Headtorch Buying Guide

As with all areas of technology, headtorches are improving every year, both in terms of brightness and battery life. You don’t have to go too far back in time to find a choice of one – the Petzl Zoom – with its weak and blowable incandescent bulb, and chunky 4.5V battery that seemed to die in a couple of hours. The introduction of LEDs completely revolutionised the world of hands-free lighting, by being far more efficient and long-lasting, and now the choice is simply dazzling, with everything from tiny keyring sized emergency lights to products so bright it’s almost as good as daylight. So, what should you be looking for when you buy a new headlamp?

Nine edges race Curbar Gap pitstop

How Bright?

The S.I. (Standard International) unit of light intensity is the lumen, a measurement of the total amount of visible light emitted from the LED source. In practical terms, 10 lumens is fine for close up jobs, pitching a tent, reading a map or cooking by. 60 lumens would be fine for walking, so long as you didn’t have too much navigating to do, 100 lumens is the minimum I’d like to run off-road with, and 500 lumens may as well be daylight. The brighter the better really, but a dimming switch is also important.

Headtorch Beam Patterns

For close up ‘proximity’ lighting, a wide beam is best for a good spread of light. When looking for that cairn in the distance, you’re going to need a concentrated spot to focus all the available output. For running you’ll want a combination of the two so you can see your feet and the trail ahead. Most headtorches will have some way of varying the beam, either with separate LEDs or a diffuser.

Silva's Intelligent Light pattern

Battery Life

The brighter the light the faster the battery will drain. Many headtorches will take standard AA or AAA alkaline batteries, which is great for occasional use and means you can easily carry and acquire spares. If you're going to be out at night regularly, it's well worth investing in a headtorch with a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery. Although initially more expensive, they will pay for themselves very quickly. USB recharge is standard, so you can top up just about anywhere, in the car, at home or by solar panel. 

Regulated Output

A torch with a regulator will maintain a constant output for almost the entire life of the battery, before suddenly dropping to a very dim emergency light right at the end. The alternative is a steady reduction in brightness as the power drains from the battery. 

Petzl Standard lighting graph

Petzl Constant Lighting

Battery pack on the front or back?

With the battery positioned on the rear of the headtorch, the whole unit feels more balanced and bounces less on the head (important when running) and you can use a much larger (longer lasting) battery than if the headtorch is contained all in one unit. However, headtorches with the battery at the front will be smaller and lighter.


When it's dark, wet and miserable out on the hill, and you're struggling to navigate back to safety, the last thing you need is a lighting failure. Fortunately, all the headtorches we sell are weatherproofed to some degree, at least to IPX4 standard (withstands splashing water from any angle). In practical terms, we've used IPX4 rated headtorches in some serious wet and stormy conditions without any problems. All Petzl torches are designed with stainless steel contacts and a waterproof coating over any sensitive components, so they will keep working even if water gets inside. For absolute reliability and peace of mind, the Black Diamond Storm headtorch and the Petzl eLite back up torch are rated to IPX6 (able to withstand a powerful jet of water) the Black Diamond Icon is rated to IXP7 and the Black Diamond RevoltSpot and Cosmo headtorches are rated to IPX8 (retrieve intact from the bottom of the pool).


It’s worth having a fiddle with the headtorch to get to know its functions before using it in anger. Will you need to use it with big gloves on? Is it easy to quickly boost the power when looking into the distance, or dim it so you don’t blind yourself looking at your map? One alternative to fiddling with buttons is.....

Reactive Lighting Technology

This clever little device is currently available on some Petzl headtorches and will automatically adjust the beam according to what is in front of you. When looking at a map the light dims to the minimum setting with a very wide spread. Look up into the distance and the light adjusts in a fraction of a second to a powerful, focused beam that pierces into the distance. Not only do you not have to keep jabbing at the buttons, but the battery life is greatly enhanced, as most of the time the full beam is not needed. It's not entirely foolproof - heavy snowfall does tend to confuse it - but when that happens you can manually override the sensor.

Petzl Nao Reactive lighting


Which Headtorch for me?


Bench mark head lamps

The Petzl Nao+ is our top headtorch, pumping out a seriously bright 750 lumens and ideal for fast moving fell- and trail-running or for just keeping on the move throughout the night. It has reactive technology, multiple brightness settings, is weather resistant and lasts longer. It's beam pattern will allow you to see far enough ahead to navigate by, while still giving enough of a spread to see your feet and immediate surroundings.

For serious illumination at a slightly less eyewatering price range you could also consider the Black Diamond Icon, a beast of a headtorch with 500 lumens output for just £70 (at Outside's current price). It's simple to use, reliable, completely waterproof and although it's not rechargeable, you can still use rechargeable AA batteries!

For runners, having the battery pack mounted on the back of the head for both of these models will keep the weight balanced and minimise bouncing. Unless you're lucky enough to have fells or forest literally on your doorstep, it's also worth getting some Hi-Viz accessories to increase your chances of survival on those deadly road sections.

Best all-round headtorch?

If you just want one headtorch to do everything, and you don't want to spend a fortune on it, the current Outside Staff Favourite has to be the Petzl Reactik+ and its baby brother the Reactik. These have evolved from the well loved Petzl Tikkas. Both of these employ the same Reactive Lighting Technology as the larger Petzl Nao but in a more compact, lightweight package. They're impressively bright, and have a much longer battery life than the Nao. £90 (for the Reactik+) or £75 (for the Reactik) may seem expensive, but the rechargeable Li-Ion batteries will save you a lot of money over the life of the headtorch.

The Petzl Tikka RXP in action descending the North Ridge of the Piz Badile

The Petzl Tikka RXP in action descending the North Ridge of the Piz Badile

The other current favourite is the Black Diamond Spot. This tiny little thing costs just £40, weighs 90g with the batteries and is completely waterproof! At 200 Lumens max output, it's seriously bright, although the output is un-regulated so that will drop pretty quickly. It's powered by 3 AAA batteries, so you'll have to factor in the cost of replacement batteries, but then again that may be useful on extended trips without access to a re-charge socket.

Very small and very light emergency headtorches

The Petzl eLite and Black Diamond Ion are two tiny little headlamps that you can stash away 'just in case'. They're great in an emergency (if your main headtorch runs out of juice), providing just enough light to walk or climb with, or for use around the campsite (so you can save the battery on your proper headtorch). 

Top Tip - Climbers, get a chalkbag with a little zipped pocket on it and keep one of these in there. You'll be really glad you did one day!

Petzl eLite and Tikka on the summit of Half Dome Descending the cables on Half Dome

A Petzl eLite on the summit of Half Dome - enough light to get down with, but only just!

To view our full range of headtorches, click here


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