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9 best head torches for any adventure, from running to camping

Let these tried and tested lamps light your way

James Forrest
Monday 31 January 2022 09:00
<p>Don’t let the darkness stop you from exploring and undertaking an adventure. </p>

Don’t let the darkness stop you from exploring and undertaking an adventure.

The short days and long winter nights have reminded us of one thing: how crucial a reliable head torch is for year-round adventure in the great British outdoors.

With a trusty head torch, you’re all set for after-dark hiking, running and camping; without one you’ll be floundering around in the pitch black, unseen and unsafe.

The best models will feel comfortable and stable on the forehead and provide ample illumination for your adventures, whether that’s lighting up a mountain trail or helping you sort out your sleeping bag in your tent.

How we tested

We tested all of the head torches during runs and hikes in the Lake District at dawn and dusk, as well as on a five-day winter trek of the 90-mile Dales High Way. We’ve carefully assessed the technical performance of each torch, and graded them in terms of performance, functionality, design and price.

There’s something for everyone too, as we’ve included a broad range of products with different powers, styles and prices. Here’s our top nine.

Read more:

The best head torches for 2022 are:

Petzl swift RL

Best: Overall

Rating: 10/10

  • Max power: 550 lumens for two hours (900 lumens for up to 30 hours in reactive lighting mode)
  • Max burn time: 100 hours at 10 lumens 
  • Max beam distance: 110m at 550 lumens (150m at 900 lumens in reactive lighting mode)
  • Batteries: 2,350 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion
  • Weight: 102g (including battery)
  • Ingress protection rating: IPX4 (splash-proof) 

This is an all-singing, all-dancing head torch with premium performance – making it our best buy. The Petzl Swift RL achieves an amazing balancing act: it can virtually light up a whole mountainside with its uber-powerful 900 lumens, yet it comes in a compact, lightweight package weighing only 102g. It’s the best of both worlds – one head torch for all your needs, whether that’s pottering around in your tent or trail running downhill at night.

All of the features you’d expect are present: a really comfy headband, beautifully simple design (no rear-mounted batteries or connecting cables here), powerful rechargeable battery, intuitive single button operation, impressive beam with a good blend of flooding and distance, and nifty features including a lock mode and charge indicator. But the real star is the reactive lighting technology, a sensor which analyses the ambient light and automatically adjusts brightness to your needs. This preserves battery life and provides an excellent experience out in the great outdoors.

Our only gripe is that all this functionality feels like overkill on shorter, simpler outings, and the thick headlamp doesn’t feel particularly flush to the forehead.

Black Diamond spot 350

Best: Value

Rating: 9.5/10

  • Max power: 350 lumens for four hours
  • Max burn time: 200 hours at 6 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 85m at 350 lumens
  • Batteries: 3 x AAA batteries
  • Weight: 86g 
  • Ingress protection rating: IPX8 (waterproof) 

Black Diamond is perennially competing with Petzl for the crown of best head torch brand, and arguably offers better value for money. Across an extensive range, the spot 350 is the American brand’s best-selling head torch.

Why? Well, drop it in a puddle, take it out in an apocalyptic storm, spill your flask of coffee onto it – it really doesn’t matter. This hard-as-nails head torch is unfazed by the wet. It has an IPX8 rating (tested to operate at least 1.1m underwater for 30 minutes), making it the most waterproof product on test – perfect for Britain’s rainy climes (and clumsy adventurers). But that’s not all. It’s also lightweight, compact and effective.

The classic design features an adjustable headband and simple head lamp with just two buttons (power and lock) and a hinge for altering the beam angle. Max output is a solid 350 lumens with 85m range for four hours, or for mid-distance use, the 175 lumens option is ideal. For reading in your tent, a six lumens mode provides a whopping 200 hour burn time, or you might prefer the red night vision mode. Toggling between these modes is hassle-free while three AAA alkaline batteries provide the power, meaning spares can be carried.

BioLite headlamp 750

Best: Battery life

Rating: 8/10

  • Max power: 750 lumens in burst mode (or 500 lumens for two hours)
  • Max burn time: 150 hours at 5 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 130m in burst mode 
  • Batteries: 3,000mAh rechargeable lithium-ion 
  • Weight: 150g
  • Ingress protection rating: IPX4 (splash-proof)

BioLite built up a cult following with its 200 and 330 headlamps, thanks to a minimalist approach and opulently comfy headband design. But it wasn’t exceptionally bright, and customers hankered for more power.

Cue the new BioLite 750, which delivers a far more superior lumens output. In burst mode you get 750 lumens and a 130m beam distance for a 30 second pulse, or in high it’s 500 lumens for two hours. You also get medium (250 lumens, four hours) and low (five lumens, 150 hours) settings.

Power comes from a USB-rechargeable, impressively powerful 3,000mAh battery pack housed at the rear of the head – and it features a really clever innovation. Most head torches can’t be used while charging, but the BioLite 750 has “pass-thru charging” means you can hook it up to a portable power bank via a 3ft cable and charge on-the-go. For multi-day hikes, it’s a game-changer.

Everything else you’d expect is present too: an IPX4 (splash-proof) rating, eight different lighting modes including strobe and dimming, and a red rear safety light. The lamp tilt function is a little clunky and at 150g it’s rather heavy – but ultimately we loved the BioLite 750, particularly for long walks.

Ledlenser MH11

Best: Brightness

Rating: 9/10

  • Max power: 1,000 lumens in boost mode (or 750 lumens for four hours)
  • Max burn time: 100 hours at 10 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 320m in boost mode (300m at 750 lumens)
  • Batteries: Rechargeable lithium-ion 
  • Weight: 179g
  • Ingress protection rating:IPX4 (splash-proof)

This uber-powerful head torch is tailor-made for the serious hiker planning a post-dusk Munro ascent or some gnarly night nav – or for anyone desiring the peace of mind that if you’re unexpectedly caught out in the dark, you’ll have the lumens power to get off any mountain safely. With its boost mode throwing out a whopping 1,000 lumens with a 320m range, it can virtually light up a whole mountainside, let alone just the trail ahead, while the standard settings (750, 300 and 10 lumens; and red, blue and green modes) provide superb versatility.

There is a myriad of other premium features – transportation lock (to avoid accidental operation in your backpack), USB-rechargeable battery with power indicator, and twisting dial for beam width alteration – but the most cutting edge feature is the Ledlenser Connect app, which enables you to control and customise your torch from your smartphone. Overall it’s heavy and expensive, and the added power this affords is overkill for many scenarios. But for some, this workhorse of a head torch will deliver the wow factor.

Princeton Tec sync 300

Best: For ease-of-use

Rating: 8.5/10

  • Max burn time: 130 hours at 5 lumens (red)
  • Max beam distance: 46m at 300 lumens
  • Batteries: 3 x AAA alkaline
  • Weight: 83g 
  • Ingress protection rating: IPX4 (splash-proof)

One problem with many modern head torches is that toggling between different modes can be bamboozling, requiring an unachievable degree of finger agility. Princeton Tec avoids this altogether with a no-nonsense approach, delivering an intuitive user experience at an affordable price.

We love the snap solo LED 300 model, but for this review we’ve opted for the sync 300. It’s comfy and easy to use, with a large dial on the side for cycling through modes. We wore this head torch on a dusk run up Great Mell Fell and Little Mell Fell in the Lake District, and it worked perfectly. The max output of 300 lumens – a combination of spot and flood lighting – illuminated the trail ahead amply, while the headband felt comfy and stable.

Silva trail runner free H

Best: For running

Rating: 8/10

  • Max burn time: 12 hours at 50 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 80m at 400 lumens 
  • Batteries: 1,150mAh rechargeable lithium-ion 
  • Weight: 114g
  • Ingress protection rating:IPX5 (water-resistant)

Unlike the plethora of jack-of-all-trades head torches, there’s no ambiguity with this Silva product. It is unapologetically specific in its raison d’être. This is a head torch for night-time running, with every design detail and feature optimised for runners. And this clarity of purpose pays off.

We pounded our local trails with this head torch and were impressed for several reasons. The headband’s silicone strips kept the torch steady, while the weight distribution (1,150mAh rear battery pack and front lamp unit) was well-balanced. Ingeniously the battery-to-lamp cords are integrated inside the headband, meaning we weren’t annoyed by flappy wires. Performance was solid too, with the short and long double-beam simultaneously illuminating the trail ahead and the terrain underfoot.

Our other favourite feature was the extension cord, which enabled the battery pack (compatible also with three AAAs or Silva’s 4,000mAh ultra battery) to be housed in a pocket or running vest if preferred. You also get three power settings (50, 200 and 400 lumens), 80m max beam, burn times up to 70 hours (depending on conditions), an IPX5 (water-resistant) rating and an excellent lamp tilt function.

Petzl IKO core

Best: Innovation

Rating: 9/10

  • Max power: 500 lumens for 2.5 hours
  • Max burn time: 100 hours at 6 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 100m at 500 lumens
  • Batteries: 1250 mAh CORE rechargeable pack
  • Weight: 79g
  • Ingress protection rating: IPX4 (splash-proof) 

Petzl has totally re-imagined the head torch with an eye-catching, modern design. There is no fabric headband, instead you get the so-called airfit headband, a sleek, semi-rigid band with a sunglasses-like fit and shape. It’s super-comfy, with weight balanced evenly between the rear battery pack and front lamp plate. The latter is ultra-thin and features seven LEDs with three power modes and two beam types (flood or mixed).

At just 79g, it feels light and airy during exercise – Petzl calls it “imperceptible” – compared to a sweaty, irritation-inducing fabric band. All stats are premium (500 lumens and 100 hours of burn time) and the battery is impressively versatile too – recharge via USB or switch out for three AAAs. The frame also folds away compactly into a carry case, which doubles as a nifty tent lantern when the torch is on – ingenious stuff. The off-the-wall approach probably won’t float everyone’s boat, but we love it.

Ultimate Performance head torch

Best: Budget torch

Rating: 5/10

  • Max power: 87 lumens for eight hours
  • Max burn time: 20 hours at 30 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 57m at 87 lumens
  • Batteries: 3 x AAA
  • Weight: 82g
  • Ingress protection rating: Not stated 

If you can push your budget to £25, we’d always recommend a Black Diamond head torch. But if you really need to save a tenner, this product is about as cheap as it gets. Of course, it’s far from the most sophisticated option and the brightness level leaves a lot to be desired, but you can’t quibble with the price. For less than the cost of a takeaway, you get a max output of 87 lumens for eight hours, battery life of 20 hours in the 30-lumen dip mode, and several modes including constant, flashing and red SOS. Three AAA batteries provide the power and the lamp tilts 90 degrees.

Alpkit qark

Best: For high power at a low price

Rating: 7/10

  • Max power: 580 lumens for 2.5 hours
  • Max burn time: 18 hours at 30 lumens
  • Max beam distance: 150m at 580 lumens
  • Batteries: 800mAh rechargeable lithium-ion, or 3 x AAA
  • Weight: 95g
  • Ingress protection rating: IPX6 (water-resistant) 

This head torch’s main selling point is its power – a 580 lumens max output – despite the affordable price-tag of £34.99. You’ll pay a lot more for such brightness from other brands. The qark, which is powered by a USB-rechargeable lithium-ion battery (or three AAAs), gives you two and a half hours of illumination in the max setting. Alternatively, the medium setting of 270 lumens lasts for five hours and 30 minutes, and the low 30 lumens option will continue for 18 hours.

We wore this headtorch on a handful of walks around Cockermouth, a market town in north-west Cumbria, and on dusk runs up nearby fells Watch Hill and Ling Fell. We liked the central, over-the-head strap for added stability, while the focusing ring on the front headlamp enabled us to easily adjust the beam focus between spot and flood. The 90-degree tilt function was handy too, when we wanted better illumination of the rocks, stones and mud below our feet.

All in all, though, we weren’t blown away by the qark (more expensive torches offer better performance and functionality), but you certainly get a lot of bang for your buck here.

Head torch FAQs

What brightness is best?

A toch’s brightness is measured in lumens, and depending on your activity the power you need will differ. For general outdoor activities when the light starts to fade, 200 to 300 lumens will suffice, providing a good balance between battery life and weight. For more intrepid expeditions (Scafell Pike at night, anyone?), opt for 400+ lumens.

The higher the lumens rating, the greater the torch’s beam distance and width – but weight and price will increase too, so think carefully about whether you really need the extra power. The max lumens quoted by manufacturers can sometimes be misleading too, so if there is a boost or burst mode, consider the fact that the brightness will only last for a few seconds. Instead it’s better to judge a head torch on its highest output that will last for at least an hour or two.

What else should I consider before buying?

A versatile torch will have several modes, enabling you to toggle between different power settings, and adjust the width and focus of the beam. Some torches also feature reactive lighting (automatic beam adjustment to your surroundings) and a red light mode (for preserving your night vision). Switching between these modes should be intuitive and hassle-free. Most modern head torches are very easy to use, with just one or two buttons.

You’re likely to fiddle with the headlamp, which should have a tilt function for flexible beam focus; and the headband, which can be tightened or loosened for a comfy fit.

Battery life (also known as burn time) is another key consideration. Brands usually state how long a head torch will last in each mode. Most will keep going for up to 100 hours on their lowest setting, but only two to three hours on the highest output. Take manufacturers’ stats with a pinch of salt too – they can be a tad overly optimistic.

Are head torches rechargeable?

Traditional-style head torches take AA or AAA batteries, but newer options feature USB-rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

Are they waterproof?

For most adventures, an IPX4 (splash-proof) rating should suffice, but for very wet expeditions opt for IPX6 (water-resistant) or IPX8 (waterproof).

The verdict: Head torches

For its all-round performance and functionality, our top spot goes to the excellent Petzl swift RL. Or, for a better price, we’d recommend the top-notch and affordable Black Diamond spot 350.

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You’ve got the headtorch now you need the footwear, check out of round-ups of both the best hiking shoes for women and the best walking boots for men

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