When the days start getting shorter, head torches quickly become an essential piece of kit - both for safety and for making the most of the darker evenings.
It’s easy to run out of daylight on big days out and a good head torch can be the difference between getting back to your car or tent grinning and victorious, and being benighted on a hillside cold and miserable. But head torches aren’t just for emergency back-up, they’re the enablers of Alpine starts, eerie night rides and thrilling moonlit trail runs.
For this reason, LED head torches have been an important part of our product range right from the beginning. Our lighting has been developed with feedback from leading runners, climbers, mountaineers, hikers, paddlers and SAR teams.
With rapid advances in LED technology, there are more head torch options than ever before but choosing one has never felt more complicated. We’ve decided to shine a light on head torches – sorry. We’ve put head torches in the spotlight – sorry! Here’s everything you need to know to choose the best head torch for you.
5 Things to consider when buying a Head Torch
Working out your end use is the first and most important question to ask yourself. This will determine what head torch features are the most important and what you can do without. As much as we’d love a head torch as bright as the sun and as light as a feather than runs all night, most head torches will excel in some areas more than others.
For instance, if you need a head torch for winter mountaineering, a long battery life and long beam length for navigation will probably be your priority. For trail running you’re more likely to prioritise low weight and balance/a secure fit. For night navigation you’ll want to be able to swap between a dim flood beam for map reading and a bright spotlight to pick out features and follow your bearings. Chance you might fall in some water? Waterproofing will definitely be your priority.
Major factors to consider:
- Beam length/shape
- Battery Life
- Ease of use
Head torch brightness is usually measured in lumens, a unit which tells you how much visible light a bulb is producing per unit of time. This is as good a guide as any when comparing multiple head torches as most manufacturers will label how many lumens their head torches are.
The simple answer is: as many lumens as you can get! But it really does depend on your end use. If you’re only using your head torch for pottering about the tent, then you don’t really need to fork out for the brightest head torch money can buy. Also, higher lumen head torches will generally have a shorter battery life if you leave them on their highest setting, so it’s worth comparing the relative battery life for each brightness setting.
It’s also best to take these ratings with a pinch of salt as not all lumens are useful lumens. Those slippery lumens… High lumen head torches won’t necessarily have the longest beam length if those lumens aren’t concentrated into a narrow beam. It’s always a good idea to compare the lumen rating with beam length (if provided) and try and find out the beam shape if you can try the head torch out.
Here’s a guide to roughly how many lumens you need for each activity:
- 10 lumens For close-up stuff (pitching tents/cooking/reading).
- 60 lumens: For walking when don’t need to navigate (back from the pub, valley walking, familiar routes).
- 150 lumens For trail running on familiar routes (local runs, at steady to medium pace when you’re not having to look to far ahead).
- 300 lumens For navigation (not just map reading butpicking out landmarks, following your bearings).
- 400 lumens For winter navigation (when there’s snow on the ground and fewer features for you to navigate by).
- 500 lumens For winter mountaineering (when it comes to mountaineering and alpinism, the more powerful, the better - within reason. Ideally, you’d want 500 lumens for finding your route in the morning or for safely finding your descent route at night).
Do I need a rechargeable head torch or a traditional one with batteries?
Rechargeable batteries are becoming increasingly common in head torches and most will use standard USB charging. This means you can recharge them pretty much anywhere (cars, cafes, solar panels, battery packs, our very own Lampray). This is ace for your evening run or overnight camp and better value in the long run.
However, on longer excursions there’s always the chance that your battery may run out mid-activity when you don’t have a means of recharging it and lithium ion batteries can lose power more quickly in colder temperatures. As a result, rechargeable head torches aren’t always the best option for mountaineering, where the reassurance of having spare batteries is always welcome. Rechargeable batteries sometimes offer lower power outputs than traditional AA and AAA batteries too, so it’s always worth checking.
That said, there is now a middle-ground: many head torches (like our Qark) can use rechargeable battery packs and AAA batteries interchangeably with no drop in performance. That way you get the ability to recharge your head torch repeatedly, and can carry some AAA batteries just in case it runs out between charges.
Rear battery pack or front battery pack?
Some head torches use a rear battery pack which allows them to carry more battery power without weighing down the front of the head torch. Some (like our Gamma) place the batteries in these rear compartments just to balance out the weight of the torch and stop the light bobbing when you’re running. For neatness, and to remove any cables, most head torches now have their battery compartment at the front with the light itself. These head torches are generally lighter and fit to your climbing helmet better.
Weight vs battery power
It’s worth noting that the brighter and longer-lasting your head torch is, the more powerful the batteries will be and the heavier the head torch is. The lights and straps themselves generally weigh very little so most of the weight will come from the batteries. You don’t want to be weighing your heck down with a heavy head torch if you don’t need all that battery power (especially when trail running). Equally, for adventure races when you could be out all night, having a powerful battery pack (like the one on our Manta) might be necessary.
It’s wet, it’s dark, it’s foggy, and you’re shivering your bits off. A broken head torch can only make this situation worse. Head torches generally have an IP (Ingress Protection) rating to indicate weatherproofing.
We’d recommend a minimum of IPX4 or IP64 for year-round use as these can cope with splashing and rain water from any angle, making your head torch durable enough for UK weather.
If you’re likely to submerge your head torch at any point, we’d opt for IPX7 (submersible) as a minimum, like our Prism waterproof head torch.
This all links back to “what am I using it for?” Head torches can pack in a vast range of features and, whilst some of these are useful, too many features will make your head torch difficult to operate ‘in anger’ and might be completely useless for your personal end use.
Focus beam adjuster
While some head torches have entirely separate spotlights (narrow) and floodlights (wide), many use a focus adjuster to enable you to pick the precise width of your beam. Wide beams are useful for close-up tasks like map-reading while focused beams are better for picking out points in the distance.
Being able to swap between these two extremes is really useful but being able to completely tailor your beam width can be really useful in some situations; you may find a beam width somewhere in the middle is better for walking over rough terrain or fast trail running when you want to able to scout the whole trail for the easiest course.
Having multiple brightness settings allows you to conserve battery life when you don’t need full (or even medium) power. Whilst having more settings (or even fully adjustable brightness) gives you more control, it can make operating your head torch more complicated – which is the last thing you need when you’re cold and tired or wearing thick gloves.
Light sensor mode
Light reactive sensors (like those on our Viper) react to your environment and adjust the brightness of your torch accordingly. It’s a bit like having an automatic focus beam, growing dimmer when you look at your map and brighter when you face into the distance. This saves you from constantly clicking through the settings and keeps your head torch running at maximum efficiency, conserving the battery life.
Multiple LED colours
Many head torches have coloured LEDs that provide the best light for different situations.
- Red light helps you to maintain your night vision for things like stargazing and won’t affect your camera as much when taking photos at night (we also reckon it attracts fewer insects).
- Green light is ideal for map reading and is less visible to various wildlife species. Head torches with rear battery packs often have a red safety light at the back, so you can be seen by the rest of your group or by passing traffic.
Button size and ease of use
If you’re expecting to be using your head torch in extreme conditions, it’s worth checking that you can operate your head torch buttons and dials with thick gloves on. The fewer settings and the easier to adjust your head torch is, the less faffing you’ll need to do when you’re halfway up a mountain. It’s also worth checking that these buttons won’t go off easily in your rucksack if there’s no lock function.
Unregulated or regulated light output?
Unregulated head torches will grow gradually dimmer over time whereas regulated lights will continue at the same brightness level for a period before cutting out. There are pros and cons to each: unregulated head torches will be useable in some capacity for longer, but regulated light will provide the same level of brightness for longer.
An overhead strap provides a more balanced and stable fit, particularly for dynamic activities like running. But some people find this strap irritating as its one more strap to adjust right and it can be harder to wear with a helmet. All our head torches have removable overhead straps so you can choose what you prefer.
An absolutely essential feature for most activities - there’s nothing worse than having to crane your neck for your whole run to shine your light where you need it. It’s worth checking that your head torch will stay at the angle you’ve set it to, especially for bouncy trail running. All our head torches come with tilting head units (the Prism even has a 180˚ tilt).
Head torch guru Rowan talks redesigning our head torch range. Read more...
Alpkit Head Torches
Removable overhead straps for a more balanced, stable and comfortable - ideal for when you’re wearing your head torch for running and dynamic activities.
A range designed for specific activities. Think the best head torch for the job, not just any old head torch.
Centred around being usable and durable: functional designs with minimal scope for things to go wrong so you’re not left in the lurch in the field.
Rechargeable, battery, or both: more choice in how you power your head torch