Two universal truths to outdoor excursions of all kinds are that they tend to take a little longer than we originally planned, and most of them should be intentionally experienced at night or well before the crack of dawn at least once.
Obviously, hunters are used to both scenarios. Pre- and post-daylight functionality is a must. That’s why a headlamp is arguably the most crucial piece of emergency gear you will carry. Whether you suddenly find yourself chasing a blood trail after sundown or your alarm is set for a time that starts with a 3 or a 4, having the best headlamp you can buy is necessary for your safety, efficiency, and overall enjoyment of whatever badass nocturnal experience you’re having.
Jump to: The Headlamps We Use
Conceptually, headlamps are pretty simple. They’re all variations on the theme of an adjustable elastic strap with a small, battery-powered light. But when you get into the various specs of today’s broad array of offerings, it can be easy to get lost in all the different features, modes, and fits. Luckily, our crew is not short on both accidental and purposeful after-dark or pre-dawn pursuits, so we know a thing or two about picking out the right headlamp. In short, we’re looking for:
Jump to: What Makes a Good Headlamp
Black Diamond Storm
Mark & Janis's Pick
Ledlenser H15R Core
Black Diamond Spot
|Highlight||Most Durable||Best All-Around||Brightest||Best Budget|
|Battery Life||1.5 - 75 Hours||5 - 150 Hours||5 - 80 Hours||36 - 200 Hours|
|Max Lumens||300 lumens||400 lumens||2500 lumnes||350 lumens|
|Color Settings||White, red||White, red, green, blue||White||White, red|
|Batteries||123A Lithium||Four AAA||Rechargable 7.4V Li-Ion||Three AAA|
|Weight||4 oz.||4.2 oz.||13.4 oz.||3 oz.|
|Field Notes||Field Notes||Field Notes||Field Notes|
As with most outdoor gear, one of the most important aspects of a headlamp is that it functions when we need it to. That’s why we’re calling reliability our top consideration. This encompasses the duration of the battery life (or how convenient recharging will be), how sturdy the headlamp is, and whether it boasts any waterproofing or an all-weather performance guarantee.
If you’re going to spend long periods of time in the backcountry, it might be best to prioritize longevity over lumens. Sure, being able to see into the next county is great, but it’s not worth the total darkness that ensues when that battery eventually dies and you realize you forgot to pack extras. It’s also worth mentioning that dishing out for good batteries can make a difference.
Another important consideration is what modes the headlamp offers. We’re usually trying to stay invisible to critters, so a red light mode is super helpful. We’re also frequently going in and out of tents and vehicles, and we definitely don’t want to blind our buddies, so a dimmer switch helps quickly suppress the brightness of the main beam.
We also want our headlamps to stay absolutely glued to our heads whether we’re sweating, shivering, bushwhacking, or setting up camp. Some headlamps have a second perpendicular strap that comes over the top, which can add security to the grip. We also frequently wear headlamps over hats or beanies or under hoods, so making sure the strap and profile fits with these added layers is key.
There’s nothing worse than desperately needing a small piece of gear and not being able to find it. When it comes to headlamps, darkness complicates the matter even more. Pick a zippered pocket to keep your headlamp in, and don’t ever put it anywhere else unless absolutely necessary. Reaching for it will become muscle memory, even if you don’t have another light source to help you. This pocket should also be protected from elements, waterproof if possible, and high up on your body or pack in case you have to walk through water.
Steve and Janis explore this matter further here.
We mention IP rating in the product comparison chart above. IP stands for “Ingress Protection” and is a way to measure how dustproof and waterproof the housing on certain electrical equipment is. The first number shows protection against solids and the second against liquids. All the headlamps we mentioned have an IP liquid rating of 7 or 8, which means they’re all protected against some form of submersion. The “X” in the third position means those products haven’t been tested against intrusion of dust or other solids, but the Black Diamond Storm and Ledlenser both received the highest score. This chart explains what the range of ratings mean.
If this headlamp can keep up with Steve, it must be good. What it might lack in extra features, it more than makes up for in general toughness and functionality when you need it most. Plus, it boasts a neoprene pad against your forehead for maximum comfort, and rechargeable batteries are available for purchase if you want to go that route.
“Drop it, submerge it, bash it, bring it all over the world, this thing keeps on working,” Steve said. “It burns through CR123 batteries in a hurry on full blast, but if you keep it dimmed it'll last a reasonable amount of time.”
Versatility is on this headlamp’s side if Mark and Janis both pick it out of a lineup. The Storm performs in the dense whitetail woods and in the Rockies when rock-scrambling for sheep.
“Its powerful white beam is strong enough to follow a blood trail, while its red and green beams are ideal for sneaking into the woods after dark without spooking deer or washing out your night vision,” Mark said. “I'm a big fan of the full-spectrum dimmer, which allows you to adjust the brightness to just the right setting for your task at hand."
“I've made it seven days of hunting without needing a charge,” Janis said. “That's as long as I'd expect from any lithium or fancy CR-whatever battery. Not having to shop for crazy batteries is a real plus. It’s also easy to lock so the light doesn't turn on in your cargo pocket at noon while you're napping and burn your battery.”
Sean’s headlamp works overtime as a high-beam headlight for when he’s steering a boat in nightime waters or setting big spreads of dekes before daybreak. The extreme lumen output on the Ledlenser gets the job done, and that extra strap over the top ensures he doesn’t lose it to the drink.
“They're expensive, but I haven't had one break or quit on me yet,” Sean said. “The H15R Core Headlamp is my favorite model; you can focus the beam super tight to see obstacles coming ahead on night-time boat rides, but then you can dim it down and create a flooding light when you're working with your hands.”
I bought this headlamp for trail running when daylight hours are short and I know I’ll be out past dusk. It transitioned seamlessly into my first hunt last fall. The strap is easily adjustable, making a quick fit over my beanie a piece of cake, and it stays anchored even if you suddenly have to sprint through the woods (which hopefully you won’t have to do). And not for nothing, but it boasts the highest waterproof rating and the longest battery life of these four picks, so I’d take this bargain even if money were no object.