When considering a headlamp for trail running, there are a ton of options to choose from. In this post, I’ll review what I personally look for in a headlamp to help you choose the right headlamp for you.
I’ll start by going over some of the features that separate the most common headlamps, including both the features that I’d consider absolutely essential as well as those that are just nice to haves. I’ll talk about a few different use cases where some of these different features might be important. And lastly, I’ll recommend a couple of headlamps that I’ve had good experiences with that yo can use as a basis for comparison when choosing your own.
The first and most obvious thing that separates most headlamps is their brightness and this is almost always measured by lumens.
Headlamps can range from as low as 80 lumens all the way up to 1500. Many headlamps also come with the option for both a wide and narrow beam, and sometimes both at once which allows you to better see the terrain immediately in front of you and at a distance.
Something to keep in mind though is that the optics of the lenses can really affect the perceived brightness of a headlamp, and some will even include ratings tied to beam pattern or distance. Some headlamps also have what’s called reactive technology which reacts to reflective surfaces in order to adjust the brightness automatically.
Generally speaking, anything under about 150 lumens is really only going to be good for walking on easy terrain, or for using in a tent, but something like would make for a good backup headlamp for emergency use.
The Petzl Swift RL which I review below is rated for 550 lumens on high mode, 200 on medium, and 10 lumens on low mode, along with a reactive mode which can boost it temporarily up to 900 lumens.
For trail running, I like to be in the 200-300 lumen range. Really, the brighter the better, especially when running fast at night on extremely technical terrain. Just remember that the brighter your headlamp, the quicker it’s going to drain your battery, so there is a sweet spot.
It’s easy to get excited about how bright some of the new headlamps are on the market, but you need to look at how long a headlamp will last at a given lumen rating.
For example, the Petzl Swift is capable of a sustained 550 lumens on high mode, but at max power you’ll only get 2 hours of burn time. At 200 lumens on the medium setting, you’ll get 5 hours, and when on reactive mode you can get up 30 hours.
I like to be able get about 6-8 hours on a single charge so that I can safely run through the night with a single battery plus a backup.
There are also a few different flavours of headlamps when it comes to the types of batteries. You’ll find some that rely on regular AA or AAA disposable batteries. These batteries are really easy to find, making them great for travel or in cases where charging may be a challenge.
I think this style of headlamp is fine for small backup headlamps that you might carry in case of emergency, but if you’re a heavy user you’ll want to instead invest in a headlamp that uses a battery rechargeable by USB, because relying exclusively on disposable batteries is quite wasteful and will get expensive in a hurry.
Some headlamps have built-in batteries that are chargeable but not removable, but I definitely prefer those that use swappable battery packs so that you can buy one or more backups to carry with you or to keep in your drop bags during a race.
Lithium battery packs are generally lighter and more efficient than alkaline and other kinds of batteries, and they’ll perform better in colder weather, but they are more expensive.
There are even headlamps that allow you to use both lithium battery packs and AAA’s in a pinch, giving you the best of both worlds, albeit typically with reduced performance with disposables.
There’s not really any getting around it, in almost all cases, the brighter and longer lasting a headlamp is, the bigger and heavier it’s going to be.
Some headlamps are more efficient than others, but it really comes down to the size of the battery in terms of how much burn time you’re going to get from any headlamp. This is one reason why getting a headlamp that’s bright enough but not excessively bright might be a good way to go. Remember, it’s not just the size and weight of a headlamp while it’s in your pack that you should be concerned with, but also how it’s going to feel on your head.
But some headlamps are a little more efficient in terms of their design and in how they distribute the weight. Headlamps like the Peztl Nao+ with larger battery packs will put the battery at the back which really helps, and you can also get an optional extension cable so that the entire battery can be stashed in your pack, although these can be cumbersome and makes it difficult to take your pack on and off. But this is a great setup if you plan on using
your headlamp in extremely cold conditions, because you’ll be able to then keep the battery warm inside your jacket.
All modern headlamps will come with some level of water-resistance which is generally rated on what’s call an IPX scale. I definitely don’t need my headlamps to work under water, but it’s gotta work reliably in a rain storm, so I’ll look for a minimum IPX-4 rating.
Now let’s talk about a few features that, while not totally necessary, are really nice to have.
The first is a lock. Have you ever had your headlamp accidentally turn on in your pack? Or worse, pull it out and realize that it’s already dead when you need it?
Not all headlamps have this and some people don’t like using it which is crazy, but this is something I personally always look for in my primary headlamp.
Alternatively, you could simply disconnect the battery in the case of something like the Petzl Nao, put it in backwards in some models, or remove it altogether. But that’s definitely not as ideal, as it’s just one more thing to be messing around with in the dark.
Some headlamps will react to reflective surfaces in order to automatically adjust their brightness based on the proximity of nearby objects, like when you hold up a map.
I’m not sure if this is limited to Petzl headlamps but they’ve definitely made this one of their differentiators, and it’s a great feature to have.
It helps to not only avoid blinding people or yourself when it reflects off bright objects like white paper but also really helps to save battery life. But there are two caveats here.
The first is that reactive headlamps can act a little funny when you’re running in a group. I’ve found that my headlamp will sometimes react to the person’s light from behind me whenever it shines past my legs. But then the space in front of me in shadow caused by my own body ends up being too dark creating a tripping hazard. So I usually end up turning this feature off when running in a group.
The second thing to be aware of is how this can affect battery life. I noticed that when I’m running on really technical terrain, my battery will last a lot longer because I’m spending more time looking down at the ground. But when running on more runnable terrain I’ll likely be looking further up ahead on the road or trail, meaning the headlamp will get a lot brighter.
So just be sure that you don’t end up getting surprised one night when your headlamp dies after only 5 or 6 hours, when another night you may have gotten 8-10 hours of use.
Not having a red light definitely isn’t a deal breaker for me when it comes to trail running, but it is something that is really nice to have, especially when using the headlamp in a tent, around camp, or really anytime you might want to save your night vision, save your battery, or just not light up the entire forest.
So less applicable if using a headlamp strictly for trail running but more something to consider if you do plan on also using the same headlamp for camping, which many people probably would.
Battery Status Indicator
Some headlamps are equipped with battery status indicator lights to let you know how your battery is doing, both when charging and in use.
Something I’ll always do before heading out the door is to just turn my headlamp on and off again to check for this green light. I can then lock it and throw it in my pack with confidence that it’s going to be ready to use when I need it.
Some headlamps allow you to customize some of their settings, but as technical of a person as I am, I’ve never bothered doing this.
You’ll find the design of the headbands will vary as well, and you might find some are more comfortable than others, especially after prolonged use.
And some even come with special reserve modes which will reserve 10 lumens or so worth up power for up 2 hours, once the battery is almost empty, ensuring you don’t get stuck out in the dark which could be a useful feature.
I think you’ll find though that with any high quality headlamp from a reputable brand, you’re going to have a host of similar features, so I’d focus instead on the main comparable features that I outlined earlier in the video.
My Favourite Headlamps
So you might be wondering, what is my favourite headlamp? I’ve got a few.
Petzl Nao+ Review
I used to rely primarily on the Petzl Nao+. I have an older version rated for up to 350 lumens but the newer model actually provides up to 750 lumens for up to 6.5 hours, which makes it suitable for skiing and mountain biking as well.
It’s got bluetooth connectivity so that you customize it with an app on your phone if that’s the kind of thing you’re into.
I have a spare batteries for this one which is quite large, but the optional extension cable allows you to store the battery in your hydration vest as I mentioned earlier.
Petzl Swift RL Review
I later bought a Petzl Reactik+ and a couple of spare batteries to serve as a backup to my Petzl Nao, and to use on shorter evening runs, but this ended up being my go-to simply because of its size and ease of use. In fact, I’ve ended up using this pretty much exclusively for the past few years.
It’s rated for 300 lumens, it has both a wide and spot beam, plus features like bluetooth connectivity and a red light mode.
The Reactik has since been replaced with the Petzl Swift RL, which doesn’t have a red light mode, but does have a lock and is rated IPX-4.
It’s definitely priced right and weighs only 100 grams with a swappable 2350 mAh lithium battery pack. So I’d say this is a perfect option for most trail runners’ needs. I’d recommend buying at least one spare battery pack to carry with you at all times.
Fenix HM65R-T Review
I’ve also been experimenting for the past few weeks with a headlamp that was recently sent to me from Fenix, the Fenix HM65R-T. It’s a brand new model designed especially for trail running, based on their best selling HM65R model which from what I’ve seen has nothing but good reviews.
It’s got an independently operated spot and flood light, and the spotlight is rated for 1300 lumens for 4 hours on high mode, 400 lumens for up to 12 hours on medium mode, and 130 lumens for up to 24 hours on low, so this thing could definitely get you through a 100 miler on a single charge of the included 3500 mAh battery. With both the flood and spot light combined, it’ll give you an incredible 1500 lumens.
It’s made of magnesium alloy with a rating of IP68, meaning it’s both fully submersible and impact resistant up to 2 meters. It’s fast charging thanks to the USB-C plug instead of the micro-usb you’ll find on most headlamps, and features a boa fit system which is really comfortable and snug.
I honestly can’t get over how bright this thing is, given that it weighs only 140 grams. The only downside I can see is that the included battery needs to be charged inside the headlamp, unless you also buy an optional charger.
So if you’re looking for something really bright for running on technical terrain, or something that can outlast you during a 100 miler, and you don’t mind a little extra weight a size, the Fenix HM65R-T is definitely one to consider.
What’s your favourite headlamp for trail running? Tell me about it in the comments below!