12 Best Ultralight Backpacking Headlamps

A guide to the best headlamps for ultralight backpacking and trail running.

Updated on March 2nd, 2021

 

At a Glance:

‣ A backpacking headlamp is used primarily to light up things nearby, and only illuminate the trail at night occasionally.

‣ Headlamps for ultralight backpacking should weigh less than 2 oz, have at least a 30 lumen brightness, and have a battery life of at least 40 hours on the dimmest setting.

‣ Headlamps should have an IPX (water-proofness) rating of at least 4 and have a beam distance minimum of 10 meters.

‣ Rechargeable headlamps are more cost efficient in the long run and they’re better for the environment.

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.

Your headlamp will be used for short walks but 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.

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.

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


Things to Consider

WEIGHT: 2 OZ OR LESS

Most headlamps will weigh anywhere between 2-4 oz, and since disposable batteries are typically grouped together to provide power, you’ll have to pack enough backup batteries if going on a long thru-hike. This can definitely add weight to your pack. But with rechargeable batteries, you only have to pack the battery and a USB charger, which will save on weight and storage space.

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.


BRIGHTNESS: 
 AT LEAST 30 LUMENS

A 30 lumen headlamp is adequate. We know ultralight backpackers that actually hike with 10 lumen keychain flashlights that clip onto their hats. That said, technology has advanced so much though that you rarely see headlamps on the market with under 100 lumens anymore.

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.

For example, most indoor lighting you’ll find ranges anywhere between 200-300 lumens. Most headlamps offer a wide range of lumen output settings so you can adjust the brightness to fit the specific task at hand.

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.

The side dial lets you dim or brighten the lamp (Princeton Tec Axis)

BEAM DISTANCE: AT LEAST 10M

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. However, the standard max beam distance offered in both rechargeable and disposable battery headlamps these days is between 50 and 100 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. Besides direction, the battery life and lumen count of your headlamp will also affect the overall beam distance. 

What you'll need 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.


BEAM SETTINGS: SPOTLIGHT, FLOODLIGHT, RED LIGHT AND STROBE

Another great feature about headlamps is their adjustable beam settings. There are many options to fit all your night-time lighting needs. Here are the most common settings and what they were designed for:

  • Spotlight: The spot setting provides a high intensity and sharp beam of light—like the spotlight from a theater performance. This setting provides the farthest and most direct beam of light available for a headlamp. This setting is ideal for seeing long distances.

  • Floodlight: The floodlight setting illuminates the area directly around you. It provides low intensity and broad light—like the lightbulb from a lamp. It’s less bright overall compared to the spotlight, and is best for close-up activities like maneuvering around camp, reading, writing, or working on projects.

  • Red: This setting is very low-intensity and, therefore, drains a minimal amount of battery. Lots of hikers use the red light instead of the normal white LED for that reason. The dim red light might feel a bit strange at first, like you are in a military operation, but you'll soon get used to it. Like the floodlight, is best used in close proximity while also saving on battery life.

  • Signal Beacon: The signal beacon setting (aka the ‘strobe action’) puts out a red blinking light. This beam setting was designed to be used in case of emergencies, as the flashing red light can be seen from far away and is recognized universally as a distress signal. 

flood mode vs spot food headlamp

COMFORT: 2-BAND VS 3-BAND STRAP

Most headlamps come offered in either a two-band or three-band option. Where a 2-band headlamp wraps directly around your noggin, a three-band option has an extra band that goes over the top of your head.

We 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.

Most straps today are made from elastic that can be adjusted, removed and even washed. While adjusting your straps, make sure they’re tight enough to hold your headlamp in place while walking or running, but not too tight where your giving yourself a headache.

biolite ultralight headlamp strapExample of a wide, comfortable 2-band strap (Biolite)

TYPES OF LIGHT: STANDARD, CONSTANT, REACTIVE   

Whereas some batteries (single-use and rechargeable alike) can lose power over time and decrease beam distance, others will stay the same no matter what level the batteries are at.

  • Standard lighting: brightness decreases because the battery is losing power. This is a common problem with disposable batteries as well as rechargeable headlamps. 
  • Constant lighting: the headlamp’s brightness and light emitted stay consistent over the entire burn time. Foxelli's MX200 headlamp is one of the few ultralight headlamps on our list that offers constant lighting. In other words, you’re guaranteed to have the same constant light output throughout the entire battery’s life.
  • Reactive lighting: a headlamp auto-adjusts its light output level based on its environment.

Black Diamond

WATER RESISTANCE: AT LEAST 4+ IP X RATING

The water resistance level in headlamps is measured on an “IP” or “Ingress Protection” rating system. Look for “IPX” followed by a number from 0 to 8 in the product description. As a point of reference:

  • IPX0 means no resistance at all to water
  • IPX4 means it can handle splashing water
  • IPX8 means it is completely submersible.

When buying a headlamp, look for a product that has a rating between IPX4 and IPX8. 


BATTERY LIFE: 
MINIMUM 2 HOURS ON HIGH MODE, 40 HOURS ON LOW MODE

Some high-powered headlamps suck the life out of batteries and, on their highest setting, can last a measly 2 hours. That’s pretty thin if you are planning on backpacking for several days at a time. Most headlamps let you adjust the intensity of the beam, and thus, adjust the rate at which the battery is drained (aka “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. That's a few hours for every night you are out on the trail plus some in case of an emergency.

petzl iko rechargeable backpacking headlamp
Petzl Core battery and IKO headlamp


10 Best Ultralight Backpacking Headlamps

Rechargeable headlamps have several great features compared to their disposable battery counterparts. They’re more cost efficient in the long run, the lighting output is more consistent and they’re better for the environment. If you’re interested in purchasing one yourself, here’s a few of the top options out on the market today.

Weight Lumens Beam Distance Run Time (Max Power) Price
Black Diamond Spot 350 1.9 oz 350 86 m 3.75 hrs $40
Petzl IKO 2.8 oz 500 100 m 2.5 hrs $90
Petzl ACTIK CORE 2.6 oz 450 90 m 2 hrs $65
Petzl BINDI 1.2 oz 200 36 m 2 hrs $45
Petzl TIKKA 2.9 oz 300 65 m 2 hrs $30
BioLite 330 2.4 oz 330 75 m 3.5 hrs $60
Nitecore NU25 1 oz 360 81 m 30 min $37
Fenix HM50R 2.2 oz 500 80 m 2.5 hrs $65
Monoprice Pure Outdoor 2.2 oz 215 150 m 2.5 hrs $14
Foxelli MX200 2.4 oz 180 90 m 5 hrs $15
Princeton Tec Axis 2.9 oz 450 58 1.25 hrs $50
DIY: "Clip Lights" 0.25 oz. 4.5 U/K 18 hrs $15

black diamon spot headlamp
Black Diamond Spot 350

  • Price: about $40
  • Weight: 3 oz
  • Lumens: 350 Max
  • Max Beam Distance: 86 m
  • Waterproofing: IPX8* 
  • Run time:
    Low = 200 hours
    High = 3.75 hours

Powered by a single rechargeable lithium ion battery, this tiny palm-sized light is perfect for trail runners and trail hikers who are looking for a reliable, basic headlamp without all the extra’s. This headlamp has three settings: full light, dimming and strobe. It also has a three-level power meter that shows the remaining battery life for the first three seconds after turning it on.

Available from Amazon

petzl iko headlamp
Petzl IKO

  • Price: $90
  • Weight:  2.8 oz
  • Lumens: 500
  • Max Beam Distance: 100 m
  • Waterproofing: IPX4*
  • Run time:
    Low = 100 hours
    Average = 9 hours
    High = 2.5 hours

The IKO is Petzl's most newest headlamp. Extremely versatile and lightweight, it's an obvious choice for a wide range of outdoor adventures.

The Petzl IKO looks like no other headlamp out there. Once you put it on, you'll find that its weight is neatly distributed around the head, making it comfortable to wear for hours at a time.

And it's not just its design that is remarkable, its performance too. This headlamp offers 350 lumens and can be worn around the neck, used as a freestanding lantern, wrapped around a branch or pole as a mounted spotlight.

You can power it using the three AAA batteries it ships with or using the compatible CORE rechargeable battery instead. The CORE battery not only makes the IKO 0.4 oz lighter, it also increases its brightness capacity by 150 lumens.

Available from Amazon
Petzl Actik rechargeable headlamp

Petzl ACTIK CORE

  • Price: $65
  • Weight: 2.6 oz
  • Lumens: 450 Max
  • Max Beam Distance: 90 m
  • Waterproofing: IPX4*
  • Run time:
    Low = 130 hours
    Average = 8 hours
    High = 2 hours

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.

Available from Amazon
Petzl Bindi rechargeable headlamp

Petzl BINDI

  • Price: $45
  • Weight: 1.2 oz
  • Lumens: 200 Max
  • Max Beam Distance: 36 m
  • Waterproofing: IPX4*
  • Run time:
    Low = 50 hours
    Average = 3 hours
    High = 2 hours

Super compact and ultra-lightweight, this entire USB rechargeable headlamp is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. It’s held in place by two adjustable elastic cords instead of the traditional headband, and although cords might sound unreliable, reviewers have said they make for a quite comfortable and secure fit. This headlamp has a nice “reserve” mode, which stores 3 lumens of light for an extra 1.5 hours after the batteries run dry. It also has an emergency red strobe that’s visible for 400 meters and will run for 200 hours. One limitation to this compact headlamp however is that the overall battery power is almost half that of its competitors. This headlamp would be best for urban running or tamer hikes. 

Available from Amazon
best ultralight backpacking petzl tikka headlamp

Petzl: TIKKA

  • Price: $30
  • Weight:  2.9 oz
  • Lumens: 300 Max
  • Max Beam Distance: 65 m
  • Waterproofing: IPX4*
  • Run time:
    Low = 120 hours
    Average = 9 hours
    High = 2 hours

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.

Available from Amazon

BioLite rechargeable headlamp
BioLite HeadLamp 330

  • Price: $60
  • Weight: 2.4 oz
  • Lumens: 330
  • Max Beam Distance: 75 m
  • Waterproofing: IPX4*
  • Run time:
    Low = 40 hours
    High = 3.5 hours 

Upon first glance, you’ll notice this rechargeable headlamp is different from the rest. With its slim-fit construction and its light built right into the adjustable strap, this headlamp sits flush against your forehead. This stops any chance of bounce, and since the band itself is designed with moisture-wicking fabric, it also helps keep your forehead cool and dry. The light settings (red, spot, strobe, etc) were not intuitive. However, after watching this video, it all made sense ;)

If you're looking for something more performant, check out the Biolite HeadLamp 750 that delivers up to 750 lumens and can light up to 130 meters ahead (5.3 oz).

Available from Amazon
Nitecore NU25 rechargeable headlamp

Nitecore NU25

  • Price: $36.95
  • Weight: 1 oz
  • Lumens: 360 Lumens
  • Max Beam Distance: 81 m
  • Waterproofing: IPX6*
  • Run time:
    Low = 160 hours
    Standard = 8 hours
    High = 5 hours
    Turbo = 30 mins

The Nitecore NU25 is a headlamp that charges in a record time of 2 hours. It has a beam with 360 Lumens of power that will reach just about the length of a football field, and it offers 10 different lighting options including low light, harsh light, on the hunt or ‘in distress,’ just to name a few. Practical, bright and with a quick charge time, this headlamp would be good for hiking, camping, backpacking or thru-hiking.

Available on Amazon
Fenix HM50R rechargeable headlamp

Fenix HM50R

  • Price: $65
  • Weight: 2.2 oz
  • Lumens: 500 Lumens
  • Max Beam Distance: 80m
  • Waterproofing: IPX8*
  • Run time:
    Low = 90 hours
    Medium = 24 hours
    High = 10 hours
    Turbo = 2.5 hours

Lightweight, built with an indestructible body and the most waterproof option on this list, the Fenix releases a beam that will reach over 250 feet. It’s composed from aircraft-grade aluminum that carries a lifetime guarantee against defects in materials or workmanship. It also comes with replacement parts and a 5-year, free warranty that repairs any damage related to normal use. This headlamp does not offer a red LED function.

Available from Fenix
Monoprice Pure Outdoor rechargeable headlamp

Monoprice Pure Outdoor

  • Price: $14
  • Weight: 2.2 oz
  • Lumens: 215 Lumens
  • Max Beam Distance: 150m
  • Waterproofing: IPX4*
  • Run time: 2.5 hours high

Weighing a meager 2.2 oz and coming in at a cost of just $13, this rechargeable headlamp puts out a powerful amount of light at a long distance for a very reasonable price. It has glow in the dark control buttons and a red-light mode for nocturnal quests. This straightforward headlamp would work well either for hiking in the backcountry or for urban use.

Available from Amazon
Foxelli MX200 rechargeable headlamp

Foxelli MX200

  • Price: $14.97
  • Weight: 2.4 oz
  • Lumens: 180 Lumen
  • Max Beam Distance: 90M
  • Waterproofing: IPX5*
  • Run time:
    Low = 40 hours
    Medium = 10 hours
    High = 5 hours

Paired with not only one, but two micro USB cables, this rechargeable headlamp has 3 different white and 2 LED red light options. It has excellent tilt capabilities that allow it to adjust up or down 45 degrees, and has a battery indicator light that turns green when fully charged. It comes in at an overall waterproof rating of IPX5, which puts it just higher than several competitors. The adjustable strap also makes for a comfortable fit and the on/off/light setting button is easily accessible at the top of the headlamp. This headlamp would be great for hiking in tough terrain or shorter backpacking trips.

Available from Amazon
Princeton Tec Axis rechargeable headlamp

Princeton Tec Axis

  • Price: $50
  • Weight: 2.9 oz
  • Lumens: 450 Lumen
  • Max Beam Distance: 58 m
  • Waterproofing: IPX4*
  • Run time:
    Low = 120 hours
    High = 1.25 hours

Designed for activities such as hunting, hiking and caving in mind, the Princeton Tec Axis is a well-designed, power-packed rechargeable headlamp. Emitting 450 Lumens, the large side push button and dial lets you dim or brighten each light setting. The rechargeable battery guarantees up to 1000 charges under normal use, and the company offers a 5-year limited warranty along with the product.

Available from Amazon
diy headlamp ultralight

DIY: “Clip Lights”

  • Price: $15
  • Weight: 0.25 oz
  • Lumens: 4.5 Lumen
  • Max Beam Distance: U/K
  • Waterproofing: IPX7
  • Run time: 18 hours

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.

Available from Amazon

Additional Features

TILT

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. The overall tilt your headlamp has is a great benefit because it lets you easily point and direct your light wherever you need it. With a headlamp that tilts, you can point the beam down, up or straight ahead, focusing the beam however suits you best. The level of tilt offered varies with each product, as some headlamps give free rein, while others will have predetermined settings built in. 


BRIGHTNESS SENSOR:
REACTIVE TECHNOLOGY

Reactive technology in rechargeable headlamps is a light sensing feature that helps extend battery life. It works by automatically adjusting the light from your headlamp to properly suit your environment. Reactive technology detects the amount of light that’s directing back into the headlamp’s sensors, thus putting out the proper lighting needed. This is a great feature that will not only extend battery life, but also will allow you to go from looking down a trail, to close at a map seamlessly. Reactive technology is great, but there is one downfall… it doesn’t take bugs into account. So, if one flies in front of you, you better believe your headlamp will adjust accordingly.


ON/OFF LOCK

When shopping for headlamps, checking if it has an on/off lock is something to take into consideration. This is an added feature that can ensure your headlamp doesn’t accidentally get switched on in your pack during the day, which would inevitably lead you to a light-less night.


SMARTPHONE CONTROL

If you’re an App fan and enjoy having your techy gadgets synced to your smartphone, then there’s technology and headlamps nowadays that let you do so. With a Bluetooth-enabled headlamp you can sync the program to your phone, which lets you quickly check your remaining battery power, set specific lighting profiles, and even adjust your headlamps brightness. As for safety benefits, with a Bluetooth enabled headlamp you can type a distress message on your phone, and your headlamp will convert that message into a flashing Morse code signal.


BATTERY INDICATOR

Some rechargeable headlamps even provide a built-in battery indicator so you’ll always know when it’s time to recharge. Other headlamps have small lights on them that will communicate this when plugged in by flashing green to show “fully charged,” or blink red communicating it needs a longer charge time.

nightsky lit with headlamp


Rechargeable Headlamps vs. Batteries

LIGHTING

With rechargeable batteries, you can fully charge your headlamp ahead of time knowing you're going out on the trails with 100% power. With a disposable option, you may be left gambling with just how much battery life you actually have left.

"I hate trying to gauge if my batteries are full or not... and then going to the store to buy some just in case they're not full." -Chris, Founder


COST

Although the initial cost of a rechargeable headlamp is higher up front, if you use your headlamp often there’s no doubt that it’ll end up saving you money in the long run. Since most rechargeable headlamp batteries are good for hundreds of hours and around 700 cycles, you won’t have to worry about constantly buying disposable batteries, which let’s face it… can add up.


WEIGHT

When using a rechargeable headlamp, all you need is the headlamp itself and a small power source to recharge. Since most rechargeable headlamps come with a USB charging cable, a portable USB power bank would work perfectly. This will save weight on carrying around packages of disposable batteries. That said, most rechargeable headlamps offer a back-up option to be powered by batteries, so you may want to carry one set of disposable batteries in case the headlamp runs out juice and you don't have access to a power source to recharge.

USB charging port (Biolite)

ECO-FRIENDLINESS

If you’d like to get some brownie points with mother nature, choosing a rechargeable headlamp over a disposable option is a great step in the right direction. First off, you won’t have anything to throw away once your battery loses its charge. Just plug it back in for a few hours and your good to go! Second, you won’t have to worry about hauling around those dead batteries in your pack to properly dispose of after they’ve run dry.


BATTERY LIFE

There are a few downfalls to rechargeable headlamps compared to disposable options. The first being that rechargeable batteries will lose their charge when not being used. The second is overall burn time. Depending on the setting of your headlamp, a rechargeable battery can give off 40-90 hours of lighting per charge. A disposable battery has been said to double that time, although the overall light output will get dimmer.


📷
Some of the photos in this post were taken by Jonathan Davis (@meowhikes)

Kelly Hodgkins photo

About Kelly Hodgkins

By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.

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After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

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