Gear Spotlight: The Headlamp

Night Tent
Words: Val Peckarsky
Photo Credit: Cecily Breeding

It has been said that if you don’t pack a headlamp on a trip, you are guaranteed to need one. Small and easily overlooked, headlamps are extremely useful in the backcountry for pre-dawn alpine starts, late-night cooking sessions, and pretty much any other time a little extra light is needed.

Choosing a headlamp for your next climb can seem like a daunting task with so many options out there. The goal of this blog post is to distill all the flashy colors and blinking lights down to a couple categories that will help you pick a headlamp that will serve you well in and out of the mountains.

Brightness

Headlamps come in a wide variety of brightnesses ranging anywhere from 50 lumen basic camping models to 700+ lumen models for industrial use (lumens refer to the amount of light emitted by an artificial source – the more lumens something has, the brighter it is).

For general mountaineering, a headlamp with 200-300 lumens is ideal.

This brightness will give you a strong enough beam to see the end of your rope team, and aide in route-finding, but offers a longer battery life than many of the brightest headlamps on the market. 

Many headlamps also feature variable brightnesses that are adjusted manually (or automatically in the case of Petzl’s Reactive technology) to conserve power and extend battery life. Another nice feature offered by most headlamps is night mode, a red light that preserves night vision.

Battery Type

Most current headlamps utilize either single-use batteries or rechargeables. Some can operate using either type of battery for a “best of both worlds” approach.

Single-Use

Examples: Black Diamond Spot, Petzl Tikka, Petzl Actik Core

Headlamps with single-use batteries tend to be more affordable up front than their rechargeable counterparts. They are a nice option for those who don’t want to remember to charge another item before their trip. A downside to these headlamps is the fact that old batteries become waste that then has to be packed out, and disposed of, making this a potentially less environmentally friendly option.

Rechargeable

Examples: Petzl Reactik, Black Diamond ReVolt

Newer headlamps are commonly beginning to feature batteries that can be recharged rather than replaced. This option can be quite convenient for those who do not want to carry additional batteries into the field with them, as the battery can be recharged from any universal portable power source. If you plan to use your headlamp frequently, it is worth noting that a rechargeable battery may save you money in the long run.

Hybrid

Examples: Petzl Actik Core,Petzl Tikka

These headlamps are compatible with either single-use Alkaline, or Petzl’s CORE rechargeable lithium battery, and are our favorite option for those who want to be prepared for any possible scenario. 

A Note About Batteries: Regardless of trip length and headlamp type, it is always a good idea to bring backups, whether in the form of an external battery pack or extra single-use batteries.

Durability

One last thing to consider when comparing headlamps is its IPX rating. This refers to how water and dust resistant a product is. This comes more into play on dusty trips such as Aconcagua where less durable headlamps may become damaged by prolonged exposure to harsh conditions. Headlamps with a rating of IPX4 or higher will likely be durable enough to withstand most types of conditions climbers will encounter. 

Our Recommendations

For short (1-3 day) trips We recommend carrying a simple, lightweight headlamp with fresh Alkaline batteries. Usually, one set of batteries will be suitable for up to 3 days in the mountains.(as long as you don’t stay up until midnight reading a book!) 

AAI Pick: Petzl Tikka (optional: CORE removable lithium battery pack)

 

For long (4-30 day) trips We recommend carrying a rechargeable model with increased brightness. This will allow you to keep your headlamp battery topped up with a solar panel or battery backup, meaning you won’t have to carry 12 extra sets of batteries. Additionally, we find that with expedition living comes a greater reliance on your headlamp as you may be spending more time tent bound than on a short trip – a good headlamp pays dividends on these longer trips! 

AAI Pick: Petzl Actik CORE 

 

We always recommend carrying a spare set of back-up batteries for ANY headlamp on EVERY trip. 

Choosing the right headlamp for you and your adventures of choice doesn’t have to be an arduous or confusing task. Hopefully this illuminating blog post was able to shed some light on a previously ill-lit situation!

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