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 (whether intentionally or not). But with so many to pick from, how do you choose which one to buy? Price? Brightness? Weight? 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 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 more than 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 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 some rechargeable headlamps cost more up front (although not over time), and this review covers 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 8 Best Headlamps
|Knog Bandicoot 250||$45||2.1 oz.||250 lumens||Yes|
|BioLite Headlamp 325||$50||1.8 oz.||325 lumens||Yes|
|Black Diamond Spot 400||$50||2.5 oz.||400 lumens||No|
|Black Diamond Spot 400-R||$65||2.6 oz.||400 lumens||Yes|
|BioLite Headlamp 425||$60||2.75 oz.||425 lumens||Yes|
|Petzl IKO Core||$100||2.8 oz.||500 lumens||Yes|
|Petzl Actik Core||$80||3 oz.||350 lumens||Yes|
|Princeton Tec Vizz||$50||3.2 oz.||420 lumens||No|
I thought this headlamp’s predecessor, the Bandicoot, had the potential to upend this entire category. After using the more powerful and comfortable Knog Bandicoot 250 on a nine-day hike of nearly 130 miles through the High Sierra, mostly on the John Muir Trail, I still think this technology is a game changer.
The Bandicoot 250 is powerful, rechargeable, lighter than most competitors, and cheaper than many. Its unique, very light and durable silicone housing seamlessly merges the strap, body, and LEDs and adjusts to fit a huge circumference range of 30-70cm; you may forget you’re wearing it. Four LEDs—high beam, elliptical beams for broad ambient light, a red light for preserving your night vision, and downward-angled lights for reading—cover the needs of many users, including trail running and biking streets at night. It also has a lockout mode.
Read my complete review of the Knog Bandicoot 250.
BUY IT NOW You can purchase the Knog Bandicoot 250 at knog.com.
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Look for an ultralight headlamp under two ounces and $40 or less and you’ll find very few choices—with the BioLite Headlamp 325, which I’ve used backpacking in the Wind River Range and elsewhere, arguably the best. It sports four all-you-need lighting modes—white spot and red flood LEDs, both with dimming capability, plus white and red strobe—and cranks out enough brightness (325 lumens) and lasts long enough on a full charge (three hours on high, 40 hours on low) for backpackers, dayhikers, trail runners, and others.
With its nearly weightless front housing integrated into the slender, easily adjustable, no-bounce head strap, the 325 goes almost unnoticed on your head—making it certainly among the most comfortable ultralight headlamps. Intuitive, single-button operation, lockout mode, four-position housing tilt, and an IPX4 waterproof rating complete a high-value package at a very good price.
Read my complete review of the BioLite Headlamp 325.
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In any direct comparison, the Spot 400 offers an impressive feature set, power, and versatility at a competitive 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 400 lumens. It’ll project a beam 100 meters 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.
Read my complete review of the Black Diamond Spot 400.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a Black Diamond Spot 400 at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com.
Want a reliable, basic, easy-to-operate headlamp at a good price? See my review of the Black Diamond Astro 300 and rechargeable Astro 300-R.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
Virtually identical to BD’s Spot 400, the Spot 400-R adds a feature that keeps on delivering value: it’s rechargeable. Powered by a 1500 mAh Li-ion battery with micro-USB charging port, the Spot 400-R throws a beam 100 meters at its maximum brightness of 400 lumens; that’s bright enough to hike off-trail, search for your route in the dark, or identify the large animal going for your cached food. And a full charge lasts for four hours at max power.
Plus, it sports all the versatility of the Spot 400: three white and red modes with dimming capability, intuitive two-button operation, PowerTap technology, lockout mode, and it’s waterproof up to a little over a meter underwater for 30 minutes. But most impressively, at just 15 bucks more than the Spot 400, the rechargeable Spot 400-R soon pays for itself through the money saved not buying (and throwing away) batteries.
Read my complete review of the Black Diamond Spot 400-R.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a rechargeable Black Diamond Spot 400-R at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com.
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On early-spring backpacking trips on a section of the Arizona Trail and in Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon, the rechargeable Headlamp 425 shined for being ultralight, very bright, easy to use, and comfortable—and having a long enough charge life for multi-day trips.
The Headlamp 425 has four modes, all with dimming capability, plus a lockout function and a rear-facing light on the battery pack with three modes, ideal for biking streets after dark. Its max brightness of 425 lumens is certainly powerful enough for backpackers, dayhikers, trail runners, and climbers. The low-profile front housing rests flush against your forehead, without bouncing, and has four-position tilt. The 425 turns on in the mode and brightness it was last turned off, and the battery pack has a four-bulb battery indicator. Finally, it lasts four hours at max brightness and 60 hours at low power—I burned through only about half its charge over six days.
Read my complete review of the BioLite Headlamp 425.
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When you compare max brightness, weight, and other features, few ultralight headlamps match the rechargeable IKO Core’s appeal to backpackers, dayhikers, climbers, trail runners, and backcountry skiers. From ski touring to a backcountry yurt on a dark, snowy winter night to backpacking in the Wind River Range and the Grand Canyon, its max brightness of 500 lumens—exceptional for a headlamp weighing under three ounces—illuminated objects 100 meters distant.
The IPX-4 rating means the headlamp is resistant to splashed water but not waterproof—not as good as the water resistance of other ultralight headlamps. But three brightness levels, a combined spot beam and proximity light in two of them, simple operation, the versatility to substitute AAA batteries in a pinch, a lockout mode, and the bendable, adjustable, hydrophobic headband’s comfortable and secure fit—all in a light weighing under three ounces—make the IKO Core one of today’s most unique headlamps.
Read my complete review of the Petzl IKO Core.
Get the right gear for your trips. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents.”
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.
Get the right daypack for your hikes. See “The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks.”
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 bright enough for most backcountry users. 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.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking this affiliate link to purchase a Princeton Tec Vizz 420 at ems.com.
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See all reviews of headlamps, hiking gear, backpacking gear, and ultralight backpacking gear at The Big Outside. And don’t miss my popular reviews of “25 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories” and “The Best Backpacking Gear” of the year.
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.