When the sun goes down, the fun is usually just getting started. There's no need to be left out! A good headlamp keeps your hands free for work or play. Once you use one, you'll wonder how you ever got along without it. But now, which one to buy? Hmmm.... And how much difference is there really in a $15.00 lamp vs. a $70.00 lamp?
As with most things, technology comes with a price. New advancements in bulb technology however have created a generation of headlamps that are truly phenomenal. A quick evaluation of your intended use should allow you to see the proverbial “light” concerning the right lamp for your task. Will you be just piddling around camp and reading in your tent, or will you be caving, night hiking, climbing or skiing? The answer to that question determines how much light you really need and what will be an acceptable trade-off on battery life. Let's break down a few features.
Two bulb types could broadly encompass the whole of headlamp bulbs. Our choices are some form of gas filled bulb with a metal filament such as a Xenon Halogen bulb vs. one of the newer LED (light emitting diode). Both have strong points though the newest “super” LEDs are really beginning to blur the distinction.
The many gas filled bulb varieties tend to offer the very brightest and longest beam length though you shouldn't count out the newest LEDs in this department either. The downside of the gas filled varieties is comparably low battery life. You may also notice that the brightness of these bulbs begins to taper off fairly quickly, even when lots of battery life still remains. To combat this weakness, some of the manufacturers incorporate special regulating circuitry. While not really extending the battery life per se, it does tend to help maintain a more consistent light level as the batteries discharge.
The strong point of the LED
is it's battery sipping character. Though high wattage LEDs definitely consume more battery than the standard LED bulb (confusingly labeled “SuperBright”), battery life for even the 3 watt LED is generally at least 10-20 times that of Xenon. The LED bulbs themselves are also very durable and last for an insanely long time. High wattage LEDs and special lens assemblies help the LED concentrate light to a neat beam and are allowing new generation lamps to thrive in sports such as caving, night skiing and climbing and other areas once dominated by gas filled varieties.
To get the best of both worlds, some lamps offer a gas filled bulb with a secondary array of “SuperBright” LEDs. Most notable among these would be the Petzl MyoLite 3
. This “Hybrid” lamp is incredibly versatile offering optimum power when you need it and a battery conserving option when you don't. If you really need the incredible brightness of the Xenon, this makes the choice much easier to swallow.
The beam length should reflect the distance you can expect to have useable light, though the definition of useable light certainly seems to vary between manufacturers so the numbers here are a bit subjective. As you compare the specs on various lamps, it's good to keep this fact in mind. Although the Xenon are laser bright with terrific range, it's certainly fair to say that the 3 watt LEDs offer retina charring brightness as well along with superb battery performance. Great examples of the high wattage LEDs would be the Black Diamond Icon
, the Princeton Tec Apex
or the incredible Petzl Myo RXP
Of course, not all tasks require extreme levels of light anyway. If long beam length isn't a priority, the various units with “SuperBright” LEDs are a much better choice. Besides their lower initial cost, they save money on batteries and are much easier on the eyes of other members of your party. Their compact size, light weight and low cost make them essential equipment around camp, even for those owning brighter lights. Folks looking for one of these handy units should consider the Petzl Tikka 2
, Petzl Tikka Plus 2
, Petzl Tikka XP 2
, or the diminutive Petzl Zipka 2
, Petzl Zipka Plus 2
, or one of the MANY other terrific choices. Petzl's newest models such as the Petzl Tikka 2 CORE
and Petzl Tikka XP 2 CORE
even feature a programmable rechargeable battery for outstanding performance.
The last question is always something akin to “just how bright is bright anyway”. There is unfortunately no good way to answer. Headlamp brightness is measured in Lumens at an optimal distance from the source (not necessarily the same light that reaches the area you wish to illuminate.)
So how bright is a lumen? A Lumen is a unit used in the hugely confusing science of light measurement. We folk of normal brain mass look for a non-scientific way to relate to Lumens, something along the lines of, “How many blondes does it take to screw in a lumen”, or perhaps “if a lumen shines in the woods through a solid angle of 1 steradian by a point source of 1 candela intensity radiating uniformly in all directions and no one is there to see it, is it still as bright as all the candles on Aunt Erma's 80th birthday cake?” The water is muddied even further as we consider that the amount of light delivered to a specific area has much to do with lens / reflector assembly design as well as brute brightness.
Still Lumen measurements can help us in comparing various models of lamps, especially from the same manufacturer. For this reason, you'll see that we've attempted to include this info when it is available to us. Hopefully you've got a good idea now of the lamp type you'll need for your sport. When the sun goes down, get your lamp and join the fun!