While all light sources have the same basic function — to provide illumination — the question of what to buy hinges on the light’s intended purpose. Headlamps and flashlights can have purposes as divergent as pocketknives and bowie knives. While this can be confusing for consumers buying their first activity-specific light, it also means that there is an entire world of products tailored for your needs, whether you’re running after dark, biking or just rummaging around your basement. Knowing some basics about headlamp and flashlight design can empower you to pick the right light source for your needs.
Terms to Know: Lumens and Beam Distance
The packaging for almost every flashlight or headlamp will have two important statistics: lumens and beam distance. Lumens (lm) are a measure of of visible light emitted. It’s a more accurate measure of brightness than wattage, as different types of lights produce different amounts of light for the same amount of power. For example, two 10 watt flashlights could produce different amounts of visible light depending on how efficient their bulbs are. While lumens aren’t the whole story, they’re a good place to start looking.
Beam distance is an equally important number. Beam distance is how far a light will reach. A headlamp with a 100m beam length will allow you to see 100m in front of you in good conditions, while a 120m beam length will allow you to see 120m away.
Which statistic is more important? It depends on what your needs are. If you’re looking to light up your immediate area, lumens are more important, because it’s a measure of how much light the product can produce. If you’re trying to see far away, beam length is more important, because it’s a measure how far you will be able to see while using the product.
Lightweight, Hands-Free, Versatile
Design and Construction: If you’re doing something athletic that doesn’t involve a bicycle or vehicle, headlamps are the first thing you should think about. A quality headlamp should be comfortable, relatively lightweight and sturdy, and it should produce an adequate amount of light for your needs. 100 to 150 lumens should be adequate for most needs, but for activities like scrambling and route-finding at night, travelers may want a more powerful headlamp — something as bright as 300 lumens. If you’re wondering how waterproof a headlamp is, look at the IPX rating, or Ingress Protection Rating. It’s a measure of how waterproof electronics are, from 1 (some water resistance) to 8 (totally waterproof). IPX 4 is more than adequate for rainstorms, but if you’re traveling on water, you may want a higher rating.
Battery Life: Most headlamps run on AAA or AA batteries. USB headlamps are typically lighter and have a shorter run time, but since they’re rechargeable they’re ideal for people who run in the mornings or evenings several times per week. (Some headlamps can use both.) Backcountry users may want a headlamp that works with standard batteries as well as USB so they can switch out the batteries if they die and there’s no available power source. Different headlamps can hold anywhere between a few and a few hundred hours of charge. Be aware that on the brightest mode, most headlamps will drain their charge up to four times faster.
Features: Features vary by headlamp. Red-light mode is one of the most useful you’ll see. Red light is much better for activities like reading a map or cooking over a stove, so overnight campers will appreciate it. It also keeps the battery alive longer. Emergency mode, where the headlamp works as a strobe to alert rescuers, is also useful for backcountry users. Most LED headlamps have high and low modes, useful for saving battery. Some also have adjustable beams and adjustable power levels.
Products to Consider: Runners and other athletes will want a headlamp that emphasizes light weight and comfort. Backpackers and campers will want long battery life and features like red light mode. Mountain climbers will want durability and beam strength above all else. Higher-end headlamps are typically more versatile. The LED Lenser SEO 7R combines a 220-lumen main bulb with a 3.3-ounce lightweight design. What sets it apart is versatility. It works with either AAA or USB, has an adjustable beam, and can automatically change its light levels based on ambient conditions using a proprietary technology called Optisense. It also uses a combination of lens and reflector to create a consistent beam at long distances and up close. The LED Lenser H7R.2 is a more powerful (300 lumens), slightly heavier version that uses the same technologies.
LED stands for Light-Emitting Diode. LEDs use a semiconductor to produce light. They show up in everything from computer monitors to car headlights. Because they are smaller and more energy efficient than other electric lights, white-light LEDs have become the gold standard for outdoor products like headlamps. Another advantage LED lights have over their counterparts is that brightness is more easily adjustable than with other technologies. Like other electronics, LED technology continues to improve every year.
Durable and Powerful
Design and Construction: A good flashlight is like a good knife — spending a little extra money will get you a product that performs great and lasts for years. Like headlamps, high-performance flashlights almost exclusively use LED bulbs. Unless you are looking for an ultra-bright spotlight, something in the range of 20 to 350 lumens should be adequate for your needs. Construction quality is another factor. Flashlights made with metal are more durable than plastic flashlights, and a good flashlight should have some level of weather resistance. A super-bright beam is nice, but what impresses us is build quality, adjustability and reliability. The IPX rating applies for flashlights as well — keep in mind that you’re far more likely to drop a flashlight in a puddle than a headlamp. You’ll want to consider the size and shape of the flashlight: you can get away with a big, heavy light if you’re car camping, but will need something more nimble if you’re on the move. Likewise, the controls on the light — whether push buttons, sliders or rotating parts — should be manageable in whatever conditions you expect to encounter (in gloves, with one hand, etc.).
Battery Life: Because most flashlights are bigger than headlamps, they can hold bigger batteries, though most are AA or AAA — or, again, USB. If you expect to require a heavy spotlight for a long time, you may want to bring a headlamp for personal use and a flashlight for light projection. As with headlamps, they lose charge much faster in spotlight and high-intensity modes.
Features: Flashlights have the same features as headlamps. Our essentials are an adjustable beam, multiple power settings (with spotlight mode), and one-button use. An adjustable beam will significantly increase your flashlight’s versatility, but ease of use should be your watchword when buying flashlights.
Products to Consider: The LED Lenser P7.2 is an example of a well-made multipurpose flashlight thanks to its durability and powerful, adjustable beam. Its one-button design allows it to be used as a 320-lumen spotlight or a reading light — and to be adjusted between modes very quickly. With a beam length of 260m on the highest power setting (more than two football fields), it’s ideal for situations in which a headlamp won’t offer enough power. As a compact, general-purpose flashlight that can survive everything from backpacking trips to hunting expeditions, it’s an excellent choice.