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Light up your night: The best headlamps and how many lumens you need

The Black Diamond Spot 400-R is ZDNET's top choice because it is powerful, rechargeable, light, and packed with attractive features such as a battery indicator and colored light settings that are hard to beat at that price.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer on
Reviewed by Amy Lieu

Anyone who has anxiously stumbled along a trail in the pitch dark praying that their campsite is just around the bend, or wrestled with their tent in an after-dark downpour has a very gut-level appreciation for a hands-free light. Yet, not all headlamps are the same, and picking the right one hinges on a number of factors. The first task at hand is to figure out what it is you need it for. A rock climber on a nocturnal ascent of a cliff face, or a trail runner out for a midnight run, will have weight and comfort as priorities. But those who journey through chronically wet conditions or dusty environments will be more concerned about ruggedness.

Almost invariably, though, conversations around headlamps will involve lumens or brightness. Gear experts say that 250-300 lumens are generally good enough to navigate a clearly marked trail. But to see far ahead -- this is advisable in order to monitor trail conditions and foraging bears -- you need a light that's closer to 400 lumens. Yet, that's only part of the story. Lighting aficionados urge buyers to investigate the quality of the beam, the distance it can reach, and how long it can keep that up. The best headlamps have settings for both "spotlight" beams focused for distance-viewing as well as wider "floodlights" that light up your immediate vicinity for activities like cooking and reading.

Some adventurers will not set foot on a trail without a red light setting that preserves night vision and campsite friendships (it's no fun to be repeatedly blinded by your buddy's powerful white light). Others will not go near one that isn't rechargeable via an integrated lithium-ion battery and a USB cable. Winter lovers will gravitate to those that have large, glove-friendly buttons and simple navigation. And those who have suffered meltdowns in the wilderness from a drained headlamp that somehow switched on in their pack en route will first look for a lamp that can be locked. We've done all the hard work for you by selecting the best options for a wide range of activities.

Also: The 5 best solar lanterns of 2022

Pros & Cons
pros
  • Versatile
  • Integrated battery meter and digital lock mode
  • Brightness memory
cons
  • Complaints of charger port being a little flimsy
More Details

Tech specs

  • Light Output (lumens): High: 400; Medium: 200; Low: 6
  • Max Beam Distance (meters): 100
  • Average Run Time (hours): High: 4; medium: 8; low: 225
  • Battery: Integrated rechargeable 1500 milliamp hour (mAh) lithium-ion (micro USB)
  • Weight (with batteries, in grams): 73

The versatile headlamp has won over outdoor enthusiasts for years so it is no surprise that the latest version of it, the Spot 400-R, is on this list. Its latest iteration only further pushes its attractiveness quotient with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery coupled with a micro USB charging port. At its full capacity of 400 lumens, the Spot can project a beam at an impressive 100 meters for four hours before it dies out. Yet, that would be overkill since users find that a more-than-adequate 60-meter beam on medium setting easily illuminates a trail and lasts 8 hours. Its flood beam for close quarters is also impressively even.

Gear aficionados and consumers alike continue to applaud the two-button functioning of this compact powerhouse, where a user can dim the beam with one button and cycle between modes (red light, strobe, direct beam) with the other. However, the most innovative feature yet is one where you can lightly tap your chunky, gloved hand to the side of the casing to instantly go from the existing beam setting to maximum and back.

With a critically-useful, three-level battery meter indicating its reservoir of juice and a digital lockout feature that keeps it shut while in your pack, this beloved all-rounder is hard to beat and quickly pays for its price difference over its non-rechargeable AAA-battery-fueled sibling.

Pros & Cons
pros
  • IP67: Waterproof rating (1 meter of water for 30 minutes) + Dust Proof
  • 3 year warranty
  • Can be used above the snow line
cons
  • Heaviest model on this list
More Details

Tech specs

  • Light Output (lumens): High: 500; Medium: 250; Low: 6
  • Max Beam Distance (meters): 120
  • Average Run Time (hours): High: 7; medium: 19; low: 350
  • Battery: Integrated rechargeable 2400 mAh lithium-ion (micro USB)
  • Weight (with batteries, in grams): 100

The Storm has always been one of the hottest headlamps on the market but its new version is making its fans drool even more. It is a hardy device, solidly constructed, and shrugs off dust and water like they were minor annoyances. Not to mention its impressive IPX7 rating means that it can be submerged in water by up to a meter for 30 minutes. The current upgrade has made an already powerful beam even longer at 120 meters thanks to a 500-lumen bulb that can burn on high for 7 hours. However, its more-than-adequate 60-meter beam on medium setting will last an impressive 19 hours ensuring that you may not even need to recharge it over a weekend trip.

All of the other qualities that the Spot 400-R fields are on this Storm, including two buttons that help you switch easily between beam and flood settings, red, green, and blue light modes, which the Spot doesn't have. Plus, it has a strobe mode that works with all of the colored lights, a battery indicator, and a PowerTap feature that pumps up the lumens with just a finger's touch -- heaven for gloved, winter use. Its Mode Memory turns the light on in the last used setting, while a lock-out mode prevents the agony of discovering that your now-drained Storm was on all the time in your pack.

Black Diamond says you can recharge this beast 1,000 times and the lithium-ion battery functions well in snow too, making this an all-year, all-activity powerhouse. At a mere $10 more than the Spot, the Storm may well usurp the former's position to become the all-rounder of choice for many outdoor enthusiasts.

Pros & Cons
pros
  • 1 hour reserve mode
  • Rear red light with solid or strobe mode
  • Zero bounce design
cons
  • New model not yet widely available
More Details

Tech specs

  • Light Output (lumens): High: 425; Medium: 250; Low: 6
  • Max Beam Distance (meters): 85
  • Average Run Time (hours): High: 4; low: 60
  • Battery: Integrated rechargeable 1000 mAh lithium-ion
  • Weight (with batteries, in grams): 78

If you are an outdoor runner or a trekker who is accustomed to doing what you enjoy after the sun sets, you either already own a Biolite headlamp or are desperate to get one. This is because Biolite has burnished its reputation for having perhaps the best construction for a headlamp since it introduced its 3D Slimfit, zero-bounce design in 2018 -- and its latest model, the 425, embodies it. With its weight distributed evenly and the rechargeable battery tucked away in the back, it leaves only the lamp to sit flat against your forehead. Further, this light lamp doesn't force you to tighten it to death to avoid that familiar, migraine-inducing bounce as you walk or run. It also feels practically weightless.

What makes the Biolite a potential rival to Black Diamond's Spot 400-R is the fact that it accomplishes all of this while not scrimping on any of the other features that make up a top-of-the-line lamp. It comes with the usual flood and beam settings as well as strobe and red light features. While its battery and beam are not as powerful as the Spot's, it one-ups both of the Black Diamond lamps on this list by offering a rear, red strobe cum flood light that can provide a crucial beacon to a fellow trekker or trail runner.

With one large power button that is kind on gloves, a lock mode to avoid wasteful discharge, and a battery meter to track power drainage, this beautifully engineered headlamp is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after ones among outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes.

Pros & Cons
pros
  • Hybrid Concept (works with AAA or CORE rechargeable battery, not included)
  • Easy to use with a single button
  • Compatible with certain helmet and bike mounts
cons
  • No red light
  • Only flood beam
More Details

Tech specs

  • Light Output (lumens): High: 300; Medium: 100; Low: 7
  • Max Beam Distance (meters): 65
  • Average Run Time (hours): High: 2; Medium: 10; low: 100
  • Battery: Comes with 3 AAA/LR03 batteries; also compatible with CORE rechargeable battery (not included)
  • Weight (with batteries, in grams): 92

There isn't a headlamp out there that can give you the kind of bang for your buck that Tikkina does. It is far from the all-around dynamo that is the Spot 400-R and cannot compete with the Biolite 425's design and performance package. Yet, it often trumps these two headlamps simply because of the outstanding value-for-money proposition that the Tikkina has become famous for.

For the bargain basement price of $25, the Tikkina gives you a reasonably powerful 300-lumen flood light. Its beam doesn't have a Spotlight, but you may not need it considering the flood has a 65-meter reach at the highest setting for 2 hours straight and especially so if you intend to use it to primarily tool around your campsite. Meanwhile, a 100-lumen standard setting gives you a 40-meter beam at a generous 10 hours. Though there's no red light to prevent blinding your fellow campers, it can be run on either three AAA batteries or Petzl's CORE rechargeable battery that you can buy separately.

Weighing a respectable 92 grams, you would be hard-pressed to go on a wilderness jaunt without this money saver as either your dedicated campsite light or the best backup money can buy and you'll ever own. 

Pros & Cons
pros
  • Reserve Mode
  • USB rechargeable
  • Light can swivel in cradle
cons
  • Elastic cord headband can pinch if too tight
  • Not geared for extended or difficult trips
More Details

Features or tech specs

  • Light Output (lumens): High: 200; Medium: 100; Low: 6
  • Max Beam Distance (meters): 36
  • Average Run Time (hours): High: 2; Medium: 3; Low: 50
  • Battery: Rechargeable lithium-ion 680 mAh battery (micro USB)
  • Weight (with batteries, in grams): 35

At a feather-light 35 grams -- or just half the weight of the Spot 400-R -- Petzl's Bindi has become a favorite among adventurers and urban warriors for whom extra weight is to be avoided at all costs. Sure, at 200 lumens and a 36-meter beam that will last for 2 hours on a high setting (or 3 hours on medium), the Bindi isn't going to dethrone the Spot or the Biolite 425 anytime soon. But the Bindi is the lamp for you if you want something unassuming that you can slip into your pocket for easy retrieval during a challenging rock climb or hike.

Despite its svelte lines, this other-worldly-looking light comes with one, slim elastic cord for a headband. It has a bunch of helpful features such as white and red light modes, a multi-colored battery indicator, a red strobe, and an anti-activation setting. It can also snugly spread itself around a helmet. Most handy is a feature that allows the light to swivel about in its cradle by as much as a full 360 degrees, allowing it to function as an independent work light sans headband.

What is the best headlamp?

The Black Diamond Spot 400-R is our choice for the best headlamp. Its versatility has consistently won over consumers and testers for years. Its updated version carries on that legacy in emphatic fashion by enhancing specs in almost every category while adding new features.

For one, its lithium-ion battery is now rechargeable and the power of the beam across settings has been noticeably boosted. With a battery indicator, a light lock, and respectable weather resistance, the Spot 400-R continues to attract a dedicated following.

Headlamp

Price

Brightness

Re-chargeable?

Red light

Block Diamond Spot 400-R

$65

Very bright

Yes

Yes

Block Diamond Storm 500-R

$75

Very bright

Yes

Yes

Biolite 425

$60

Very bright

Yes

Yes

Petzl Bindi

$45

Average brightness

Yes

Yes

Petzl Tikkina

$25

Reasonably bright

Only with purchase of Petzl's CORE rechargeable battery

No

Which is the right headlamp for you?

Finding the right headlamp depends on a number of factors but first, you will want to figure out what it is you are going to use it for and for how long. Is weight going to be a critical factor in your adventures or is ruggedness most important to you? On the other hand, you may have a modest budget and may be on the lookout for what could give you the best bang for your buck. Some of you may be embarking on long journeys and are looking for comfort or battery life as your most desired quality. There are excellent options in headlamps for pretty much every need.

Chose this headlamp….

If you need….

Block Diamond Spot 400-R

A reliable, powerful and versatile headlamp 

Block Diamond Storm 500-R

A powerful light that is also one of the most rugged available

Biolite 425

A versatile light that has the best design which eliminates bouncing while walking or running

Petzl Bindi

The lightest headlamp that offers decent luminosity

Petzl Tikkina

A headlamp that is the best value for money

How did we choose these headlamps?

We scoured the landscape looking for headlamps that met the following criteria: 

  • They had to be above 200 lumens, the bare minimum to be functional on a trail in the dark. 
  • They had to excel in one or more categories: beam strength, battery longevity, ruggedness, weight, recharging ability, comfort, design, and affordability. 
  • They also had to be highly regarded by reputed gear testers and consumers alike.

How many lumens do I need in my headlamp?

It all depends on what you are using your headlamp for. Experts say that 200 to 300 lumens are fine for most outdoor activities, but hiking or running along a trail for some period of time will require a lamp that is around 400 lumens at least. This is especially the case if you want to ensure that your lamp and battery can go the distance in the event that you get lost at night while trying to locate a trail or your campsite.

Often, lumens are merely a starting point from which you can figure out other technicalities that are more specific and helpful to your activity. For example, for spotting distant objects, like wildlife, a beam that has a spotlight with a range of around 75 to 100 meters and above will be indispensable.

Do I need a headlamp with a red light setting?

A red setting on headlamps is crucial for a campsite's activities, since it allows you nighttime visibility without blinding your companions and also helps you locate nearby objects. Most importantly, it preserves your night vision allowing you, for instance, to enjoy looking at the night sky.

Inside a tent, a red light can be perfect for reading and other activities without waking up or disturbing your tent mates. Mosquitos and other bugs are also not inclined to be attracted to this light. Finally, a red light drains far less battery than a white one and can be used to save up juice for the next day.

What is the strobe setting for?

A headlamp with a strobe setting allows you to display short bursts of light, which have become the standard code for an SOS or emergency alert. It can also help deter wild animals who may take an unsafe interest in you.

Are there alternative headlamps worth considering?

The headlamps arena is a fiercely competitive field and several didn't make it to this list by very narrow margins. For instance, they may have been more expensive than rivals in the same category, or lacked just a few features such as a long-lasting battery or powerful spotlight. Whatever the case, the following choices are excellent alternatives or standalone choices.

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