6 Best Backpacking Headlamps of 2018

Headlamp Score MSRP Battery Weight
Top Pick: Petzl ACTIK CORE
95
$69.95 USB Rechargeable or 3 AAA 3.2 oz
Best Ultralight Headlamp: Nitecore NU25
93
$36.95 USB Rechargeable 1.9 oz
Best Value: Petzl TIKKINA
88
$19.95 USB Rechargeable or 3 AAA 3 oz
Honorable Mention: Petzl e+LITE
86
$29.95 2 CR2032 0.95 oz
Black Diamond ReVolt
81
$59.95 USB Rechargeable or 3 AAA 3.5 oz
Black Diamond Spot
81
$39.95 3 AAA 3.1 oz

The 6 best backpacking headlamps of 2018

We put 6 of the best backpacking headlamps through months of experiments and real-world testing.

After all that our top pick is the Petzl ACTIK CORE. It was the most versatile headlamp we tested. It’s bright, lightweight, and intuitive to operate. Plus it can be used with either the included USB rechargeable battery pack or standard AAA batteries.

The Petzl TIKKINA is our budget pick. At $19.99 retail as of this writing, it’s a solid, reliable light for anyone who wants a simple, inexpensive headlamp.

Read on for our full reviews and for buying advice on deciphering headlamp specs to find the one that’s right for your needs.

Top Pick: Petzl ACTIK CORE

Petzl ACTIK COREThis light ticked all of our boxes for features and specs, and was our top all-around pick.

The ACTIK CORE had all the features and settings we needed — including a spotlight (low, medium, and bright), a red light, and a red strobe — while still being intuitive to use.

We liked that it can be used with Petzl’s included rechargeable battery pack or with standard AAA batteries. The emergency whistle and reflective headband were also welcome features.

Of the rechargeable headlamps, the ACTIK CORE lasted the longest in our runtime tests. It also maintained a consistently brighter light than any other headlamp for 120 minutes, before dropping to a lower mode.

No headlamp is perfect, and there were a few drawbacks with this light. The lack of a locking feature was a bit of a bummer, though we never had issues with it accidentally turning on in our packs.

Also, in our water resistance tests, a few small droplets made their way inside of the casing. However, the design of the casing directed the water away from the batteries.

Based on these results it seems possible that with prolonged exposure to rain the batteries could get wet and problems could arise. Still, it did rank among the top of the pack in water resistance.

The other big drawback is the price tag. At $69.95, it’s the priciest headlamp we tested. While we really liked the features and the light quality, the lightweight plastic feels cheap for the price.

Regardless, the beam quality, brightness, and runtime combined with this headlamp’s impressive versatility make it our favorite for anything from backpacking to trail running to cooking dinner around camp.

Product Specs

  • MSRP: $69.95
  • Max light output: 350 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 95 m
  • Battery: CORE USB rechargeable battery (included) or 3 AAA
  • Weight: 3.2 oz
  • IP rating: IPX4

Best Ultralight Headlamp: Nitecore NU25

Nitecore NU25At only 1.9oz, the Nitecore NU25 is the best headlamp for ultralight backpackers who don’t want to sacrifice performance.

It’s plenty bright for everything you need, and was also one of the most intuitive lights to use. One button cycles through the white lights and a second button cycles through the red lights.

We were also impressed with this light’s ruggedness. It feels solid despite its light weight, and it was the top performer in our water resistance test (tied with the Petzl e+LITE).

The NU25’s beam distance fell short of the ACTIK CORE, and its 360-lumen “turbo” mode can only be activated for 30 seconds at a time. Its 190-lumen “high” setting is more than adequate for most tasks, though.

It was also the only headlamp we tested that didn’t have removable batteries, limiting its usefulness for backpackers who don’t typically carry a portable battery pack or solar charger.

Overall, the NU25 is an excellent option for its weight and price. It’s our recommendation for ultralight backpackers in search of a good rechargeable headlamp.

Product Specs

  • MSRP: $36.95
  • Max light output: 360 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 81 m
  • Battery: Built-in USB rechargeable battery
  • Weight: 1.9 oz
  • IP rating: IP66

Best Value: Petzl TIKKINA

Petzl TIKKINAThe Petzl TIKKINA is an impressive light for just $19.95. It’s lightweight, simple, and plenty bright for all but the most demanding uses.

The TIKKINA’s lone button simply cycles through low, medium, high, and strobe settings, making it one of the easiest headlamps to operate.

It’s not the brightest light, but its 150-lumen high beam casts more than enough light for night hiking.

We were a little disappointed that it doesn’t have red light or strobe functions. Red light is good for nighttime use because it doesn’t bother our eyes the way white light does, and some hikers find it to be an important feature.

The TIKKINA also didn’t hold up very well in our water resistance test. About a minute into the test, we could see that water was leaking in under the clear plastic front. When we opened up the battery compartment, there were large drops of water on the battery connectors and throughout the compartment.

It doesn’t do great at keeping water out, but the TIKKINA is simple, bright, lightweight, and affordable. As long as you avoid getting it too wet, it’s a great all-around backpacking headlamp for the price.

Product Specs

  • MSRP: $19.95
  • Max light output: 150 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 55 m
  • Battery: 3 AAA or CORE USB rechargeable battery (sold separately)
  • Weight: 3 oz
  • IP rating: IPX4

Honorable Mention: Petzl e+LITE

Petzl e+LITEIt wasn’t a top pick, but this ultralight headlamp is still pretty awesome.

The e+LITE’s dispersed floodlight beam made it perfect for use around camp. Its 50-lumen max setting was on the dim side for active tasks like route finding, though.

It also held out exceptionally well against water, earning a 10/10 rating in our water resistance test.

Instead of a button, this light uses a switch that rotates through all of the settings. In general, we liked the simplicity of this, although at times it was easy to overshoot the setting we wanted.

For minimalist, ultralight backpackers who don’t expect to have very extensive lighting needs, we could see this being a go-to headlamp. Most other users will find it just a bit too limited for general use, but an excellent backup in a pinch.

The Petzl e+LITE compared to a quarter

The Petzl e+LITE is impressively tiny.

Long-Term Test Notes

99Boulders owner and editor Alex Beale has been using the Petzl e+LITE as his personal backpacking headlamp for over a year.

Its biggest advantage, he says, is its weight. On his kitchen scale it clocks in at a mere 0.95 oz, or 27 grams. It is truly ultralight.

The main drawback is it isn’t very bright. Alex says on backpacking trips it’s bright enough for normal camp chores but too dim for his taste when it comes to night hiking. He also prefers a brighter headlamp for car camping.

Over his year of using the e+LITE he hasn’t had any durability issues with it and expects it to last for years to come. It’s a minor inconvenience that it uses CR2032 batteries because they’re not the most common, so he recommends stocking up on replacements in advance.

Alex says he’d recommend the e+LITE to hardcore ultralight hikers who mainly need a headlamp for typical camp chores such as prepping dinner, washing dishes, and filtering water.

If you want a light that can also be used for night hiking or car camping he instead recommends a brighter headlamp or a good backpacking flashlight.

Product Specs

  • MSRP: $29.95
  • Max light output: 50 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 10 m
  • Battery: 2 CR2032 batteries
  • Weight: 0.95 oz
  • IP rating: IPX7

Reviews of the 2 Other Backpacking Headlamps We Tested

Black Diamond ReVolt

Black Diamond ReVoltAlthough it didn’t win any awards, the Black Diamond ReVolt is a solid light, albeit with a few drawbacks.

When we say solid, we mean solid. Of all the lights we tested, this one felt the burliest and most durable. At 3.5 oz it was also the heaviest headlamp we tested.

We loved the amount of control over the exact brightness and concentration of the beam. The ReVolt also has a spectacular floodlight setting which casts a wide, clear beam nearly 180 degrees.

The ability to switch on the wide-angle beam on the light’s highest setting is awesome, too, especially for trail finding purposes.

However, all these features come at a cost: the ReVolt was by far the most complicated headlamp to use. It took one of our testers the longest to figure out how to use all of the functions on this light, and he rated it as the least user-friendly.

In our opinion the ReVolt and Spot also have the lowest beam quality of the lot. They each have a yellow spot in the middle and discoloration at the outer edges (see photos in the testing section below).

We were also a little disappointed with how this light (and the Spot) handles water, since Black Diamond bills it at waterproof.

When we opened the battery compartment after our water resistance test, we saw droplets of water on the batteries and around the edges of the battery compartment. The ACTIK CORE and e+LITE, despite lower IP ratings, had much less water around the battery compartment.

Although the light continued to work when fully submerged, the batteries and battery compartment are not watertight. Once we dried everything out, the light had no issues that we noticed.

We also think it’s worth noting that the ReVolt gives out 300 lumens with alkaline batteries, while the included rechargeable NiMH batteries only give you 175 lumens on the max setting. This is clear on the included instructions, but would be easy to miss if you’re buying the ReVolt online.

Product Specs

  • MSRP: $59.95
  • Max light output: 300 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 80 m
  • Battery: USB rechargeable battery (included) or 3 AAA
  • Weight: 3.5 oz
  • IP rating: IPX8

Black Diamond Spot

Black Diamond SpotSince the Spot is very similar in function to the ReVolt, most of what we said above applies here.

The floodlight and the minute control over brightness are great, but we saw the same yellow spots in the beam, and found the single button control confusing to operate.

Its 200 lumens were plenty bright, and it did great in our runtime test, staying bright for well over 20 hours.

Interestingly, about 20 minutes into our runtime test, the Spot shut itself off. There is no automatic shut-off feature that we’re aware of, and nothing touched or disturbed the headlamp during the test.

We suspect a loose battery connection, since the middle of the light’s 3 AAA batteries is extremely loose and often falls out as soon as the battery cover is opened. We didn’t have any other reliability issues with the Spot, though, so we’re willing to write this off as a fluke.

As with the ReVolt, our water resistance test showed that the battery compartment got wet within seconds of being submerged. The light did continue to work underwater, and had no problems after it was dried out.

Black Diamond bills the Spot and the ReVolt as waterproof, but, as our tests showed, that definitely doesn’t mean they’re watertight.

Product Specs

  • MSRP: $39.95
  • Max light output: 300 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 80 m
  • Battery: 3 AAA
  • Weight: 3.1 oz
  • IP rating: IPX8

Summary

Here are the best backpacking headlamps:

  • Petzl ACTIK CORE
  • Nitecore NU25
  • Petzl TIKKINA
  • Petzl e+LITE
  • Black Diamond ReVolt
  • Black Diamond Spot

How to Choose the Best Backpacking Headlamp for Your Needs

Types of Backpacking Headlamps

Ultralight: These can weigh as little as 1 ounce, and are ideal for minimalist and ultralight backpackers. Their light weight and small size also makes them a good choice for backup or emergency lights. The light weight usually involves sacrificing brightness or features.

Ultrabright: These tend to be the exact opposite of ultralight. They are heavier, sometimes outright bulky, and are often designed with people who have extreme lighting needs, such as cavers or mountaineers.

Technical: These aren’t quite as intense as high-lumen, ultrabright varieties, but they come with a number of specific features catered to certain uses. They may give you a high level of customization to suit various tasks, or have specific types of light beam catered to technical uses such as climbing or trail running.

All-purpose: Simpler and cheaper than any of the specialized headlamps above, these lights aren’t super bright or super feature-heavy, but are perfect for anything from searching around your shed to hanging out around camp.

Lumens

Lumens are kind of a big deal in the headlamp world, but they can be misleading. More lumens aren’t necessarily better.

Lumens are simply a measure of the total light output. What they don’t tell you is how focused that light is, how high- or low-quality it is, or how long it will last.

We’ve found that lights with similar advertised lumens can be drastically different in terms of how bright the beam actually appears.

Most activities don’t require as many lumens as you think. 300-lumen beams are nice if you’re looking for a distant trail marker or trying to see what’s watching you from behind the trees. For hiking and for most tasks around camp, 150 is more than adequate.

Beam Distance

Beam distance is the maximum distance at which a certain level of light can be detected. In other words, how well focused are all those lumens?

Lumens and beam distance are both measured with brand new batteries in the headlamp. Both degrade very quickly. That means that, unless you intend to change your batteries every few hours, you’ll want to choose a light that exceeds the lumens and beam distance you think you’ll need.

Beam Quality

The quality of the beam of light is a little more subjective and hard to measure, but it can make a big difference in usability. How clear and crisp is the light? How tightly focused is the spotlight? Are there artifacts or discoloration affecting any parts of the beam?

Beam Modes

Floodlights provide dimmer illumination to a wider area. This mode is ideal for close-up tasks, like reading or administering first aid.

Spotlights concentrate light into a more powerful beam that reaches a much farther distance. This is the setting you want for hiking at night, or scoping out that noise outside your tent. Most headlamps have spotlights with a few different brightness levels.

Red light keeps your night vision intact. It’s ideal for stargazing or rummaging around without waking up your tentmates.

Strobes are an important emergency feature. Headlamps can have either white or red strobes. Strobe mode conserves energy and can be seen from quite a distance.

Runtime

Also sometimes called “burn time or “usable light,” runtime is how long the light functions at each setting.

Take stated runtimes with a huge grain of salt — different manufacturers measure them differently. Know that the beam distance also quickly degrades to a fraction of its claimed distance.

IP Ratings

IP ratings are an international standard for classifying the degrees of protection against both solids and liquids in electrical enclosures.

The first digit tells you how protected the item is against solids such as dust (replaced by an X if it’s not tested). The second digit tells you how protected the item is against liquids.

For most backpackers, a rating of IPX4 is sufficient. This means the headlamp has been tested to function in splashing water, such as hiking during a rainstorm. You’ll still probably have to let the light dry out afterwards.

Don’t confuse a high IP rating with a headlamp being waterproof. In nearly all of the lights we tested, some water made its way into the battery compartment.

Also, keep in mind that these ratings are based on room-temperature fresh water. Ice cold, muddy lake water or hot water may cause more immediate damage.

Weight

The headlamps we tested ranged from 0.9 oz to 3.5 oz, measured with batteries and headband. There are definitely heavier headlamps out there, but with so many great, bright, fully-featured options for less than 4 oz, we don’t see any point to add more weight to your pack than necessary.

We recommend thinking of weight in terms of your lighting system, not just the headlamp itself. Unless you are going on an overnighter, you will need to pack spare batteries or some kind of recharging method, all of which factor into your lighting system’s total weight.

We also recommend focusing more on features, durability, and reliability first, and weight second, since the weight difference is fairly minimal among high-quality headlamps.

How We Tested

Runtime Test

We gave each headlamp a full charge or a new set of batteries, and placed them on high in a dark room. We took a photo every 10 minutes for 10 hours and compared runtimes and brightness levels over time.

Here’s a time lapse of the test. From left to right: Black Diamond ReVolt, Nitecore NU25, Petzl TIKKINA, Petzl ACTIK CORE, Black Diamond Spot, Petzl e+LITE

Note: the Spot turned itself off after about 20 minutes. We turned it back on at the 40-minute mark.

Water Resistance Test

All of the headlamps we tested were rated at least IPX4, which means they should be able to withstand water spraying or splashing from nearly any direction.

We used a spray bottle to spritz the headlamps from about 2 feet away for 2 minutes. Then we checked to see if any water had gotten into the battery compartment and gave them a rating from 1 (no water protection at all) to 10 (seems watertight).

The Spot and ReVolt are the only lights rated to be fully submerged in water (IPX8), so we went one step further with these lights and submerged them, on high setting, in a bowl of water.

We could immediately see air bubbling up from them and found that both battery compartments had flooded within seconds, though the light never wavered. After we dried out the compartments and batteries, both lights worked without any apparent issues.

Usability Test

We gave each headlamp to a tester who had not used them before and asked him to perform the following functions: turn it on high, turn it on low, turn it on red (if the light had one), and turn it off.

We timed how long it took to cycle through these settings, and asked him to give the headlamp a usability rating from 1 (hardest to use) to 10 (easiest to use).

Beam Quality

We shined each setting of each light onto a white wall to examine beam quality, color, and artifacts.

From left to right: Petzl ACTIK CORE, Nitecore NU25, Black Diamond ReVolt

From left to right: Black Diamond Spot, Petzl TIKKINA, Petzl e+LITE

A close up of the Black Diamond ReVolt’s beam, showing the yellow spot in the middle. Note: the horizontal lines are artifacts of the camera.

Field Testing

We used these headlamps during camping and backpacking trips along the California Coast, in the desert southwest, and in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.

We also made sure to dedicate time with each headlamp to night hiking and attempting close-up tasks such as cooking or setting up camp.

About the Author:

Stephanie grew up in Pennsylvania and is a life-long adventurer. She has taught English in Taiwan; backpacked through Asia, Europe, and South America; worked as a North American tour guide; mentored at-risk teenagers in Utah’s wilderness; and worked as an outdoor educator for elementary school students. From her current base camp in Salt Lake City, Utah, Stephanie spends most of her free time backpacking, hiking, climbing, and exploring the mountains and deserts of the American West.