Headtorch Buying Guide

Guide to buying a headtorch

As with all areas of technology, the headtorch is improving every year, both in terms of brightness and battery life. Back in the day there was a choice of one – the Petzl Zoom – with its weak and blow-able incandescent bulb, or the 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. More efficient and long-lasting, now the choice is simply dazzling. So, what should you be looking for when you buy a new headtorch?

Winter walking at night - Outside Headtorch buying guide

How Bright?

The S.I. (Standard International) unit of light output 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, 100 lumens for walking, as long as you don't need too much navigating, 400 lumens is the absolute minimum we’d like to run off-road with, and 1500 lumens may as well be daylight. The brighter the better, but a dimming switch is also important to help save your battery and so you don't blind anyone else.

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 on. 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.

headtorch beam

Battery Life

The brighter the light the faster the battery will drain. Some headtorches will take standard AA or AAA alkaline batteries, great for occasional use, meaning  you can easily carry and acquire spares. However, most torches these days use a dedicated rechargeable battery produced by the manufacturer to optimise performance and run time. It's worth investing in a headtorch with a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery if you're going to be out at night regularly. Initially more expensive, they will pay for themselves very quickly. USB recharge is standard, top up just about anywhere, in the car, at home or by solar panel.


When it's dark, wet and miserable outside, and you're struggling to navigate back to safety, the last thing you need is lighting failure. Fortunately, all the headtorches we sell are weatherproof to some degree, at least to IPX4 standard (withstands splashing water from any angle). We have used IPX4 rated headtorches in some serious wet and stormy conditions without any problems, but more waterproof headtorches rated to IPX6 (able to withstand a powerful jet of water) or IPX8 (retrieve intact from the bottom of the pool) will provide more peace of mind.

Operation and beam control

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?

The latest Ledlenser torches tackle this with "hands-free" Adaptive Light Beam Technology, which can automate dimming and focussing.

Black Diamond torches have a Power Tap function which can quickly boost the output to maximum performance (even with gloves on) and then tapping again returns the output back to the previous setting. This works particularly well on the Distance 1500.

Petzl’s reactive lighting technology, currently available on the Nao RL and Swift RL Petzl headtorches automatically adjusts the beam according to what is in front of you. The light dims to the minimum setting with a very wide spread when looking at a map. Look up into the distance and the light adjusts in a fraction of a second to a powerful, focused beam. No need to jab at buttons, and the battery life is greatly enhanced, as the full beam is not needed as often. It's not entirely foolproof - heavy snowfall tends to confuse it - but when that happens you can manually override the sensor.

headtorch beams

Which Headlamp for me?

Benchmark head lamps

Our top headtorches at the moment are probably the Petzl Nao RL the Distance 1500 and Silva's incredibly bright (and expensive!) offerings. They are bright and ideal for fast moving fell- and trail-running or for keeping on the move throughout the night. These torches have multiple brightness settings, are more weather resistant and last longer. They also feature a beam pattern that allows you to see far enough ahead to navigate, while still giving enough of a spread to see your feet and immediate surroundings.

For runners, having the battery pack mounted on the back of the head will keep the weight balanced and minimise bouncing. It's also worth investing in some Hi-Viz accessories to increase your chances of being seen.

If robustness and durability is your priority then the Fenix headtorch range is well worth considering due to the aluminium body of the units. These also offer very good value for money.

Winter night time walk on Kinder, headtorch beam A winter walk on Kinder lit up by Silva

If you intend to use the torch in a very cold environment, you might want to consider choosing one that has the option to stash the battery on a long cable, that you can keep close to your body to improve the performance.  Check out the Silva Free headtorches and the Black Diamond Icon 700.

Best all-round headtorch?

Want a headtorch to do everything, without spending a fortune on it? The current Outside Staff Favourite has to be the Petzl Swift RL, which employs the same Reactive Lighting Technology as the larger Petzl Nao RL but in a more compact, lightweight package. They're impressively bright, and have a much longer battery life than the Nao. The rechargeable Li-Ion batteries will save you a lot of money over the life of the headtorch too.

Another contender for staff favourite would be our selection from the relatively unknown brand Fenix. These are very well thought out headtorches - easy to operate with gloves, very tough and water-resistant, effective beam patterns, rechargeable batteries, and a excellent brightness for your buck.

Very small and very light emergency headtorches

The Petzl Bindi, and Petzl e+Lite are 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, buy 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 e-lite 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

2 thoughts on “Headtorch Buying Guide”

  • Jim Burton

    The lumen is not intensity. Intensity is measured in candelas and is the number of candelas emitted in one directiin from a point source. The lumen is a measurement of the total light source output (ie not all in exactly the same direction) the effect of the lumens striking a surface is to illuminate that surface at a rate of lumens per square metre called lux.

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