Updated Aug 16, 2022 12:46 PM
Whether I’m on a day hike or a multi-night trek, I always bring a headlamp. But finding the best headlamp for hiking can take some trial and error. There are tons of cheap options on the market, however, these can let you down when it counts.
The good news is that within all of the available headlamp varieties, there are quality ones that will fit your hiking needs. In my experience, the best headlamps are the ones with enough light to see in various situations, provide decent battery life, and include extra features for extended applications.
If you’re looking for the best headlamp for your next outdoor adventure, check out my top picks. Before you do that, though, read through our buying considerations. That way, if you don’t see one that fits your needs on our list, you’ll have the knowledge you need to make an educated buying decision.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Headlamp for Hiking
Yes, this article is about the best headlamps for hiking, but is hiking the only thing you’re going to use one for? Headlamps come in handy in a multitude of situations. For instance, I even keep one in my car just in case I need to change a flat in the dark or stop to let my dogs out on a long drive.
Knowing the intended use is still relevant because different activities need different light sources. For instance, if you plan to go trail running through the winter, you’ll likely need an extremely bright headlamp that can throw light far enough ahead to illuminate the trail as you go. However, if you’re looking for a headlamp for daily use around the house on projects from time to time, you may not need one with as many features.
So, when looking at a headlamp for hiking, not only are we looking for a level of brightness and range, but we want some extra features as well. Look for a headlamp that has multiple output settings, especially if you’re backpacking. That way, you can use the brighter beams when hiking around and lower beams for things like cooking a meal early in the morning.
You will see the lumens listed on most headlamps as a unit of measurement. The lumens of a headlamp is the light it can produce. Lumens gauge the overall light quality emitted by the source in all directions.
So, typically the higher the lumens, the brighter and stronger the light source. However, that is not always the case. How well the headlamp is designed to distribute the light can also impact the overall brightness. This means that two headlamps with the same lumen rating on the label may appear to have varying brightness levels pending the overall design in terms of focusing and directing the light.
Keep in mind that higher lumens, the faster the headlamp will consume energy. The lumens will almost always be labeled either in the name of the headlamp or at least on the box. Most headlamps range anywhere from 15-500 lumens.
Headlamps with lower lumen outputs can work relatively well for camping or when you are looking at something in close range. If you want to use it for hiking, or simply want to see further with the light, then a headlamp with 200 lumens and higher is ideal. You want to ensure these have several light settings, so you can still use them in a camp setting.
Beyond the listing of lumens, look at the distance the light is intended to reach. While lumens tell you how bright the light is at the source, they don’t correlate to the distance the beam will reach. The shape of the reflector and the design of the lens will dictate how far that light will go. For many brands, this will be listed in meters. They may also include a diagram of the general range and beam type to give you a better understanding.
Be aware that the tested distance listed is for either a fully charged headlamp or one with new batteries. Over time, as the charge wears down, the distance and lumen power will begin to fade. Most headlamps have some warning system, like three light flashes, that warn you before the light dies.
The most common light beam modes for headlamps include:
- Multiple levels of brightness; and at the very least a high and low beam
- Flashing or strobe setting
- Red light for use at night or for reading
On some newer headlamp models, a boosted or zoom beam mode has been added. The boosted beam feature provides a focused high-intensity beam for a short time (10-20 seconds). I like this mode when I’m camping and hiking, especially with dogs, as it allows me to focus on an area quickly if needed. But, using a zoom feature often does drain the battery quickly.
Most headlamps will have the runtime listed in hours. Although each company may have a slightly different testing criteria, most test the runtime on the lowest beam setting. If the headlamp uses disposable batteries, they typically test the runtime with the same type of battery sold with the headlamp.
Since many headlamps are tested for runtime on the lowest setting, keep in mind that using it on a higher beam while you hike will shorten the runtime. Some companies may list the runtime of each beam setting separately. Knowing the runtime of all settings is helpful, so you don’t run out of light on a night hike.
Most headlamps with disposable batteries are powered by either AA or AAA batteries. Other headlamps will have a USB charging port on the light source box, making it easy to attach to another battery source, plug into an outlet, or even charge using a small solar panel.
Then you have headlamps with an external battery box. While these may feel a bit clunkier to wear, they have a much longer battery life and work well when hiking in cold conditions. Luckily, these external batteries do have their perks. They offer an extended run time and sometimes even a much brighter beam. Many of them also have a longer battery cord, so you do not need to attach the battery to your head. You can put it in your pack, on your belt, or tuck it inside your coat to keep them warm when hiking or working in sub-zero temperatures.
Size and Weight
Usually, the size and weight of your headlamp will reflect the intended use. For instance, if you need a headlamp for something like caving or spelunking, having one with an external battery pack may be necessary to house the batteries needed to handle extended runtimes and powerful beams.
However, for activities like hiking, most people will be content with a lightweight headlamp that either runs on batteries or is USB rechargeable. And if you must carry it on your back for long distances, the lighter the better.
When buying a headlamp specifically for outdoor use, it should at the very least be water-resistant. Weather is unpredictable, and more than likely, you’re going to experience precipitation at some point in your life while hiking.
How impervious a headlamp is to downpours and accidental dunkings reflects the water resistance of the housing that contains the battery and light source. This is often listed using an IPX rating, where the IP stands for “Ingress Protection.” The X means that there’s no solid particle (dust) protection testing, though it can be assumed that if the seal can stop liquids, it will keep larger particles out as well. Following the letters IPX, there will be a number of some kind. These start at 0, which indicate no protection against liquids, and go up to 8, with the most.
So, if a headlamp has a rating of IPX-0, that means that housing is not waterproof or water-resistant at all. If you’re looking for a headlamp that can be submerged in water for short periods, an IPX-7 rating will suffice. If you will be submerging the light on a regular basis, a model with an IPX-8 rating is a must. The individual product should include specs regarding the depth of the water and time limit it can be submerged.
A more common water resistance rating is around IPX-4. At this level, the housing should be water-resistant enough to withstand rain and splashing from water. However, it should not be submerged.
Headlamps with a higher IPX number will generally be far more expensive. There isn’t a need for a completely waterproof headlamp for most hikers and backpackers. If you are canyoneering or may pass through water at some point, then a higher IPX will help.
We discussed many of the common headlamp features, but more options are available. The number and types of features you choose often reflect the intended use.
For a hiking headlamp, additional features that are helpful include a dimmer, tilt, light sensors, and lock-out feature.
The dimmer is nice if you are in camp or around a group of people at night, so the light isn’t too bright. It can also help you conserve your battery life.
The tilt feature lets you tilt the light beam down at different angles. This is great when hiking at night, so you can illuminate the trail closer to where you are stepping.
Light sensors are nice, but they can be annoying too. These essentially change the beam mode and brightness for you according to the amount of light bouncing back. That way, you don’t have to adjust the mode you’re on as often.
The last feature that is ideal for hiking is the lock-out feature. Nothing is worse than storing your headlamp in your pack during the day only to realize it has been on the entire time because the button got bumped at some point. A lock-out feature lets you lock the power button to ensure the light doesn’t accidentally turn on without you knowing.
Best Headlamp for Hiking Overall: Petzl Actik Core
Best Headlamp for Hiking
Why it Made the Cut
The Petzl Actik Core is the best headlamp for hiking overall because of its versatility, ease of use, and rechargeable battery.
- Weight: 2.65 ounces
- Max Lumens: 450
- Beam Distance: 90 meters
- Runtime: (High) 2 hours, (Medium) 8 hours, (Low) 130 hours
- Very intuitive to use
- Bright with decent distance
- Versatile design mounts to climbing helmets and bicycles
- Only water resistant (IPX-4)
The Petzl Actik Core is a relatively affordable headlamp purchase for most hikers. It has more than enough lumens to keep the trail well-lit while hiking, and then you can dim it down for use in camp. It is nice that Petzl lists the runtime of the headlamp in relation to the mode used to give the user a better idea of how long the battery lasts.
Like others on our list, the Petzl Actik Core has a rechargeable battery, Since the runtime for running the light on high or medium is short in relation to the length of a day, bringing along a power source to charge the headlamp will be necessary. It is also compatible with 3 AAA batteries, so you can also bring those as a backup instead.
Although it isn’t completely waterproof, it is water-resistant, which is enough for most hikers. One unique feature of this headlamp is that it is compatible with mounting equipment that allows you to attach it to a helmet or a bicycle if needed.
Why it Made the Cut
The Biolite 330 is my favorite for the best rechargeable headlamp with a sleek low profile design, no bounce feature, and all the ideal features for hiking.
- Weight: 2.4 ounces
- Max Lumens: 330
- Beam Distance: 75 meters
- Runtime: (High) 3.5 hours, (Low) 40 hours
- No bounce design
- Integrated battery indicator
- Moisture wicking band fabric
- Power button is difficult to access (especially wearing gloves)
There are so many excellent rechargeable headlamps available, many of which are on our list, but the Biolite 330 was our top pick because of the unique and low-profile design. It has decent battery life, especially if running it on low.
The design is slightly different from the standard headlamps since the battery source is on the back of the strap with a cord that runs to the light source. This design is less cumbersome than you’d think. In fact, it is part of what gives it “no bounce” qualities, taking some the weight off the light itself. This may not be much of an issue when hiking, but the no-bounce feature is excellent for activities like trail running. The moisture wicking fabric of the band is perfect for high intensity or warm weather hikes as well.
At first glance, it looks like it is missing a tilt feature, but there is an articulating front bezel to make sure you can tilt it down to illuminate the trail. Several other excellent features include a reflective strip on the strap, a flood and spot lens, and a battery indicator light to tell you how much life is left in your light.
Best Ultralight Headlamp
Why it Made the Cut
The NITECORE NU26 headlamp gives you an ultralight package with exceptional lighting capabilities.
- Weight: 1 ounce
- Max Lumens: 360
- Beam Distance: 81 meters
- Runtime: (High) 5 hours, (Medium) 8 hours, (Low) 160 hours
- Minimalist lightweight design
- Quick charging time
- IPX-6 water resistance
- Several lighting options
- Turbo setting only lasts 30 minutes
While there may be lighter ultralight headlamps, most of those have very limited lumen capabilities and battery life. The NITECORE NU26 is a great hiking companion, especially if you want a quality headlamp option with full features but are cutting ounces here and there.
There are 10 different light modes for a good variety when you are on the go. The only real downside to this headlamp is that it burns the battery out quickly if you use turbo mode (highest light setting). Turbo is only really needed in short bursts, so hopefully, that isn’t an issue for most people.
Even if you do need to use the headlamp on high for a while, the good news is that it can reach a full charge from empty in just two hours. It has a rechargeable battery, making charging on the go easy. Plus, this headlamp has some decent waterproofing with an IPX-6 rating. Overall, this is an affordable and quality pick for a day hike or even long-distance trails.
Best on a Budget
Black Diamond Astro Black Diamond Equipment
Why it Made the Cut
If you want a budget headlamp that is lightweight and performs well in the field, then the Black Diamond Astro is your top pick.
- Weight: 1.9 ounces
- Max Lumens: 250
- Beam Distance: 35 meters
- Runtime: (High) 4.5 hours, (Low) 200 hours
- Lockout feature
- Water resistant
- Adjustable beam
- Runs on 3 AAA batteries
- No red light mode
If you don’t have a big budget for a headlamp, but want something that you know will work reasonably well, then the Black Diamond Astro needs to be considered. It has a decent runtime, but keep in mind that it does not have rechargeable batteries. It runs on 3 AAA batteries (included in purchase) so pack extras if you go on an overnight.
Overall, this Black Diamond headlamp is very lightweight and compact. It has an adjustable band and a fairly small lightbox. Despite the small footprint, it provides enough distance to illuminate your steps and offers several beam modes. An IPX-4 rating means it is water-resistant, but not waterproof.
The only significant downsides I see with this headlamp are that the battery is not rechargeable and does not have a red light feature. Otherwise, for the price, it gets the job done. This is also an excellent choice for a low-cost addition to an emergency kit.
Best for Kids
Foxelli 180 Lumen Rechargable Headlamp Foxelli
Why it Made the Cut
The Foxelli 180 MX200 headlamp can grow as your kids do with an adjustable band, rechargeable and replaceable battery, and an easy-to-use design.
- Weight: 2.4 ounces
- Max Lumens: 180
- Beam Distance: 91 meters
- Runtime: 40 hours
- Adequate features for hiking
- Rechargeable and replaceable battery
- Thick and comfortable band
- Somewhat low lumens for hiking, but should be fine for kids
There are a few headlamp options on the market specifically for kids. But with the wide adjustment range on the Foxelli 180 MX200 headlamp, it will fit almost anyone. It is an affordable headlamp, so if you have multiple kids, they each can have their own.
It is a relatively lightweight design, and the features are easy to use. The button on the top works to change light modes, so it shouldn’t take long for your kids to learn how to do it themselves. This headlamp can grow with your kids, not only because of the adjustable band but because the battery is replaceable. So, if the rechargeable battery pack starts to wear down, you can always replace it, and the headlamp will be as good as new.
The highest lumen setting is only 180, but for kids, that should work. Using it in camp, a headlamp with lower light modes is ideal. That way, if they shine it in your face on accident, it won’t be quite as jarring. It can handle the occasional splash, and is also cold/impact resistant.
Choosing the best headlamps for hiking came down to application, features, and longevity. All of the buying considerations we discussed at the beginning of this article are relevant in each individual’s choice of the right headlamp for them. Still, when it comes to a generalized list of top picks, we focused more on how it performs while hiking.
For this article, I focused on the following:
- Features: For a hiking headlamp, you should have at least 200 lumens, multiple light modes, light tilt, lockout, and water resistance.
- Durability: I looked at the durability of the light source, housing, and band. Many cheaper headlamp bands stretch out and do not last long. These are replaceable in some cases.
- Light Beam: Having a headlamp with multiple light modes will allow you to tailor the beam and distance to your hiking needs. I evaluated the distance the light is thrown and how well it illuminates from side to side.
- Rechargeability: Although disposable batteries work, I sought out rechargeable headlamp options for most our picks for ease of use and to reduce overall waste for the duration of the life of that product.
- Company Values: I looked at their customer service policies, warranties, repair policies, and satisfaction guarantees. I also checked out the company website to see their production model and sustainability promises for products.
Other helpful tips to aid you in your search for the best headlamp include reading through verified customer reviews, asking friends and family for suggestions, and going to a local outdoor retailer to talk to a staff member.
Q: How many lumens do you need for a hiking headlamp?
How many lumens you need for a headlamp depends on the intended use. For most day-to-day uses, anywhere from 100-150 lumens will suffice. If you are looking for a headlamp for hiking, scrambling, or route finding, having at least 200 lumens is recommended.
Q: How bright should a hiking headlamp be?
How bright a headlamp should be will vary according to company design and intended use. Headlamps can range anywhere from 25 to 15,00+ lumens, so there is a wide range. For many people, 100-150 lumens will be bright enough. But for hiking, 200 lumens or more will provide enough brightness to see the trail at night. A higher lumen headlamp will give you a brighter beam at a lower level for longer battery life.
Q: How important is a headlamp in hiking?
How important a headlamp is when hiking depends on the type of hike, length of the hike, and time of year. We recommend always having a headlamp as a backup, even on a day hike. Headlamps’ importance tends to go up if you do any overnight hiking or night hikes.
Q: Which is brighter HID or LED?
LED lights usually are brighter than HID lights because they have a higher lumen capacity. LED lights can have a brightness of up to 9,000-10,000 lumens, whereas HID usually only ranges up to 8,000 lumens. It is said that HID lights tend to be brighter for things like headlights on cars, but the brightness is often a product of the reflector and lens and how the light emits across an area. LED lights are more common for headlamps and are longer lasting and more durable than HID.
Q: How much does a headlamp cost?
Most headlamps will range in price from $20 to $700. There are more expensive headlamps (sometimes costing $3,000 and up), but those usually have a surgical application. Headlamps for outdoor use will go up in price as their features, lifespan, and brightness increase.
The best headlamps for hiking will be the ones that have a long-lasting battery, are durable for outdoor use, have quality features, and have some water resistance. There are so many options out there. Even if you didn’t find one you liked on my list, we hope the buying considerations section leads you in the right direction.