At their best, headlamps make you feel like a superhero with other-worldly vision. The latest options, packed with brilliant LEDs, can crank out up to 1,000 lumens and light up a trail or road sign from hundreds of feet away, plus they weigh just a few ounces. And they keep your hands free to read a map, pitch a tent, or replace a tire in the dark.
Read on for quick info on the best headlamps from our testing. Below that, you’ll find aspects to keep in mind as you’re making your decision and full reviews of these models and other top performers.
Need a light? Check our picks for the best pocket flashlights, LED shop lights, and rechargeable flashlights.
The Best Headlamps
- Best Overall: BioLite HeadLamp 750
- Best Value: Energizer Vision Ultra HD
- Best Mid-Priced: Fenix HL32R
- Easiest to Use: Petzl Tikka
- Best for Mechanical Work: Police Security Morf R230
What to Consider
Pushed by the demands of backcountry hikers, climbers, ultra runners, and tradesmen, headlamp manufacturers have also developed smart features that give you greater control over the size and intensity of the beam to suit your needs. Petzl, for example, built a sensor into some of its models that automatically adjusts the beam’s brightness based on ambient lighting conditions. Black Diamond and BioLite have memory functions that start the lamps in the most recent brightness mode when you power them on. Coast and Ledlenser let you change the beam pattern from spot to flood by twisting or pulling the housing around the lens, making it easier to operate with gloved hands.
The Many Colors of Beams
Headlamps are often outfitted with multicolor LEDs. Understanding which is best for what purpose requires brushing up on your biology. “Color is not in the retina. It’s not some reflex tied to wavelength,” explains Bevil Conway, who has a Ph.D. in neurobiology and runs a National Institutes of Health-funded research lab that studies color and cognition. “It’s actually this quite elaborate, sophisticated operation of interpretation that the brain is doing.”
That process starts when the millions of rods and cones absorb light at the back of the eye. These photoreceptors are tuned to react to different wavelengths and operate under other lighting conditions. Rods only respond in very dim light, whereas the three types of cones—respectively most sensitive to long, middle, and short wavelengths—work under normal circumstances. So, choosing between white and colored light lets us see our surroundings differently.
Red: This common colored light, processed from long wavelengths, is best for preserving your night vision because it doesn’t oversaturate your rods. That means they will still work (and you can still see) when you turn the light off. Switch to red when you want to chat face-to-face with a buddy without blinding them or when you want to hide from bugs. (Most insects have photoreceptors that can’t register red light.)
Green: Although it’s rare to find in headlamps, green light makes it easy to see at relatively dim settings. Thank your L- and M-cones for that; both are most sensitive to yellow and green light.
Blue: Rarer still, dim blue light is the hardest to see with and, contrary to popular belief, won’t help you track a trail of blood when you’re hunting. That’s because your relatively few S-cones absorb the long wavelength red and reflect shorter, blue wavelengths that don’t look markedly different under your headlamp. Limit the blue to mood lighting.
White: To see the most detail and color, stick with this neutral light. But in total darkness, use the highest settings judiciously. Bright light creates a glare that causes our rods to shut off, thereby hampering our night vision.
Rechargeable vs. Single-Use Batteries
Although we didn’t directly test battery types, it’s worth weighing your options. Models that use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are great for long-distance efforts, saving you from packing any replacement on top of the power bank or solar charger already in your kit. Those running on alkaline or lithium batteries cut out downtime that comes with charging and can be more affordable upfront. We’re big fans of the dual-power models that continue to proliferate and offer the greatest flexibility.
How We Tested
Our team of Reviews editors has evaluated and used each headlamp on this list. We researched the market, surveyed user reviews, spoke with product managers and designers, and used our own hands-on experience to whittle down the best headlamps for every scenario.
We ran them through several use scenarios, like submerging them elbow-deep into a bucket of water and clicking through all the buttons and settings, and dropping them from 7 feet up onto a concrete slab to assess their impact resistance. Plus, we ran, hiked, and wore them around the house in the dark, just like you would, to gauge their fit. But we also put them through a battery of tests to get hard numbers and back up or refute the manufacturers’ claims. Finally, we consulted other editors at Popular Mechanics, as well as our colleagues at Runner’s World, to further source recommendations. Aside from the latest addition, the BioLite HeadLamp 325, which we’ve only used in the field so far, every lamp here has gone through this gauntlet.
Buying a headlamp based on its advertised lumens is tempting, but it won’t tell you the full story. Conventional headlamp design causes light output to decrease over time, often starting as soon as you press the power button. This is partly caused by the variable nature of electrical circuits, but it’s also a byproduct of manufacturers regulating power delivery to balance brightness, battery life, and heat management.
Still, comparing the lumens of different headlamps gives you some idea of how they will suit your needs. So for the latest round of evaluations, we measured the lumens of each model while it was on its brightest setting by using an integrating sphere, a hollow instrument with a white reflective interior that scatters light evenly inside, and a lux meter for measuring that light. We built our sphere and calibrated it with the help of product engineers at two companies that make portable high-performance LEDs.
We recorded the reading on the lux meter every 30 seconds for the first three minutes, then again at the 5-, 10-, 15-, 20-, 25-, and 30-minute marks. (This is similar to the widely adopted standardized methodology used by manufacturers.) The findings showed how close our test samples came to their advertised maximum lumens and how steady or rapidly their brightnesses declined over time.
None of our test results exactly matched the manufacturers’ claimed lumens, but most were within a reasonable 10 percent margin. The Energizer Vision Ultra stood out as one of the most accurate, though it reached this peak at the 1-minute mark instead of immediately after being powered on.
Light Output Over Time
As expected, every headlamp on our list grew progressively dimmer during our half-hour test. Two of our top picks—the BioLite HeadLamp 750 and Coast XPH30R—had the largest swings, due to their optional 30-second burst modes. When we tested them on their brightest non-burst setting (500 and 490 lumens, respectively), their consistency improved significantly. The BioLite, in particular, proved to be an incredibly stable—though much dimmer than promised—performer, thanks to its Constant Mode tech. During the test, its brightness dropped by 7 percent compared to the average decline of 60 percent among the lamps we tested.
Testing in the Field
Another way to assess a headlamp’s effectiveness is to measure its beam distance. After dark, we found the farthest point where each headlamp was bright enough for us to clearly identify a silhouette of a person, painted neutral gray, by moving the silhouette along a line of reflective traffic cones, each spaced 25 feet apart. The headlamps were on their brightest mode and set to their most focused spotlight beam shape.
To find how long each headlamp lasts on a full charge or new set of batteries, we ran them on their highest setting until the bulbs faded, flickered, and died.
Read Full Reviews
BioLite’s 750 takes the title of the most comfortable full-size headlamp. The first thing we noticed when we slipped it on was how the wide headband distributed the weight so there weren’t any irritating pressure points. This also helped it stay put, as we didn’t experience any slipping.
Regarding electronics, BioLite has baked in some helpful tech, the most noteworthy of which is the Constant Mode. Even if you leave many headlamps on the highest setting, they will dim after several minutes as your eyes adjust to the light. And the 750 still does that, turning down the power gradually as the battery loses juice unless you hold a button on the battery pack to turn on Constant Mode. We found it more for peace of mind, knowing that the headlamp wouldn’t subtly dim on us and we could have 500 lumens—or 250 on medium mode or 5 on low—at our disposal. (That’s another thing to note: You only get the HeadLamp’s full 750 lumens in 30-second bursts, after which it’ll return to the high setting of 500 lumens.) Once the battery can no longer sustain the current setting, the light drops to 5 lumens, so you still have something to see.
Until we got the hang of operating the 750, clicking through its red and white floods, spot, strobe, and combined flood and spot via the single button on the front unit proved slightly confusing. The trick is to click through in half-second increments; waiting too long caused the headlamp to shut off. But this has its own benefit since we could turn the headlamp off when it was in a particular setting and turn it back on in the same mode rather than having to cycle through from the beginning. We eventually came to appreciate the fine level of control.
Finally, a small feature but one worth noting: The charging cable is 3 feet long. That means you can plug it into the rear unit (which has a solid and strobing red light, handy for runners) and feed it into a pack or pocket to a portable charger for additional battery life.
The cost of rechargeable tech has come down considerably over the years. However, the initial investment can still be a barrier, whether for an electric vehicle or a headlamp. Energizer bucks that trend with the affordable, lightweight, and surprisingly powerful Vision Ultra. The addition of the red and green LEDs made the lamp feel all the more valuable, even if we mostly stuck to using the white and red lights. And we liked the adjustable frame that let us tilt the housing down as much as 90 degrees. A drawback is the lamp’s relatively short run time.
The Fenix HL32R bridges the gap between inexpensive and expensive headlamps. At $56, it won’t break the bank, but it will give you a lot of light and a lot of features. With its total of nine light modes, you can adjust the headlamp to your specific situation and extend battery life to over 100 hours. And, if there’s any question how much battery you have left, the HL32R has a handy charge indicator right on the front. It has two buttons: one you use to toggle through the white lighting modes and one for SOS and red light modes. We measured maximum lumens in the short duration burst mode at 567—a little short of the claimed 600 but plenty bright to see an object clearly at 150 feet on a moonless night.
On the highest standard mode, turbo, the HL32R provided incredibly stable light. As we tested light output over time in turbo mode, it started at 277 lumens and after 30 minutes only dimmed to 246. Left on in this mode, the headlamp will last over 4 hours but will drop down mode settings to prolong the battery life.
When the battery was depleted, we recharged it with the USB cable. The HL32R has a single elastic strap with reflective accents and a traditional adjustable buckle. We found it held securely enough while we ran without jostling from our repeated foot strikes.
Petzl’s Tikka is a simple, practical 300-lumen headlamp and helpful in many situations. It’s also one of the rare models actually capable of delivering more lumens—310, in fact—than the manufacturer claims. As with most LED headlamps, the lumens do drop off over time. At 30 seconds, we measured 283 lumens, and at 30 minutes, 131. In practical testing, this drop wasn’t something we noticed because it was gradual, and once our eyes were adjusted to the dark, we didn’t need as much light to see well. Speaking of practical testing, we assessed the beam distance at 125 feet for the Tikka—how far we could identify a flat grey silhouette of a person on a moonless night.
Three AAA batteries power the Tikka, although you can buy a Petzl Core rechargeable battery separately. During our testing with fresh alkaline batteries, measuring battery run time on the Tikka’s highest setting was a little challenging. Petzl claims a 2-hour run time on high, but it simply doesn’t die at 2 hours. The brightness dropped over time, and, left turned on at the highest setting, it stayed on for over 24 hours, providing usable light.
At 2.9 ounces, the Tikka is one of the lighter headlamps we tested. That, combined with its average-width strap, made it comfortable enough to wear running without having to adjust it too tightly to keep it in place. We found the single button easy to operate and access three main light modes and two red LED light modes.
Morf’s R230 is a great headlamp option for work-related tasks like repairs in dark or confined spaces. With its claimed output of 230 lumens, we measured it at 260 when first turned on, dimming to 223 after 30 seconds. That’s ample light to illuminate your immediate work area, and it was enough during our practical testing to identify a human silhouette at 110 feet in the dark. Backing up its role as a headlamp for work, it is impact-resistant up to 10 feet and rated water-resistant to IPX7—meaning it can be submerged up to 3 feet for 30 minutes.
In our opinion, the best feature of the R230 is the magnetic, removable lamp. When we detached it from its dock on the headband, two auxiliary LEDs in the dock automatically illuminated, and the lamp became a small flashlight that we could use to light up areas normally in the shadow of our headlamp. And, being magnetic, it can stick to any steel or iron surface, like an inner fender on a car.
The auxiliary lights automatically shut off if you pop the lamp back in the headband dock. Four AAA batteries power the whole system, running a little beyond 6 hours during our testing.
Although we haven’t run the 325 through the same intensive testing process as the other headlamps on this list yet, we still recommend it as a no-frills lightweight option. It weighs slightly more than our lightest option, the Streamlight Bandit, but it’s also more powerful, with a max output of 325 lumens. That’s impressive for something so compact and thin.
Biolite claims this has a no-slip, no-bounce fit, and our tester found this to be true. He’s worn it at campsites to guide him to the restrooms after sundown, during kayaking trips, and a few times trail running, and he never felt the headlamp slip or had to adjust its position. It’s painless to fit around your crown (or hat) thanks to an easy-to-adjust band, plus its strap wicks moisture away fairly quickly.
It has a simple one-button operation, too. Tapping the button toggles through low and high power modes, holding it changes its dimness, and pressing it down for 7 seconds turns it on and off. You can swivel the light downward to better see the path ahead if needed. Oh, and it’s USB-rechargeable too, so no dealing with batteries.
Unlike other headlamps in this category, it doesn’t feature a rear light, but its focus on a single lamp makes it airy. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, consider this option for light packing, hikes at dawn, and emergency kits.
By virtue of its removable head strap, the dual-fuel XPH30R transitions from headlamp to flashlight in seconds—useful for all those spots your head can’t fit into but your light source needs to. Also, like the Morf above, the lamp body is magnetic, so we could hang it from a nearby metal surface while we worked.
As for light modes, the XPH30R has four settings (white light only) and easily transitioned from floodlight to spotlight when we twisted the bezel around the bulb. Its run time was notably shorter than the other high-output lamps in the test, but 9.5 hours is at least long enough to get you through most workdays.
This lamp impresses with its staggering number of useful features. The entire light, including the battery pack, is water- and dust-proof. (You can even change the brightness settings while it’s submerged.) You turn the Icon to maximum power with a simple button on the side of the housing, and the four bulb colors are easy to cycle through. Given that range of colors, the Icon is useful for almost any activity, from reading and midnight geocaching to search-and-rescue and hunting.
This headlamp is one of the heaviest we tested, and though it runs on four AAs (no recharging, sadly), it lasted for days on its highest power settings. It’s also a favorite of Runner’s World senior video producer Pat Heine-Holmberg, who says he’s been using it for nearly eight years of ultrarunning.
Few lights have as much power or afford you as much control as the H14R.2. Adjustments are easy. Focus the beam from flood to a single point by pulling out or pushing in the lens housing. Change light intensity in large increments by clicking the button next to the lens, or spin a dial on the battery pack for fine-tuning—both are easy even when you’re wearing gloves. You can wear the battery pack on the back of the head strap or stash it in a backpack using the included extension cord. A blinking red light on the battery helps others see you, even when your light is off.
This little lamp produces a ton of light with an impressive run time, thanks to Petzl’s Reactive Lighting tech, which helps save juice by automatically adjusting the strength of the beam for your needs. The Swift also has the most helpful battery-life display of any light we tested. While most lamps blink when the battery starts to run low, this one uses five LED dots to show you exactly how much power you have left.
It may not be the brightest headlamp or the longest lasting, but for $24, the Bandit is almost the cheapest. It’s a nice lightweight headlamp handy for small jobs around the house when you need to illuminate your work area or shine some light into a dark outbuilding. At 180 lumens in high and flashing modes and 35 in low, the Bandit is ideal for up-close jobs—its light pattern is broader than spot. Our tester often used it to root around in a shed early in the morning and set up at flea markets before sunrise.
The soft, elastic head strap held the lamp firmly in place so our tester’s hands were free to unwrap antiques carefully. An included visor clip lets you angle the light up and down to your liking or remove it from the strap to be worn on the brim of a cap (a bonus for hikers and runners). The Bandit has a weather-resistance rating of IPX4, meaning it can withstand a steady downpour for a decent amount of time.
One thing to note: Our tester has kept his Bandit handy in the console of his truck for more than a year. Over time and through four seasons of varying temperatures, its battery life on high has dropped from 2 hours on a full charge to about an hour and 15 minutes. That said, it charges as it did from day one, with no issues. And since it costs a little more than 20 bucks, keeping a backup Bandit around is just as easy.