Thursday 23 September 2021

The nights are lengthening - time for headlamps

Winter sunset over Braeriach from the Cairngorm Plateau

Coming down from our walk inthe Fannaichs two weeks ago Alex Roddie and I needed our head lamps for the last few kilometres, the first time I’d used one for walking since early spring. Now the equinox is past the nights are drawing in quickly. Sunset in the Cairngorms is now 7pm. I carry a tiny headlamp right through the summer just in case but very rarely use it. For the next six months I’ll carry a more powerful one and expect to use it quite often (and have a spare in the pack). 

Having a good head lamp gives more freedom as you can start or finish walks in the dark and is also important for safety in case you’re out longer than planned. Every autumn people without head lamps or torches are rescued because they’re caught out in the dark. A good headlamp is the first item I add to my pack as the nights grow longer (soon followed by gloves, hats, and extra warm clothing).

Here’s a revised piece on headlamps I wrote for The Great Outdoors a few years ago:

Head lamps are becoming more powerful every year and that power is often the feature flagged up in promotions. Some models are extremely bright, up to 900 lumens, and can throw a beam 200 metres. But how much power do you actually need? From my testing of quite a few head lamps in recent years I think 300 lumens and a beam that goes 75-100 metres is fine for hillwalking. Indeed, much of the time even that much brightness isn’t needed. To save battery life it’s best not to use full brightness unless absolutely necessary.

Other factors need considering when choosing a head torch, not just power. Battery life, battery type, ease of use, variable lighting, size, and weight are all important.

Battery life depends in part on the type of battery and the weather. Companies, unsurprisingly, give the figures from the longest lasting battery in warm temperatures. Lithium batteries usually last longest, followed by alkalines, and then NIMH rechargeables. Built-in rechargeable batteries tend to have long life but must be recharged from a power bank or the mains. This can take a long time and not something to do when out on a walk, except overnight in camp. Being able to change the batteries is an asset. Even better is to have two head torches so you can just swap them over if one fades. I still carry spare batteries and/or a power bank though.

Head torches should be easy to use. Coming off the hill on a dark night in the rain feeling weary is not the time to try and remember a series of button presses in order to switch from spot to flood or increase or decrease brightness.

Having spot and flood beams does make a difference. The first can be used to light the route far ahead, the second to see what’s around you or light up a tent. I like low-tech mechanical means of varying between the two, just twisting the lamp housing is easier than remembering button presses. The latest technology involves lighting that automatically adjust brightness and beam spread according to where and what you’re looking at. This works well but can be a little startling when you quickly raise and lower your head and the light changes abruptly.





AAA or AA are the most common size batteries for headlamps. Alkaline batteries are standard, and many headlamps come with these. NIMH rechargeable batteries are the most economic and the most environmentally friendly. Lithium batteries last longer, especially in the cold, and weigh less though they are more expensive. However not all headlamps can use these. Check if the manufacturer says they are ok. Some headlamps come with rechargeable batteries. These may be removable so ordinary batteries can be used if necessary or else fixed in place with USB connections for recharging.

Ease of Use

Buttons and switches should be easy to operate when wearing gloves but should not be easy to switch on accidentally. Some headlamps have locking devices to ensure the latter can’t happen. The modes sequence should be easy to remember. Changing batteries in the dark and with cold fingers should be simple to do.


Head straps need to be soft, comfortable, and easily adjustable. They should fit over a hood or hat.

Pivoting Lamp

The lamp housing should pivot easily so the beam can be directed.

Usable Light

LEDs will continue to glow feebly if there’s a smidgeon of energy left in the batteries. This isn’t much use. Companies’ maximum times are often those at which the light is just strong enough to be useful. Changing or charging the batteries before this stage is reached is a good idea.

Light Levels

All bar the simplest headlamps have different light levels so you can have a very bright light for night hiking or identifying distant objects and less bright lights for close-up use and longer battery life.


Beams can be flood or spot. The first is useful for lighting an area such as a campsite or tent, the second is useful for throwing the light the farthest distance and pinpointing a distant object. Many headlamps have both flood and spot beams. The distance a beam shines is determined by the power of the LED and the batteries. With regulated headlamps there is a constant flow of electricity to the LEDs and after an initial decline the light will maintain the same brightness for a set amount of time and then decline again rapidly. With non-regulated headlamps the brightness declines quickly at first and then more slowly throughout the life of the batteries.

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