- With the right headlamp, you can safely hike at night, find your way around a nighttime campsite, take your dog for a walk at dusk, or work on that prized '69 Mustang hands-free.
- When shopping for a headlamp, you'll want a durable option that offers a comfortable fit, variable brightness settings, and enough battery life to avoid going dim after a few hours of use.
- Our top pick, the BioLite Headlamp 330, is a balanced and comfortable headlamp featuring a sweat-wicking headband and a light enough weight that we often forget we're even wearing it.
The first time I went on a major mountaineering trip, I brought all the wrong gear. From head to toe, I made mistake after mistake. I had on a second-hand pair of boots, heavy army surplus trousers, and a bulky skiing parka — I was woefully underprepared. Perhaps the worst choice I made was to bring a single small flashlight instead of a proper headlamp.
As I soon learned, trying to pick your way over rocks, roots, streams, and snow in the middle of the night is difficult with just a handheld flashlight. My 45-pound pack and ill-fitting boots hardly helped the situation.
The next time I ventured into mountainous backcountry, I brought a headlamp — but foolishly putting my trust in a ten-dollar lamp from a flea market put me out on yet another figurative limb. It did work well enough for a few hours of nighttime trekking but then its hinge failed and the lamp flopped completely forward, shining directly into my eyes instead of onto the trail. I turned to duct tape for a quick fix but knew right then the value of a quality headlamp.
On my third multi-day hike, you better believe I had a damn good headlamp along for the journey. Through trial-and-error, I went from an ordinary flashlight to a bonafide headlamp — but you don't have to suffer through the same mistakes I did. Before getting into the best headlamps to buy, let's talk about how to pick one best suited for your lifestyle.
How to shop for a headlamp
First and foremost, a headlamp has to be bright enough for the task at hand. But the type of beam a light creates is every bit as important as its sheer lumen output. While the tendency is often to check the lumen rating of a headlamp and treat that like the most important metric for judging a headlamp, the type of beam is a better deciding factor than the intensity of the light alone. For example:
- A cyclist needs a powerful lamp that throws a beam dozens of yards ahead, letting him or her see plenty of the roadway or trail.
- A mechanic, on the other hand, benefits from a wider beam pattern that illuminates a broad swath of the area close at hand.
- If you're camping, consider a headlamp with variable light settings, a red light option, and one that offers long battery life (especially for backpackers).
You also have to consider features such as strobe effects, a red light option, battery life, and weight. The way those and other secondary attributes assist you in your hobbies or work should help you choose the headlamp best fit for you from the following guide.
Here are the best headlamps:
- Best headlamp overall: BioLite Headlamp 330
- Best headlamp for cycling: GRDE Zoomable Headlamp
- Best versatile headlamp: Ledlenser MH7
- Best rechargeable headlamp: BioLite Headlamp 750
- Best headlamp on a budget: Vitchelo V800
- Best headlamp to use while working: Coast FL75 Focusing Headlamp
Updated on 9/15/2020 by Rick Stella: Made the BioLite Headlamp 750 the choice for the best rechargeable headlamp, updated the section on how to shop for a headlamp, checked the availability of each recommended product, and updated the prices and links where necessary.
No headlamp I've tested has been near as comfortable as the BioLite HeadLamp 330. With a balanced, comfortable fit and a sweat-wicking headband, it's our favorite headlamp for any outdoor activity.
Headlamps may seem like lightweight, unrestrictive tools (or toys) but having those extra few ounces bobbing up and down on your forehead for several hours at a time takes its tolls. Not only are some of the heavier and more powerful options a literal drag, but they're also annoying, even if you don't realize it. I didn't.
With the BioLite HeadLamp 330, its 330 lumens of output is a good balance between what most of us need to be able to see in the dark and how long the battery life lasts, which is a respectable 40 hours on the low setting and around 3.5 hours on high. It also makes a good reading light and avoids reflecting off the pages of your book or magazine to blind you.
I took the HeadLamp 330 fishing at night, hiking to camp, hiking just to hike, and generally just stumbling about in the dark behind my father's woodshop, which is, for all intents and purposes, a treacherous deathtrap of wood and metal scraps. Yes, dearest reader, I take my job, and your safety, extremely seriously. I'm glad to report that, throughout the testing process, there was not a single visit to the emergency room.
In all seriousness, the best thing about the HeadLamp 330 is how well balanced it is. With the light in front and the battery pack in back, you don't feel the strain of a light and a battery pack dragging your forehead down.
The most notable spec about this headlamp is that the light and battery are separate, which puts a lot less weight on your forehead, and the light itself. The whole kit, I might add, weighs only 69 grams, or less than 2.5 ounces.
One common problem we see a lot with headlamps is that the joint where the light meets the base loses its threads or just breaks altogether, especially when the batteries are in the same pivoting unit as the light. BioLite does away with any such worry.
Speaking of pivoting, the light pivots up and down between four positions, which is, in my opinion, just enough. There's also a red light, which makes it a lot easier for your eyes to readjust after you flick it off.
The small on/off button (gray, left of center) can be a little hard to find at first, but you'll learn to love it because you'll find that you won't accidentally activate the epileptic test strobe in your hiking partner's face, and it's actually positioned right where you want to be (at least, if you're adjusting it with your right hand). — Owen Burke
Pros: Durable, moisture-wicking headband, balanced with light and battery in front and back, respectively
Cons: Doesn't take AAA or AA batteries as backup, the lithium-ion battery is not removable (you can't get a spare battery to take with you and swap out, but a power pack would fix that), 330 lumens is bright, but could be brighter (still, it saves on battery)The best headlamp for cycling
Wearing the GRDE Zoomable headlamp is like strapping a headlight to your head with its maximum brightness setting of 1800 lumens.
The top setting of the GRDE Zoomable headlamp is so bright you won't even use it in many situations. But when you're on a bike at night and contending for space with cars and trucks, or while you're pedaling your way down a mountain trail, you'll love the awesome output power of this lamp. The 1800-lumen beam fully illuminates the trail or road far ahead of you, and you'll be almost impossible for an oncoming motorist to miss seeing.
This headlamp is heavier than I'd recommend for use by a climber or distance trekker but for the cyclist or for use on a shorter hike where gear weight isn't much of an issue, it's a great choice.
Its beam can be focused and adjusted to best suit the conditions ahead of you, though the limited brightness settings — which are high or low — are a drawback. This is not the light to strap on as you hide out in a hunting blind hoping to stay unnoticed by attentive wildlife, for example.
The GRDE headlamp can be operated using regular batteries but is also plug-in rechargeable, and can be juiced back up using a wall's AC outlet, a car plug adapter, or a USB cable. It is rated to last for up to 100,000 hours of operating life.
Pros: Amazingly bright light, great price point, long operating life
Cons: Only two output settings and it's rather heavyThe best versatile headlamp
Ledlenser's MH7 delivers a powerful 600 lumens, three light settings, including a blink and boost function, and the light can even be removed to act as a handheld.
In almost every scenario where a light is needed, a headlamp supplants the traditional flashlight in being more reliable and easy to use. When the occasion does call for a handheld, however, the Ledlenser MH7 allows you to quickly clip off its light to act as a small flashlight. This kind of versatility isn't exactly a first in the headlamp industry but Ledlenser does it the best.
The headlamp itself features an overhead strap that accompanies the standard around the head elastic band for a more snug, secure fit. A rechargeable onboard battery lets you save on buying AAAs from the store, and should last an entire weekend camping trip (so long as you remember to switch it off when you go to sleep).
This 600-lumen headlamp delivers a powerful, customizable beam that's able to function in five different modes:
- Power: The highest output setting.
- Mid Power: A medium-power output.
- Low Power: A dim power output that helps preserve battery life and offers low glare for reading or working.
- Blink: This is essentially a strobe setting where the lamp blinks at certain intervals.
- Boost: This sets the headlamp to its highest, brightest setting for a short amount of time.
Other useful features include a focus system that's easy to adjust with one hand by just turning a dial on the light, as well as the fact the entire light is removable to serve as a flashlight. If it's versatility you seek in a headlamp, the Ledlenser MH7 is your pick.
Pros: Removable light allows it to act as a handheld when needed, five light settings help in a variety of situations, snug yet comfortable fit, available in multiple colorways
Cons: ExpensiveThe best rechargeable headlamp
The new Headlamp 750 from BioLite is as good as rechargeable headlamps get, offering up to 750 lumens of output, a fit that stays comfortable for hours, and a Run Forever mode that lets it operate as you charge it on-the-go.
The BioLite name is synonymous with quality portable lighting and its new Headlamp 750 continues that tradition in a highly impressive way. Much like our best overall pick, the Headlamp 330, the 750 takes traditional headlamp tech and adds more to it than you ever thought you needed.
Want to charge it while you're using it on-the-go? The 750 can do it. How about 8 different light modes, each with the ability to dim? It has that, too. The 750's strength is in its versatility, and it's the kind of headlamp that you'd want to bring with you on weekend camping trips, multi-day backpacking treks, the occasional nighttime hike, or literally anything — it works as well for getting under the sink or working on your car, too.
As mentioned, the 750 offers up to 8 different light modes to choose from. These modes are: Red flood, white spot, white flood, spot and flood, white strobe, 30-second burst, rear red flood, and rear red strobe. In other words, not only will you be able to have complete control over what the headlamp illuminates and how it illuminates it, but you'll also be visible to whoever's around you, as well.
Then there's its Run Forever feature that allows you to plug in a portable powerbank to keep the headlamp charged even while it's running. Though the idea of lugging around a powerbank only to have it hanging off the back of your head doesn't sound too comfortable, sticking it into a backpack or opting for a battery pack that's not too cumbersome is recommended here.
Finally, it's extremely comfortable. The brand's 3D SlimFit construction means the headlamp's components are built into the band itself, reducing what can unnecessary snag (and just making it incredibly low profile). The power unit built into the back of the headlamp also distributes its weight evenly to avoid it bobbing up and down on your head — something many headlamps have a hard time actually doing but the 750 seemed to do it well during our tests.
At $100, it's certainly not a cheap headlamp but if it holds up as well as it did during our time with it, you likely won't be spending much more on a headlamp for quite some time. It's highly durable, comfortable wear, and packed with useful features for just about any use case.
Pros: Comfortable headband, 8 different light modes that can all be individually dimmed, Run Forever mode lets you charge it while it operates, low profile design
Cons: ExpensiveThe best headlamp on a budget
The Vitchelo V800 Headlamp is affordable and reliable, ready to illuminate objects both near and far even in adverse conditions.
The Vitchelo V800 headlamp punches well above its weight. For a light that costs only around sixteen bucks, it has attributes you'd expect from a unit valued at double that price, or more. It has three brightness settings for its white light and a strobe feature, which can be valuable during an emergency when you want to be spotted by responders or when you're assisting with an emergency response and need to stay in touch with your team. The headlamp also has a solid and flashing red light.
Thanks to an IPX6 waterproof rating, this headlamp should be impervious to damage from rainfall or even a quick drop in a puddle or stream — just don't wear it while you scuba dive. And at its low output setting, the white light can shine for up to 120 hours with fresh batteries, so you'll have ample time to work, search, travel, or conduct other activities.
One reason I would not recommend this for a backpacker or camper is that the buttons are easily pressed by gear tumbling in your bag. A headlamp shining in a pack all day might mean dead batteries when you need it at night. That's not much an issue when the unit is stashed in a nightstand or in your emergency prep kit, though — just make sure it's not on when you close the drawer or the bag and you should be good.
Pros: Durable and weather-resistant, affordable price, white and red strobe functions
Cons: Easily turns on by accident, no floodlight settingThe best headlamp to use while working
The Coast FL75 Focusing headlamp can throw 405 lumens of brightness but best of all, you can use its focusing ring to narrow or widen the beam.
I own and often use a Coast FL75 and it's my first choice for any project around the house I work on after dark — like cleaning the grill in the evening, checking on my scarecrow sprinkle set up, or adding some extra air to the tires of my bike.
Like all Coast lights, this headlamp creates a remarkably clear, crisp white light that makes it easy to see what you're doing. It's a great choice for illuminating anything that's close at hand, though most people will likely be more interested in its long-distance throw capacity.
If you need to see objects or terrain more than 400 feet in front of you in a total darkness scenario, the Coast FL75 headlamp is a good choice. In fact, its beam is rated to stretch out 459 feet at its top 405-lumen output. Even the lowest setting of this light is still bright, rated at 53 lumens.
Here's the thing: That's a drawback, not an asset. This light's low setting is far too bright for many uses, such as viewing a map or reading at night when you want to preserve your night vision and avoid disturbing others (or attracting attention to yourself). The Coast FL75 only has three output settings and they could reasonably be called Pretty Bright, Really Bright, and Whoa OK That's Super Bright.
If you only plan to use a headlamp as you work, during power outages, or as you survey the scene of an accident as a first responder, then you probably don't have the need for a dim setting but you do have the need for bright, crisp light. This one certainly offers that.
And, if you want something a little beefier, consider the FL85, with 615 Lumens and a 183-meter beam.
Pros: Bright and crisp light quality, easy to change the shape of the beam, clips for securing band to hat or helmet, extremely long beam throw
Cons: Limited brightness settings, short battery life, no strobe option