Using a lightweight LED head torch to read a map at night

Headtorches for Hill Walking: Illuminating the Advantages

By Mark Roberts>

Head torches aren’t just for emergency back-up, they’re the enablers of Alpine starts, eerie night rides and thrilling moonlit trail runs.

Head torches, also known as headlamps in some regions, are essential for a variety of outdoor activities such as climbing, camping, night runs, and repairs. They provide hands-free illumination, making them ideal for tasks that require both hands.

With the light source mounted on your head, you can enjoy intuitive and directional lighting that follows your gaze.

These devices are often compact and lightweight, making them perfect for winter hillwalking and night navigation. They offer a blend of durability, energy efficiency, and versatile lighting modes that ensure users are equipped for different outdoor activities. Not only that, you will find head torches are pretty useful around the house.

How to choose a head torch for hill walking

  1. What am I using it for?
  2. How many lumens do I need for a head torch?
  3. What type of batteries do I need?
  4. Do I need a waterproof head torch?
  5. What head torch features do I need?
Two women camping and cooking by head torch light in the Slovenian mountains

What am I using it for?

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.

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:

  • Brightness
  • Beam length/shape
  • Battery Life
  • Weight
  • Ease of use
Two women mountaineering at night in the French Alps, wearing headtorches
Two men crossing a snowy ridge by headtorch in the French Alps
A man with a headtorch strapped over his climbing helmet

How many lumens do I need for a head torch?

As many lumens as you can get! 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.

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 too far ahead).
  • 300 lumens – For navigation (not just map reading but picking out landmarks and 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).

But how many lumens you need really does depend on your end use. If you’re only using your head torch for pottering about the campsite, then you don’t 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.

It’s also best to take these ratings with a pinch of salt as not all lumens are useful 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). Try to work out the beam shape if you can try the head torch out in the shop.

Gamma - 180 lumens

Viper - 240 lumens

Prism - 250 lumens

Manta - 300 lumens - wide beam

Muon - 450 lumens

Qark - 580 lumens - wide beam

Do I need a rechargeable head torch?

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.

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.

There is now a middle-ground though: 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.

Trail running with a Gamma running head torch

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 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 neck 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.

Walking past an alpine hut at twilight in Slovenia
Night time scrambling with head torches in Slovenia

Do I need a waterproof head torch?

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.

What are IP and IPX ratings? What do they mean?

You’ll often hear these ratings being used for outdoor electronics as an easy comparison tool. Higher numbers definitely sound good, but it can be a bit useless as a comparison tool unless you know what it all means.

IP = Ingress Protection – This is simply the standard or class for the code.

First digit = Solids Protection – This is the measure of how ‘dust proof’ the device is. The scale runs from 0 to 6.

Second digit = Liquids Protection – This shows how waterproof the device is. 0 has no protection, 8 (the highest) allows continuous immersion beyond 1m without issue.

But what about IPX?

Simply put, the device has not been measured against dust-proofing and so the ‘solids’ digit is replaced with an X. However, it’s not the end of the world as it’s reasonable to suggest that if the device has a ‘liquids’ rating of 4 or greater, then the device should be sufficiently dust-proof.

So what do our new torches get?

Vallis: IP64 - Protected from total dust ingress. Protected from water spray (rain) from any direction

Muon: IP64 - Protected from total dust ingress. Protected from water spray (rain) from any direction.

Viper: IPX6 - Protected from total dust ingress. Protected from high pressure water jets from any direction.

Qark: IPX6 - Protected from total dust ingress. Protected from high pressure water jets from any direction.

Prism: IPX7 - Protected from total dust ingress. Protected from immersion between 15 centimetres and 1 meter in depth.

Manta: IP64- Protected from total dust ingress. Protected from water spray (rain) from any direction.

Pressing on the Muon head torch in the Slovenian mountains with gloves on
Mountaineer Anna Wells adjusting the Alpkit head torch in Slovenia
Group of three hikers in down jackets wearing head torches at twilight in the Slovenian mountains

What head torch features do I need for hillwalking?

This all links back to “what am I using it for?”. We spent a lot of time ensuring each of our head torches had all of the features you'd need and none of the ones you don't.

Focus beam adjuster

While some head torches have entirely separate spotlights (narrow beams) and floodlights (wide beams), many use a focus adjuster to enable you to pick the precise width of your beam. Wide beams work best for close-up tasks like map-reading while focused beams are better for picking out points in the distance.

Swapping between spot to flood with the click of a button is often the least fiddly. However, 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 route.

Brightness modes

Having multiple brightness settings allows you to conserve battery life when you don’t need to use 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.

Map reading in the French Alps with the Qark rechargeable headtoch
Mountaineering at night in the French Alps with the Qark rechargeable head torch on

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.

A woman trail running on Dartmoor by head torch and splashing through a puddle

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.

Strap Style

An overhead strap provides a more balanced and stable fit, particularly for dynamic activities like running. But some people find this strap irritating as it's 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.

Tilt or angle adjustment

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).

two women wild camping in the Slovenian mountains and cooking by head torch

Head Torches and Camping Lanterns

400 lumen head torch with motion sensor activation
450 lumen head torch with red LED light to preserve night vision
240 lumen head torch with a reactive lighting mode
580 lumen USB rechargeable head torch with adjustable beam width
300 lumen rechargeable head torch with adjustable beam and rear safety light
400 lumen rechargeable waterproof head torch that's durable and easy to operate
Clip-on flashing red safety lights for improved visibility. Pack of 2
£5.99 £7.99
400 lumen camping lantern with two light modes and dimmable output
200 lumen rechargeable camping lantern with hanging clip and magnetic back
200 lumen waterproof camping lantern that floats
190 lumen camping lantern that converts to a camping torch

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