A guide to rechargeable headlamps for ultralight backpacking and trail running.
"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
Once you’ve arrived at camp and set up for the night, there’s one gadget in your pack that’s about to have its “moment to shine.” Literally! Whether you need lighting to find your way around camp, refill your water supply or are wanting to journal about your daily adventures, a headlamp is a necessity that keeps your hands free and your task at hand properly illuminated.
Headlamps are a great option for camp lighting in place of flashlights, spotlights and lanterns. They’re extremely compact, lightweight, and offer a variety of different lighting options. In recent years, headlamps have gone even further in their technology with implementing Lithium-Ion, rechargeable batteries that are quickly gaining popularity. As battery bank and solar technology advances, rechargeable headlamps' ease of use, quality lighting options and environmentally friendly technology are making them a more viable option for many thru-hikers.
When using a rechargeable headlamp, you’re guaranteed to have the same constant light output throughout the entire battery’s life. With disposable batteries, their brightness will decrease over time as they lose their power. Also, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Shorter 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.
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.
Brightness: 100 LUMENS AND UP
A headlamps brightness is measured in lumens, which is a unit of measurement that rates the overall luminous flux, or light energy being emitted. 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. Something to keep in mind is that although a higher lumen count may give off stronger lighting, it will also burn your batteries faster... and is unnecessaily bright. Nowadays, most headlamps come with a lumen output of at least 100-200.
There are three different light and brightness factors to take into consideration when comparing rechargeable and disposable battery powered headlamps. Disposable batteries have standard lighting, while rechargeable batteries have constant and reactive lighting.
Beam Distance: AT LEAST 30M
Right alongside lumens, another standard unit of measurement for headlamps is the beam distance. Beam distance is commonly measured in total meters of useable light reached.
The battery life and lumen count of your headlamp will affect the overall beam distance. The standard max beam distance offered in both rechargeable and disposable battery headlamps is anywhere between 50-100 meters. Whereas disposable batteries can lose power over time and decrease beam distance, rechargeable headlamps beam distance will stay the same no matter what level the batteries at.
Light strength can be adjusted using a small knob on the Princeton Tec Axis
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 – This setting provides the farthest and most direct beam of light available for your headlamp. This setting would be ideal for seeing long distances.
Floodlight – The floodlight setting illuminates the area directly around you. It’s less bright overall compared to the spotlight, and is best for maneuvering around camp, reading, writing, or working on projects.
Red – Most headlamps come with a red-light option, and using this feature will help preserve your battery. It puts out enough red light to see directly around you, and like the floodlight, is best used in close proximity while also saving on battery life.
Signal Beacon – The signal beacon setting, or as some call it 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.
Comfort: 2-BAND VS. 3-BAND STRAPS
It’s important to make sure your headlamp fits correctly and comfortably. This in large will be based on the straps it has. 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. 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.
Example of a wide, comfortable 2-band strap (Foxelli MX200)
Water Resistance: ANY RATING BELOW IPX4 IS NOT WATER-RESISTANT
The resistance level in headlamps is measured on an “IP” or “Ingress Protection” rating system. This system measures the level of protection against factors like dust and contact with other substances including water. Knowing the IP rating of your headlamp will help determine what elements it can face. Headlamps are rated anywhere from IPX1-IPX8, with IPX8 being maximum protection. When buying a headlamp, look for a product that has a rating of at least IPX4 or higher. At IPX4, your headlamp will be protected against water splashing or spraying, but it will not withstand full submersion.
Battery Life: MINIMUM 2 HOURS ON HIGH MODE, 40 HOURS ON LOW MODE
Disposable batteries are known to have a longer overall burn time; however, Lithium Ion rechargeable batteries have a few advantages of their own. The first being that they are better at holding their charge when in cold weather. Also, with rechargeable batteries you won’t ever have to play the guessing game at how much power you have available. As long as you’ve got your USB power source with you, just give your headlamp a quick charge and you can head out knowing that you have full battery life.
Charging Methods: USB CHARGING IS THE GO-TO
Rechargeable batteries today are commonly charged by being plugged into a USB port. Most headlamps come with one or two USB cables that will plug in to portable battery devices.
Tilt - 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.
The BioLite (left) and Petzl (right) apps let you monitor battery life and control your headlamp's beam settings from a smartphone.
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.
This rechargeable headlamp is known for its mighty powerful light. A favorite among rock climbers, night skiers, mountaineers and early morning trail runners, its compact size puts out a fierce amount of light that’s been measured to reach up to 90 meters. Another bonus feature is that this headlamp comes with a removable micro-USB rechargeable battery that’s warrantied up to 300 charging cycles.
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.
One of the most popular headlamps on the market thanks to its cost and quality, the TIKKINA is straightforward, small, and offer’s a long burn time. Although this headlamp isn’t bought as rechargeable, it comes in a hybrid option that can pair with the Petzl CORE battery. The Petzl CORE battery is a lightweight, high-efficiency Lithium-ION battery that holds a charge at low temperatures. A USB port can recharge it, and according to testing, it’s equivalent to the charge of 900 AAA batteries. This headlamp paired with the rechargeable battery is lightweight, cost efficient, and ideal for travelling, camping, or hiking in colder climates.
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. This would be an excellent option for trail runners, mountain bikers, or climbers.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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*: see this page for a breakdown of the different IP waterproof and water-resistant standards.
By Katie Licavoli: Katie Licavoli is a content writer, author and outdoor enthusiast. When not reading or writing away, she's out running, hiking, backpacking, snowboarding, or sailing the great lakes in northern Michigan.
About Greenbelly: 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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