A Former Marine Tests the Best Headlamps

By feeding his chickens in the dark every night for a week using only the illumination from these head lanterns.

Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary were confirmed as the first two climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953. The ascent took the team more than seven weeks—establishing base camp, a series of six smaller camps, and the final assault on the summit, the second attempt of the expedition, which was done over the course of three days. They used the most advanced technologies available: cold-weather gear made mostly from wool– and cotton–based fabrics, and specially designed boots made of waterproofed leather and insulated with Tropal, an insulation made of fibers from the kopak tree.

Last night in rural New York there was a consistent drizzle, and the air temperature was in the high 30s. For my ascent up the hill in my backyard to close my chicken coop for the night, I donned my Patagonia fleece, Marmot raincoat, and North Face boots. I strongly considered wearing my GoreTex pants, but decided to toughen up and go without. I’m not saying that the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition had it easy, but a late fall drizzle in rural New York can be very, very uncomfortable.

I did have one advantage in my arsenal that Tenzing and Sir Edmund did not: a headlamp.

My current one is a Petzl from fifteen years ago, purchased for training in Norway with my Marine infantry unit. We were participating in a winter NATO exercise and would be on the move day and night. The ability to break down a tent, pack up a sled, and be on the move as quickly as possible required the use of both hands, something nearly impossible if you’re holding a flashlight.

A lamp should:
• be comfortable,
• be as lightweight as possible,
• have an adjustable beam angle,
• allow for variable brightness, and—this one’s important—
• have a red light option.

All of the units tested met every criteria in some fashion.

Black Diamond Revolt Headlamp, Denim
Black Diamond
amazon.com
$44.95
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This baby’s bright—my chickens put on sunglasses last night when I checked on them. The lights are dimmable by holding the button until the desired brightness is reached. The red lights are also dimmable and can flash for emergency use—a nice feature. The batteries are up front. This is not my favorite, as it makes the unit feel unbalanced at times. But the charging port is built in, which is convenient. Overall this unit feels substantial without being too heavy, around three and a half ounces. A great choice.

300 Lumens / rechargeable batteries or standard AAA batteries.

PETZL – ACTIK CORE Headlamp, 350 Lumens, Rechargeable, with CORE Battery, Black
PETZL
amazon.com
$69.95
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Similar to my old model, with some upgrades. Most notably, the need for a separate red lens is gone. The controls are similar: one click turns on, and a series of clicks to adjust brightness or switch to red. This model has only three brightness options in white light. Again the batteries are up front, but this comes in at just under three ounces, so . . . tolerable. While rechargeable batteries cannot be charged in the unit, a pack with a built-in port can be used, so no specific charger is needed, just a micro USB. A very good unit.

350 Lumens / rechargeable battery or 3 AAA batteries.

Princeton Tec Axis Rechargeable Headlamp (250 Lumens, Green/Gray)
Princeton Tec
amazon.com
$38.32
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This felt a little less substantial than other models tested. It has basic controls: Clicks determine spot vs. flood vs. dual beam, with a bezel acting as the dimmer control. One feature that sets this apart is your ability to aim the beam. The unit is mounted on an axis which allows for 180 degrees of rotation, the most of all the units tested. This is another unit with the power in the front. The batteries are individually loaded in the unit, so while it can use rechargeables, they must be charged on a charger. Overall a decent unit.

250 Lumens / built-in rechargeable battery.

UCO Vapor 300 Lumen Rechargeable LED Headlamp Variable Brightness Dial Control Adjustable Strap, Vintage Parks
UCO
amazon.com
$49.99
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This headlamp is light—just over 3 ounces—but also feels a bit less hardy than others tested, and gave pause because of it. Still, it has by far the most intuitive controls: turn the dial one direction for red, the opposite for white. Can’t get any easier. The dimness of the three white lights is controlled by the same dial—you just keep turning for brighter lights. This is one of the models tested with the battery in the rear and it has a removable battery that is recharged using a micro USB. The neoprene headband, the most comfortable tested, combined with the weight distribution would make this my choice for extended wear, despite the less substantial feel. 300 Lumens / rechargeable battery pack or 3 AAA batteries.

Light & Motion Vis Pro Adventure 600
Light & Motion
amazon.com
$129.99
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The brightest of all tested, but also the heaviest at six ounces. This is marketed as more of bicycling headlight than a headlamp. It can be mounted to a head strap or directly to a helmet. It was a bit uncomfortable on the head strap and probably works best mounted to a helmet. The cord that connects the batteries to the light, which would have no issue when wrapped from the rear of a bike helmet to the front, felt like it was tugging the lamp around my head. It is twice as bright as some of the other models tested, and has a dimming feature. The battery compartment is sealed, rechargeable via micro USB, as with others, a nice feature. This may not be my first choice for most activities due to its size and weight, but for biking this is the clear winner.

600 Lumens / rechargeable battery.

A note about bulkiness: On three of the units we tested, both the batteries and the light itself are located in the front, all together, which is kind of heavy. On two others, the batteries are in the rear and the light is in front, which is a more comfortable distribution of weight during extended use.

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