By Michael Lanza
A headlamp is unquestionably essential gear for hiking, backpacking, climbing, trail running, and other backcountry activities. But with the many choices out there, 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 will cut through the information overload and 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, climbing and other backcountry trips and long dayhikes, and I’ve field-tested dozens of headlamps over a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years, and now for 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 or route-finding off-trail in complete darkness.
• 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 cost, and some of these reviews are longer and complete, while the shorter ones below link to my longer, complete review of that headlamp.
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|
|Black Diamond Spot325||$40||3 oz.||325 lumens||No|
|Black Diamond Storm375||$50||4.2 oz.||375 lumens||No|
|Princeton Tec Vizz||$50||3.2 oz.||420 lumens||No|
|Petzl Actik Core||$70||3 oz.||350 lumens||Yes|
The Knog Bandicoot is the kind of new product that has the potential to upend an entire category, for multiple reasons—beginning with the fact that it’s a rechargeable headlamp that’s lighter and cheaper than many competitors that use batteries. The Bandicoot’s unique silicone housing seamlessly merges the strap, body, and LEDs, stretches to fit any noggin, and is so light that you may forget you’re wearing it. Its five modes with four brightness levels include high-power, proximity, and red, and it’s bright enough for trail running and biking city streets after dark.
On late-summer backpacking trips on the Teton Crest Trail and in Yellowstone, the Bandicoot proved it has the stuff and the stamina for multi-day backcountry trips. It 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 for an early start hiking, 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 multi-use headlamp that makes giving up the battery habit, well, very affordable.
Read my complete review of the Knog Bandicoot.
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In any direct comparison, the Spot325 offers an impressive feature set and brightness at a competitive price. It offers the three modes a backcountry headlamp should have—white beam, white peripheral, and red—and this new overhaul of the Spot jacks the max brightness up to a powerful 325 lumens. It’ll project a beam at least 200 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 meter underwater for 30 minutes. No, it’s not rechargeable, but the Spot325 may be today’s best value in a backcountry headlamp.
Read my complete review of the Black Diamond Spot325.
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When you want more brightness, versatility, and battery life, BD’s updated Storm375 is s smart upgrade. I chose this over other headlamps to illuminate the trail at the start and for the last four hours of a 42-mile, 22,000-vertical-foot, one-day, rim-to-rim-to-rim run-hike across the Grand Canyon and back, hiking up the South Kaibab Trail back to the South Rim after dark; and I used it at night in huts on a five-day trek through northern Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains.
Its 375 lumens rank it among the brightest ultralight headlamps, casting a beam 100 meters—excellent for route-finding on a peak or searching for a campsite. As with BD’s Spot325, the PowerTap technology lets you to tap the right side of the casing to cycle between max brightness and whatever dimmed level you’ve already set. It sports high-power, proximity, and red, green, and blue night-vision LED modes, all with dimming and strobe options—and all controlled by two buttons that are intuitive, quick to learn, and easy to find with your fingers in the dark.
Battery life ranges from 150 hours at low power (eight lumens) to five hours at max power (375 lumens). The lockout mode activates and deactivates by holding both buttons, and it’s rated IP67 as dustproof and waterproof up to one meter deep for 30 minutes.
At a price in the mid-range for ultralight headlamps—and a slightly higher weight, explained by having four batteries instead of three—the Storm375’s feature set makes it a top performer at a good price. Dollar for dollar, hard to beat.
Read my complete review of its predecessor, the very similar Black Diamond Storm.
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The high-performance, waterproof Vizz delivers strong value if you’re after versatility and brightness in an ultralight headlamp. Its maximum power of 420 lumens is unmatched on this list, and it has three dimmable modes: white spot beam, white proximity beam, and red. It’s also simple to operate, compatible with lithium batteries for better life in freezing temperatures, and it has a lockout mode.
A strong choice for hikers and climbers as well as high-speed users like trail runners and skiers, the Vizz offers a bit more brightness than the identically priced BD Storm375—although many users may not notice much difference—and somewhat simpler operation, but fewer mode options and less versatility. At an ounce lighter, it may be most noticeable on your head, including that it bobs a bit less than the Storm375 when you’re hiking fast or running.
Read my complete review of the Princeton Tec Vizz.
Get the right daypack for your hikes. See my “Gear Review: The 8 Best Hiking Daypacks.”
Equipped with white and red modes and two beam patterns—a focused beam for seeing straight ahead and a proximity beam for illuminating a wider area—the Actik Core stands out among ultralight, backcountry headlamps for its maximum brightness of 350 lumens. More significantly, unlike rechargeable headlamps, it delivers that much brightness even when using the rechargeable battery. Petzl’s Core battery also maintains constant brightness over the duration of a charge, and it can run on three standard alkaline, lithium, or Ni-MH AAA batteries.
Read my complete review of the Petzl Actik Core.
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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 Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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.
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