Headlamps are simple, yet ingenious creations. Attach a bright light to your head and you leave your hands free to take on the world. You can climb, ski, bike, walk, or just read your book in your tent at night all without having to fumble around with a flashlight in one hand. What more could you want?
But, despite their funcitonal simplicity and humble origins, modern-day headlamps are technology-packed and critical pieces of outdoor gear. These days, headlamps come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and designs, so it can be difficult to find one that’s just right for your needs, especially when you need it for something as adrenaline-filled and consequential as rock climbing.
To help you make the best choice when looking for your new climbing headlamp, we put together the ultimate guide to choosing your next backcountry lightsource. Here are some key things to consider when looking for the best climbing headlamp:
In our homes and daily lives, we use a variety of different kinds of bulbs to illuminate our world. In our lighting fixtures, we often use incandescent light bulbs, or other, more energy efficient options, such as a compact flourescent lamp (CFL) light bulb. However, in the outdoors, the LED (light emitting diode) is king.
LED lights are preferred in harsh and inhospitable lightbulbs for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, they contain no toxic mercury, they turn on instantly at any temperature (both hot and cold), don’t contain any glass, and don’t emit any of the UV rays that cause colored materials and fabrics to fade over time. Additioanlly, LED bulbs emit significantly less heat than other light sources and can emit colored light. Plus, while they used to be expensive, their are becoming cheaper and cheaper to manufacture over time.
Thus, when you buy a headlamp, you’re almost certainly going to buy a model that’s chock full of LED bulbs. This is considered the industry standard for a quality headlamp, so if someone’s trying to sell you a light without LEDs in it, you should be very suspicious.
A lumen is a unit of the total quantity of light emitted from a light source per unit of time. That might sound a bit confusing, but basically a lumen is a measure of how bright a light is, with more lumens indicating a brighter light.
Pretty much every headlamp manufacturer worth paying attention to will give you information about the maximum lumens output of their headlamps. While this is a useful measure, insofar as it gives us an idea of how bright a headlamp is, it does not tell the whole story.
Since lumens are a measure of light output in all directions, it doesn’t tell us about the quality of the light beam in both distance and close-proximity situations. Thus, don’t get trapped into thinking that a high lumens rating necessarily means a higher quality headlamp.
For climbers, however, a higher lumens rating means that we’ll likely be able to see more detail in the rock and ice in front of us, which is helpful, especially when we’re pushing hard grades in the middle of the night. Thus, getting a headlamp with a high lumens rating can make a big difference on more difficult climbs.
Beam distance is an important feature in many headlamps, especially those used for hiking. When it comes to climbing, beam distance may or may not be of importance. When you’re rock or ice climbing on steep terrain, it’s unlikely that you’re really going to care about the minute details of the route 200 feet ahead of you - instead, you’re focusing on finding those miniscule footholds and crimps right in front of your face.
That being said, a longer beam distance is very helpful when navigating difficult terrain that’s less than fifth class (i.e. non-technical), such as on a fourth-class approach or on a walk-off from the top of a climb as it allows you to see the terrain in front of you. Additionally, a longer beam distance allows you to better plan out your next steps while traversing glaciers or rocky talus fields.
These days, most headlamps do more than just shine a white light in front of your face. Depending on the headlamp you buy, you may get a plethora of different beam options, including high beam, low beam, strobe, red light, blue light, green light, among others.
Each of these has its own unique purpose, though climbers will likely find that high and low beam, strobe, and red light are more than enough. The high beam/low beam option is great for adjusting the brightness to the conditions, while strobe is good for emergency situations. Finally, a red light allows you to see clearly without disrupting your detailed “night vision,” which is helpful when you’re trying to look for small holds.
Until recently, nearly all headlamps ran on a few AA or AAA batteries. However, many modern headlamps now run on rechargeable batteries, disposable batteries, or both.
While disposable batteries are time-tested to be reliable and convenient, they do cause a bit of a sustainability concern, especially since proper recycling facilities aren’t widely available. Additionally, leaving a set of disposable batteries in your headlamp for too long without using it can lead to damaging corrosion inside your headlamp.
On the other hand, rechargeable batteries help eliminate some of the waste produced by disposable batteries, which is their greatest benefit. While being rechargeable also means you can save money on disposable batteries, it also poses some challenges to how you can recharge your headlamp on a longer climbing trip. A portable battery pack is perhaps your best option, but does add weight to your pack.
Battery run-time is a measure of how long a headlamp can produce a visible light before the batteries die. Nearly all headlamp manufacturers list this spec on their packaging, though, be warned: almost every manufacturer grossly over-estimates the battery run-time of their products. Thus, while this is a useful - and important - spec, take the manufacturer’s words with a grain of salt.
The last thing you’d want is to be in the middle of a nighttime epic, climbing along with your headlamp, only to get rained on and for your headlamp to break. Thankfully, plenty of modern headlamps bear some semblance of waterproofing, with some being “rain-resistant” and others being fully submersible for a short period of time.
Therefore, if you spend a lot of time in wet environments, investing in a waterproof headlamp just might be one of the better gear decisions you make. It might cost you a bit more, but you’ll definitely be happy if you ever get caught out in the rain at night.
No one wants to carry a brick around in their pack (or on their head, for that matter), so weight is certainly important when it comes to choosing the best headlamp for climbing. That being said, you’ll often find that a heavier headlamp has a longer battery life and higher lumens output than a lightweight option, so there will almost always be a trade-off in this department.
At the end of the day, you can only wear one headlamp at a time, so it’s important to pick a good one. If we had to choose just one of the ten amazing headlamps that we reviewed for this list to take on our next adventure, we’d go with the Princeton Tec Apex Headlamp. The Apex was a solid overall performer, with a whole lot of light output, a durable, waterproof construction, and a quality selection of beam options. The main drawback to the Apex is its relatively heavy weight, but if you can’t compromise on brightness and light quality, the Apex just might be the choice for you. Happy climbing!