When I lived in Flagstaff, AZ, my buddy used to joke that a headlamp was a local fashion staple. It wasn’t uncommon to see a couple people around town—even at the bar—with a light-adorned forehead. If you’ve ever been to Flagstaff, you know the world’s first International Dark Sky City lives up to its name: the mountain town limits its nighttime light output, and because Arizona doesn’t follow daylight savings time, the sun sets early. When I first moved there I found myself burning through cheap hardware store headlamps and fumbling with handheld flashlights. Learn from my mistakes: Get yourself a reliable, bright headlamp, and consider a rechargeable option.
Why You Need a Headlamp
What if you don’t live in a dark, wooded mountain town? Do you still need a headlamp? Absolutely. While the flashlight on your phone will work in a pinch, a hands-free headlamp is invaluable for a variety of tasks.
I live in Phoenix now, and during a good chunk of the year, it’s too hot to exercise outdoors during daylight hours. Without a headlamp I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking my dogs before the sun is up or running at night. And for weekend warriors like me, Friday nights often involve setting up a campsite in the dark—a tricky task, but more hands (unburdened by flashlights) make for quicker work. Hunters, driveway mechanics, and nighttime cyclists all know the benefits of a good headlamp—heck, even mail carriers wear them.
What to Consider When Shopping for Headlamps
Before going out and dropping money on a light, think about when and how you’ll use your headlamp. First, what level of light output do you need? Measured in lumens, these figures can reach wild heights—with correspondingly higher prices. (The picks below range from 40 to 1600 lumens.) Many headlamps also have both flood and beam light patterns, and both are useful: Flood patterns illuminate a large area, while beams focus the light exactly where you’re looking.
Often, preserving your night vision is critical. For that, consider a headlamp with colored light modes—red is the most common—that won’t cause your pupils to constrict as soon as you turn the light on. If you’re backpacking or otherwise away from power for long stretches, many lights can run on both rechargeable and disposable batteries, giving you more options to avoid going dark. Pro tip: If you go the rechargeable route, bring a portable phone charger to give you extra juice off the grid.
Finally, the comfort, weight, and size of the headlamp are also worth considering in your decision. Though elastic headbands are the industry standard, not all are created equal, and companies like Petzl are even pushing alternative headband options like those used in the Bindi or Iko below. And even though modern options are pretty lightweight, sometimes batteries are not. If you’re concerned about weight and fit, be sure to try on a few different headlamps to see how they feel on your head.
In this guide, I’ve put together a list of headlamps that should work for just about any situation. Whether you’re seeking the best and brightest light money can buy or you just want something reliable to stash in your car’s center console for emergencies, a headlamp is a valuable tool and well worth adding to your gear roster. I keep one hanging by the front door and a couple in my SUV at all times—that way I’m never stuck in the dark without the ability to use both my hands.
The Best Headlamps of 2022
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