A Hands Free Alternative to a Flashlight
Many hikers have turned to headlamps as their primary source of light. A headlamp is a light source that attaches with one or more straps to your forehead, allowing your hands to remain free. They are reliable, full of fun and useful options and enough variety exists to suit nearly any purpose.
Incandescent or LED?
Your first criteria will be to choose the type of bulb: incandescent or LED.
Incandescent bulbs are common, easy to find, inexpensive, but are less durable than LEDs. Because they emit most of their energy in heat (rather than light) they tend to decrease in brightness as they age. This can be prevented by using the newer gas-filled bulbs where the soot produced by the heat generated is deposited on the filament rather than the bulb.
LEDs are plastic light - emitting diodes and not bulbs at all. They are more durable than incandescent bulbs initially, but because of LED’s longer battery and bulb life, they are likely less expensive in the long run. Another benefit of LED’s (and the subject of this site) is their extreme ultralight weight. It is possible to find a headlamp less than 2 ounces, including batteries.
Whichever model you choose, be sure that it is waterproof, not just water-resistant. Water entering your unit and shorting it out does not need to be a concern to you on the trail. Another important feature is a locking switch. Reaching for your illumination tool to find that it has inadvertently been turned on in your pack and has little or no power left is not amusing. Be sure that it can be locked in the “off” position at least.
You will find a wide variety of options available for different headlamp models. Following are some worth considering. Your personal needs, wants and desires will dictate the best model for you.
Head Straps--Basically, you will find models with one or three head straps. Extra straps allow more versatility to how you wear the light source, making it possible to be worn against the forehead or even over a hat or helmet. Your sport and how you intend to use the headlamp will determine which is better for you. Obviously, extra straps will slightly increase weight.
Adjustable Angle--Some hikers enjoy a headlamp with an adjustable angle. This means that you can tilt the head of the lamp downward to read a book or view something that you are working on in your lap as well as light the path ahead of you. This is particularly useful if you find yourself needing to make an equipment repair after dark.
Adjustable Lens--Like hand-helds, better headlamps offer a lens that will adjust from flood to spot.
Adjustable Battery Pack--Many headlamp models have adjustable or detachable battery packs allowing you to move the batteries off of the head gear to clip to your belt or other convenient place. Advantages here include making the head gear lighter as well as placing alkaline batteries under clothing where they stay warmer, improving effectiveness and longevity.
Filters--You will find a variety of filters available for your headlamp. The most useful filter for the ultralight hiker is probably a red filter. It saves your night vision while providing extra illumination at the same time.
Multiple LEDs--More often we are seeing models with multiple LEDs. This model makes for a brighter, more illuminating model than a single LED. This is certainly an improvement worth considering.
Boost Mode--You may find that a short-term boost of power (brightness) while trying to locate the trail or consult your map is beneficial. If so, this option is available on many models.
Current Regulator--Many hikers are annoyed by the fact that their headlamp is very bright at first and then tends to diminish as time wears on. A current regulator will help to maintain a more balanced, or constant level of light output throughout most of the life of the batteries. Nearing the end of the battery life, it will automatically switch to a power-saving mode to allow you time to find and replenish the batteries while some light remains.
Strobes--In an emergency situation, a light source can help rescuers find you. Easier to see than a steady beam of light is a strobe light. Additionally, a strobe light uses less energy and thereby doesn’t drain the batteries as quickly as a steady light.
Button or Keychain-type LEDs as a Backup
I like to keep one of the button or keychain-type LEDs attached to my belt loop when I hike. It weighs less than one-fourth of an ounce and takes up no more room than a quarter. It is a quickly and easily used extra source of light when I need to find something. It could, in a pinch, serve as my only light if my primary source failed for some reason. However, I would never, for the sake of ounce-shaving, rely on it alone.
This tiny light is useful when I am moving about camp after dark but beyond the glow of the fire. Sometimes I use it to locate nearby firewood, find my way safely to my tent, or dig around inside my pack looking for a tea bag. I have even used it to read a book in my tent. I attached a short piece of leather to mine so I could hang it from the gear loop in the top of my tent, illuminating the whole tent.
These lights are usually activated by squeezing the sides together or mashing a small button. When you let go, the light goes out. My favorite has a switch that locks in the “on” position so I don’t have to continue squeezing it for continued use, like reading or walking around camp.
Need vs. Desire
Carefully evaluate your needs versus your desires. Remember that having every single optional accessory is going to add weight. As with all ultralight gear choices, determine what you will REALLY use and what just “sounds cool”. Take what you need and leave the rest to those who carry their gear in a pick-up truck rather than on their back.
Return from Headlamps to Ten Essentials
Return from Headlamps to Ultimate Ultralight Backpacking