips—including four days on Nevada’s Ruby Crest Trail, five days hiking the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, six days in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness, and seven days on the Wind River High Route—the rechargeable Headlamp 330 shined for being super ultralight, bright, and slim, and having a long enough charge duration for a multi-day trip.
BioLite says the Headlamp 330 runs for 3.5 hours at max brightness—a level rarely needed, so you can squeeze more hours out of it. And its max of 330 lumens is more than powerful enough for backpackers, dayhikers, ultra-hikers and ultra-runners, climbers, and backcountry skiers. The thin, front casing with a slightly curved shape rests flush against your forehead, not bouncing at all, and this lamp has a five modes, white and red, with dimming capacity in white spot and flood, plus a lockout function.
Read my complete review of the BioLite Headlamp 330.
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In any direct comparison, the Spot350 offers an impressive feature set, power, and versatility at a good price. That includes the three modes a backcountry headlamp should have—white beam, white peripheral, and red—and the latest update of the Spot jacks the max brightness up to a powerful 350 lumens. It’ll project a beam nearly 300 feet and has dimming capability in all modes.
It features BD’s neat PowerTap technology that allows you to tap the right side of the casing to cycle between max brightness and the dimmed level you’ve already set—which is not only convenient, but so easy that you’ll power down more often, thus prolonging battery life. The lockout mode prevents accidental turning on in a pack. Plus, it’s waterproof up to a little over a meter underwater for 30 minutes. No, it’s not rechargeable, but the Spot350 may be today’s best value in a backcountry headlamp.
Read my complete review of the Black Diamond Spot350.
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If you’re willing to spend more up front for a rechargeable headlamp—which eventually pays for itself—the Actik Core ranks among the very best. Equipped with white and red modes and spot and proximity beams, it stands out among rechargeables for two attributes: putting out an impressive maximum brightness of 350 lumens even when using the rechargeable battery and maintaining constant brightness over the duration of a charge—both of which you’ll appreciate on a long slog after dark.
On a September night in the Wind River Range, at max brightness, the Actik Core illuminated trees 300 feet away across a meadow. It’s easy and intuitive to use with one power button to click between modes and the dimming function. It also runs on three standard alkaline, lithium, or Ni-MH AAA batteries and the battery compartment is accessed by lifting a tab—no tool needed. A charge lasts up to 160 hours, long enough for most multi-day hikes.
Read my complete review of the Petzl Actik Core.
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As headlamps for the backcountry have continuously improved in terms of brightness, versatility, and low weight, some have acquired a level of complexity that demands spending a little time learning how to use it. Not so with the latest version of this longtime top-performer. Still among the brightest ultralight headlamps, Princeton Tec’s Vizz 420 stands out for many reasons that others do—plus simplicity.
Its maximum power of 420 lumens is unmatched on this list. A good choice for backpackers, dayhikers, climbers and high-speed users like trail runners and skiers, the Vizz 420 has three dimmable modes, white spot beam, white proximity beam, and red, plus a lockout mode. It has good burn times, including over 50 hours at medium power (90 lumens). Its regulated LEDs mean that the Vizz maintains constant brightness for as long as the batteries hold enough voltage—its brightness does not slowly fade as the batteries lose juice. And it’s waterproof down to a meter for 30 minutes (IPX7).
Read my complete review of the latest version of the Princeton Tec Vizz.
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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.