The Best Backpacking Headlamps of 2018

Your headlamp is something you can throw in your pack (preferably in an accessible place) and forget about… then be really, really glad you have it when you need it. From night hiking to bathroom breaks to searching in your pack for your bear-bag rope, this is an indispensable piece of gear for thru-hikers.

Considerations and Features

While all headlamps serve the same purpose (hands-free light source) they aren’t created equally. Price, weight, lumens, and features will be the deciding factors in choosing your light source, and ideally you’ll find a lightweight headlamp with a low price and bright light. Many headlamps now come with USB charging capabilities, which are arguably more environmentally friendly and prevent the need to purchase batteries along the trail. They do require hikers to carry an extra (small) cord, so it’s up to personal preference.

Don’t ignore battery life specs, an important consideration when choosing your light. Battery life will be different for max output—brightest settings—and lower-energy output, like strobe or red light. You’ll also likely want a white light and red light option. Red light helps prevent eye strain, and is infinitely less disturbing if you get to camp at night where hikers are already sleeping. You want your headlamp to be easy to figure out / change the settings on, comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and serve your purpose with high range and visibility.

There are tons of options out there, but most thru-hikers will just need a simple, lightweight choice with a long battery life. A bright option around 200 lumens plus a red light setting is ideal. Here are our top picks for headlamps for thru-hikers, not in any particular order. All weights listed include batteries.

Black Diamond Cosmo

MSRP: $29.95
Weight: 3 ounces
Max Output: 200 lumens

The ideal headlamp for budget-conscious (and weight-conscious) backpackers, this 200-lumen waterproof light has everything you need to hike or set up camp after dark. It has multiple light settings (including long-range and closer proximity), strobes, dimming capabilities, and the ever-useful red light mode. The switch is easy to use and won’t spontaneously turn on in your pack. Uses three AAA batteries.

Petzel e+LITE

MSRP: $30
Weight: 1 ounce
Max Output: 50 lumens

For the most weight-conscious of hikers only, this minimalist, waterproof headlamp comes with a maximum output of 50 lumens and a red light option.  The lithium CR 2032 batteries are an odd size, but as this headlamp is a popular option for emergency kits, you can bet they’ll last pretty much your entire hike. Simple, functional dial switches settings, plus it has a locked setting so it won’t turn on in your pack. This lower-powered headlamp probably won’t swing it if you’re planning on a lot of night hiking, but it serves its purpose for hikers finding their way back to the tent after a midnight bathroom excursion.

Coast HL7 

MSRP: $58 (on sale for $33)
Weight: 4.5 ounces
Max Output: 285 lumens

This headlamp boasts seemingly infinite options for beam projection and light output. A smart design allows the user to change the beam from a flood to longer-projecting spotlight, and a simple lever can change the light output based on need and consideration for battery life. Requires three AAA batteries, which come with the light. This will run for 70 hours on the lowest setting, but run time is only 90 minutes on the highest setting, so be sure to keep track of your usage and light output.

Petzl Actik Core

MSRP: $70
Weight: 3 ounces
Max Output: 350 lumens

On the other end of the spectrum, this powerhouse comes packed with 350 lumens, a USB-rechargeable battery, and enough light options to feel like you’re “having your own personal rave in your tent.” It offers a blue and green light function, which you may or may not use depending on tent rave preferences. The headband is reflective, which lets you be seen from the back, and and wide beam options give a greater range of visibility. Also compatible with AAA batteries if charging is an issue. High-powered run time is only two hours, so be aware of how long you’ve been running this light at its highest setting.

Black Diamond Spot

MSRP: $39.95
Weight: 3.25 ounces
Max Output: 300 lumens

One of the most popular options for thru-hikers, this simple, bright headlamp just underwent a redesign, eliminating the somewhat annoying touch panel on the front. A simple button on top cycles through the settings, including strobe, proximity, distance, and red light options. Tapping on the side of the lamp switches easily between dim and bright settings once the light is in use. Battery life is also extended in this updated version, which takes three AAA batteries.

NiteCore NU25

MSRP: $36.95
Weight: 1.8 ounces
Max Output: 360 lumens

 

This ultralight powerhouse has a USB rechargeable battery, four brightness settings that crank up to 360 lumens, and a red light for night vision. The handy lock-out feature prevents the light from accidentally turning on in your pack. Like most high-output lights, this has a short battery life on the brightest setting, so use it sparingly. This headlamp is waterproof, impact-resistant, and the brightest setting reaches 88 yards.

Petzel Tikkina

MSRP: $19.95
Weight: 3 ounces
Max Output: 150 lumens

Best for the budget-conscious hiker looking for the most bare-bones but reliable of lights, the Tikkina has a single bulb, 150 lumens, and is priced right at $20. This simple light does have three brightness settings, but no red light… so be aware of potentially blinding your hiking companions. Battery replacement is pretty much a no-brainer with this light, at the lower setting, batteries last 220 hours, with 60 hours at the highest setting.

Huge thanks to Alexa Shapiro, Alex Cremer, Robert Peck, and Chris Guynn for their input

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