How to Choose a Headlamp

Tips from the Experts at REI

Headlamps are one of the most useful pieces of gear to own because they offer a hands-free way to navigate in the darkness. Whether you plan to run or hike at night, set up camp in the dark, or walk your dog after dusk, these tips will help you choose a headlamp that’s right for you!

Light Output

Most headlamps use LEDs as a light source, which are rugged, energy-efficient and long-lasting. You also want to look at the lumens—a unit of measure that gauges the total quantity of light emitted. 

Beam Type

A flood beam is useful for general camp tasks, up-close repair work, and reading.

A spot beam enables long-distance viewing, a good choice to navigate a trail in the dark. An adjustable headlamp that offers both beams is the most versatile.

Beam Distance

A headlamp’s fundamental purpose is to channel light to a target area. While lumens tell you how brightly a headlamp glows (at its source), headlamp beam distance tells you how far it goes (to a surface you want illuminated). 


You won’t notice substantial differences in headlamp size and weight until you start examining some very high-powered models. Some have top straps and external battery packs that add bulk. Such models are intended for specific needs such as climbing rather than routine adventures.

Headlamp Brightness Levels and Modes

Most headlamps offer at least a high and low mode. Others may offer three or more modes. Strobe mode acts as an emergency blinker. Boost (or Zoom) permits an extra-intense beam to be projected for a brief period. Many headlamps offer a red-light mode. Red light does not cause our pupils to shrink the way white light can and helps protect the night sky, which comes in handy when stargazing.

Additional Headlamp Features to Consider

  • Water resistance – Make sure your headlamp can withstand some degree of exposure to rain and snow, as well as modest drops and jolts.
  • Tilt – The ability to adjust the headlamp unit up and down is a nice option. It lets you position the beam exactly where you want it.
  • On/off switches – If possible, try out the buttons to see if you like how the headlamp cycles through its modes.


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Building Your Skills: How to Choose a Headlamp