10 Best Ultralight Backpacking Headlamps (2018 Thru-Hiking Guide) - Greenbelly Meals

10 Best Ultralight Backpacking Headlamps


A guide to headlamps for lightweight backpacking and trail running.

best ultralight backpacking and trail running headlamps



We are NOT talking about high-powered lanterns designed to brighten up the family campsite nor beamlike spotlights designed to shine on distant wildlife. We are specifically talking about ultralight headlamps designed for long distance backpacking.

80% of of the time your headlamp will be used to illuminate small items in close range - gear in the tent or food while cooking, for example. The other 20% of the time your headlamp will be used for short walks at night. Therefore, you want to opt for a headlamp that will light up things nearby and illuminate the trail at night only when need be.

Notice I say it will be used for short walks and not full on hiking at night. A short walk might be going to fill up at the water source, use the bathroom, find firewood, etc. Usually, you will be at camp before nightfall and not hiking for miles in the dark. I understand hiking at night can be fun... and totally necessary during an emergency. But, these will not be the main uses for your headlamp and you should not buy one for these less common circumstances.

Let’s define what to look for further.


Top Considerations...


BRIGHTNESS: At least 30+ Lumens.

One lumen is a standard unit of measurement equivalent to the amount of light a single candle emits during a single second. Lumens are also used to measure the amount of light a headlamp puts out. The higher the lumens, the more light your headlamp emits.

Keep in mind bright headlamps with high lumens come with an achilles heel though - their batteries can drain at an alarmingly fast rate. Simply put, high-powered lights require more juice than low-powered lights. We’ll get to battery life in a minute. Just understand that there is a trade-off between lumens and battery life.

Honestly, I believe a 30 lumen headlamp is adequate. I know ultralight backpackers that actually hike with 10 lumen keychain flashlights that clip onto their hats. Technology has advanced so much though that you rarely see headlamps on the market with under 100 lumens anymore. I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail with a 60 lumen headlamp and it worked great.


ultralight backpacking and trail running headlamps petzl e+lite


LIGHTWEIGHT: 3 oz or less.

You will hike during the day. Therefore, your headlamp will be packed away… on your back almost all the time. Some more powerful backpacking headlamps get up to 10+ oz. No thanks. Keep it around 3 oz or less (including batteries). You should be able to get a headlamp with plenty of power for only a few ounces.


BEAM DISTANCE: At least 10+ Meters.

The light from your headlamp can be emitted in any direction. As you can imagine, a 70 lumen light bulb will emit light very differently than a 70 lumen spotlight. This is where beam distance matters. Beam distance measures how far the light goes. The beam distance of a headlamp can range from as low as 10 meters up to a whopping 200 meters. It really depends on how much night hiking you plan on doing. If night hiking, having a strong beam can really help cut through dense fog, identify slippery rocks on stream crossings, or assess the slope of the trail.


BATTERY LIFE: At least 30+ hours.

As mentioned, some high-powered headlamps suck the life out of batteries and, on their highest setting, can last a measly 2 hours. That’s pretty pathetic if you are planning on backpacking for several days at a time. Most headlamps come with a feature that lets you adjust the intensity of the beam, and thus, adjust the rate at which the battery is drained - also known as “run time”. In order to understand the full range of run time of a particular model, always look at the low end and high end of intensity.

On the low-intensity and battery-saving setting, a headlamp should always be able to last at least 20 hours. It should be able to last at least a few hours for every night you are out on the trail plus some in case of an emergency.


BATTERY RATINGS: Understand how they're calculated.

Manufacturers can be a little misleading on the battery hours listed. Let's say the 100 lumen headlamp is listed at 60 hours of battery life at maximum output. That leads you to believe that you will have 100 lumens of light output for 60 hours, right? Ehh, not really. That means at the maximum setting, it will start out emitting 60 lumens of light and slowly die down to nothing (0 lumens) after 100 hours. Kinda tricky and very important to know.


WATER RESISTANCE: At least 4+ IP X Rating.

There is a standard rating system used to measure the level of water resistance of electronics. Look for “IP X” followed by a number from 0 to 8 in the product description. As a point of reference: 0 means no resistance at all to water, 4 means it can handle splashing water and 8 means it is completely submersible. Go for one between 4 and 8.  


TILT: Preferably not "fixed".

Having a headlamp that can adjust to different angles is fairly standard. Be sure your headlamp can tilt in a few positions and is not fixed in place. Otherwise your tired head and neck will be relied on to adjust to each desired view.


STRAPS: Strap band vs string.

I vote keeping the straps simple and horizontal without that extra vertical strap commonly seen used on hard hats and helmets. Some ultralight headlamps come with a thin retractable string to strap around your head. Some come without any straps and only use a small clip for your visor or to attach to your pack’s shoulder strap. Others come with a 2-inch wide and well-cushioned elastic strap. Admittedly the small strings can be quite constricting and uncomfortable, like a wire.


headlamp flood and spotlight beam settingFlood (left) vs Spot (right)


BEAM SETTINGS:

  • Flood and Spot. Headlamps come with either a spotlight or flood setting. Most headlamps now provide both options to toggle between. The flood setting provides low intensity and broad light - like the lightbulb from a lamp. The spot setting provides a high intensity and sharp beam of light - like the spotlight from a theater performance. Get a headlamp with both flood and spot options. The fog is great for close up activities and the beam is great for seeing farther distance.

  • Red Option. I use the red light option just as much as the normal white LED settings. The dim red light might feel a bit strange at first, like you are in a military operation. But, it is very low-intensity and therefore, drains a minimal amount of battery. The red option is particularly great for close range activities at camp like reading and journaling where your other white setting could be blinding.

  • Signal Beacon. This is a continual flicker setting to be used as an emergency beacon. Thankfully, I have never needed to use this setting. It is comforting to have though.



10 Best Ultralight Backpacking Headlamps


best ultralight backpacking petzl e+lite emergency headlamp

PETZL: E+LITE

Price: $32.77 on amazon.com 

Lumens: 50  Weight: 0.92 oz.  

Max beam distance: 29m

Waterproofing: IPX7 (1m for 30mins)

If you want a headlamp for emergency uses, you can't go wrong with the E+Lite headlamp from Petzl. It is ultralight, weighing in at less than an ounce and is so compact, think walnut-sized, you won't even notice it in your pack. At 50 lumens, it doesn't throw a lot of light, but it's fine for night hiking in a pinch and using around the camp when its dark. The selector dial is dead simple to use. You can move it easily even with gloved hands and never have to guess what mode you are in. It also has a manual lock that prevents it from turning on accidentally in your pack.


best ultralight backpacking petzl zipka headlamp

PETZL: Zipka

Price: $29 on amazon.com  

Lumens: 200  Weight: 2.33 oz.  

Max beam distance: 80m

Waterproofing: IPX4 (water resistant)

Pocketable and powerful, the Petzl Zipka headlamp is a reliable headlamp that won't break the budget. The latest version of this timeless classic has a 200 lumens floodlight beam that is powered by AAA batteries, an option you'll appreciate when you need to resupply in town.  One of our favorite features is the self-adjusting retractable cord which replaces the elastic strap found on other lamps. Not only does it minimize the size and weight, but it also gives you lots of options to mount the light. It also has a handy reflective glow-in-the-dark trim so you can locate it quickly at night. Our chief complaint -- the Zipka does not tilt, so you'll have to move your head to direct the light where you want it.  



best ultralight backpacking firefly headlamp

FIREFLY: Ultralight Headlamp

Price: $19 on amazon.com 

Lumens: 40  Weight: 1 oz. 

Waterproofing: IPX6

Similar to the Petzl e+Lite, the FireFly Ultralight Headlamp is a compact, ultralight headlamp that is perfect for tossing into your backpack for emergency situations. The FireFLy outputs a maximum 40 lumens and is powered by two CR2032 batteries which help to keep the weight of the lamp down to around 1 ounce.  It has a cord-style strap and an integrated hat clip so you can mount it on your brim, on your belt or other places where you need light. It lacks the 10-year warranty of the Petzl e+Lite but is less expensive than its brand name counterpart.



best ultralight backpacking nitecore nu20 headlamp

NITECORE: NU20

Price: $29 on amazon.com 

Lumens: 360  Weight: 1.66 oz. 

Max beam distance: 87m

Waterproofing: IPX7 (1m for 30mins)

The Nitecore NU20 may look diminutive, but the compact headlamp packs a punch with its impressive 360 lumens LED. When you don't need a blast of light, the LED can be dialed down to an ultra-low 1 lumen for night work around the camp.  It ships with a 600mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery that charges via micro-USB and delivers up to 100 hours of usage on the ultra-low setting. It also is impact resistant up to 1.5m and has an IPX7 waterproof rating allowing you to use it safely in the rain.



best ultralight backpacking black diamond spot headlamp

BLACK DIAMOND: Spot

Price: $39 on amazon.com 

Lumens: 300  Weight: 3.25 oz. 

Max beam distance: 80m

Waterproofing: IPX8 (1.5m for 30mins)

The Spot from Black Diamond is an all-purpose headlamp that shines even when it is wet and wild outside. While other modestly priced lights offer IPX4 water resistance, the Spot provides IPX8 waterproofing that allows it to be submerged in up to 1.5 meters of water for 30 minutes. Another claim to fame is its three dimmable LED bulbs which include a high-power LED spot, a low-power LED flood, and a low-power red LED flood. Each of the three bulbs can be individually dimmed up or down using the lamp's touch-sensitive casing.  At maximum power, the Spot outputs a bright 300 lumens.



best ultralight backpacking petzl tikka headlamp

PETZL: Tikka

Price: $29 on amazon.com 

Lumens: 200  Weight: 3 oz. 

Max beam distance: 60m

Waterproofing: IPX4 (water resistant)

The Petzl Tikka is a solid, no-frills option for backpackers wanting a reliable headlamp. It has a standard single elastic headband, average weight, and a top-mounted button to switch between power modes and turn on red or white lighting. The Tikka delivers excellent battery life -- with fresh batteries, you can expect up to 60 hours of usage on high, 240 hours on low or 400 hours on strobe. It is powered by three AAA batteries or the optional Petzl’s CORE rechargeable battery pack.  It also is tilt-able allowing you to direct the light right where you need it.



best ultralight backpacking petzl actik core headlamp

PETZL: Actik Core

Price: $69 on amazon.com 

Lumens: 350  Weight: 2.9 oz. 

Max beam distance: 95m

Waterproofing: IPX4 (water resistant)

The Actik Core from Petzl is a must have headlamp if you are moving fast through the woods at night and need maximum brightness. The multibeam light (flood and spot) offers a whopping 350 lumens and has a reflective headband that lets you see and be seen. Simple to use, a single button on the top allows you to switch between different light levels and both red and white mode. The Actik Core ships with Petzl's Core USB rechargeable battery pack, but you can drop AAAs into the headlamp as an alternative. It also has regulated battery power which means the light will maintain its brightness and not dim as the battery drains. This is a big plus when having a bright light is mandatory.



best ultralight backpacking zebralight h52a headlamp

ZEBRALIGHT: H52A

Price: $64 on zebralight.com 

Lumens: 300  Weight: 2.9 oz. 

Waterproofing: IPX7 (1m for 30mins)

Zebra Light is known among lighting enthusiasts for its rugged build and even light output. The H52A headlamp delivers in both those categories with a durable aluminum casing and a 300 lumens light that stays bright across the entire beam and does not dim along the edges. Unlike other lights that are oval shaped, the H52 is a compact stick flashlight that uses a single AA battery. You can wear it horizontal across your forehead like a traditional headlamp, adjust it vertically so it sits on the side of your head or remove it entirely from the headband and hold it comfortably in your hand.



best ultralight backpacking princeton tec sync headlamp

PRINCETON TEC: Sync

Price: $29 on moosejaw.com  

Lumens: 150  Weight: 2.9 oz. 

Max beam distance: 38m

Waterproofing: IPX4 (water resistant)

Multiple modes and a discount price make the Princeton Tec Sync an excellent choice for backpackers operating on a budget. The Tec Sync uses a side dial to switch between modes, allowing you to move between a red LED, a spotlight, a flood beam, or a combined spot/flood for maximum illumination. At its max, the Tec Sync outputs 150 lumens, which is not the brightest bulb in our lineup but adequate for most nighttime activities. Its smooth beam works great as a camp light, but its 38-meter throw may leave you wanting for more distance when night hiking. The Tec Sync is powered by three AAA batteries and delivers up to 72 hours of run time at its maximum output.



best ultralight backpacking clip lights headlamp

DIY: “Clip Lights”

Price: $15 on amazon.com

Lumens: 10  Weight: 0.25 oz. 

Waterproofing: IPX7 (1m for 30mins)

Clip lights are favored by ultralight backpackers who strive to shed every ounce of weight from their kit. With a price tag under $15, these quarter-sized keychain flashlights are affordable and lightweight (0.25 ounces). They are easy to attach anywhere you need them, but their 10 lumens output is meager. This level is adequate for working around the camp, but not bright enough for technical nighttime hiking by most hikers. They are a niche item for backpackers who are not bothered by the darkness and willing to sacrifice light output for lightweight.



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By Kelly Hodgkins and Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.



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