How to Choose a Backpacking Headlamp

A headlamp is a time-tested solution to the illumination needs of backpackers. Headlamps light the way when you’re pushing down the trail to cover a few extra miles before pitching camp, illuminate your dinner and allow you to find those warm socks at bedtime.

If you’re seeking a headlamp for trail running, you can find that discussion here. Headlamps are not the only source of backcountry lighting; for video reviews of lanterns and other lighting, look here.

If you’re looking for a headlamp for the backcountry, read on. We’re going to review the important considerations for selecting a headlamp for backpacking use.


Backpackers want a bright light, and the lumens emitted by a headlamp is a frequent statistic quoted by manufacturers and consumers alike. It only tells part of the story, however.

A lumen is a measure of brightness. So, holding all things equal, more lumens means a brighter light.

In backcountry, you want to know how well a headlamp lights up a meal or the trail – in other words, how useful that light is to you. That kind of performance is heavily influenced by beam type.

Beam Type

The light beam emitted by a headlamp can take several forms.

Focused – A focused beam is a straight, narrow ray of light that lances accurately through the darkness. Focused beams are excellent when you’re hiking down the trail in darkness or searching for your tent after stepping away at night. Full-power beams can be annoying in tight spaces like tents.

Wide – A wide beam produces a diffuse light that illuminates a large area. This is perfect for tasks like pitching a tent, cooking and organizing gear. Generally, wide focus lights are useful for reading and gently illuminating the inside of a tent.

Adjustable – The strength of this option is versatility. An adjustable headlamp can vary the beam width, or switch between different modes, to provide you with both wide/diffuse light as well as focused/narrow beams.

Graphic showing two different types of headlamp beams
Headlamp beams: focused (right) and wide (right)


Backpackers are an ounce-counting bunch, so they want to balance their need for useful illumination with the lowest weight. Headlamps range from lightweights under an ounce to fully-featured lamps weighing up to 10 ounces.

The most significant factor in headlamp weight is the power source. Headlamps with more and/or larger batteries are heavier than their competitors.

Other factors that influence weight are:

Straps – More straps, wider bands or thicker straps contribute positively to security and comfort but can add weight.

Three headlamps with different straps on a wooden surface

Multiple bulbs – some headlamps use different LED bulbs for different purposes. More bulbs add weight.

Electronics – some advanced features require circuitry that contributes weight.

Power Source

Backpackers want a dependable light at the lowest weight possible. The power source is therefore an important consideration because it is often the heaviest component of a headlamp. There are different types of power sources and they vary in weight.

  • Integrated rechargeable battery
  • Non-rechargeable batteries (AA or AAA)
  • Removable rechargeable batteries (AA, AAA, or proprietary units)

Some headlamps feature integrated rechargeable batteries, often charged by USB connections. These built-in batteries can be convenient for backpackers because they eliminate the need to carry extra batteries. Integrated rechargeable batteries also reduce electronic waste compared to battery-dependent devices.

USB charging connection of headlamp with integrated rechargeable battery
The USB charging port of a Petzl headlamp with an integrated rechargeable battery

An important consideration for backpacking with a rechargeable headlamp is how to charge it while in the backcountry. Modern backpackers often carry charging devices for their phones and many of those options (including solar panels and portable charging units) can also be used to recharge one of these headlamps.

Many headlamps are built to accept standard, non-rechargeable batteries (usually AA or AAA). A benefit of this kind of power source is that you have the option to immediately change batteries if your light starts to falter. However, extra batteries add weight to your pack and contribute to the electronic waste stream.

Open battery compartment on Petzl headlamp

An eco-friendly backpacking option with these headlamps is to use rechargeable batteries. These can come in the form of rechargeable AA or AAA-sized batteries or proprietary manufacturer units shaped to fit into their headlamps’ battery compartments.

Like integrated batteries, removeable rechargeable units will reduce your e-waste compared to throwaway batteries. Headlamps that can use both standard batteries and rechargeables give backpackers the versatility to choose between carrying extra backup batteries or a charging option.

Backpackers out in cool or cold conditions will be interested to know that lithium-ion batteries, whether they are integrated rechargeables or removable rechargeables, tend to work better in cold temperatures.

A useful feature of some headlamps is a battery strength indicator. This lets you know, often by the color or blinking pattern of a light, how much life is left in your headlamp’s batteries.

Max Burn Time

Running out of light in the backcountry can range from irritating to dangerous, so you want to know how long your headlamps batteries will last.

Some manufacturers give a max burn time for their headlamps. This is an estimate of the time, in hours, that a headlamp will produce useful light. After that point, it will need recharging or new batteries. This is a useful factor to consider but it must be understood in context.

It’s important to pay attention to how max burn times are determined. Look for headlamps that report burn times calculated at different levels of output (high vs low and different modes).

The power mode (high-power versus power-saving) and regulated output can also affect burn time. The status (full or less), quality (high or low) and type of battery in a headlamp, as well cold temperatures, are also influential on max burn time.

Consider max burn time for what it is – an estimate. A wise backpacker using a headlamp in different situations will determine a much more accurate idea of how long the batteries will last.

Examples of max burn time labels from two different headlamps

Water Resistance

Backpackers are out all year and, whether you plan it or not, you will likely encounter conditions including blowing snow and pouring rain. A backpacking headlamp needs to keep going in wet conditions.

Electronics like headlamps are rated for durability, including dust and water resistance, using the IP Rating. You can learn more about the specifics of IP Ratings here


Many headlamps use colored lenses or separate bulbs to offer multiple light colors. Red is the most common color but green and blue are becoming more popular.

Troy in the dark using headlamp with red light

Backpackers can take advantage of the fact that red light does not disrupt human night vision. Looking at your fellow backpackers with a red light won’t blind them as frequently happens with ‘white’ light.

Preserving your night vision also means that you will be able to view more of the trail, the campsite, or the natural world around you when the lights are turned off.


Many headlamps offer modes valuable to backpackers. For example, power-saving modes can extend the duration of a battery, requiring less backup battery weight or fewer recharges. A headlamp in locked mode resists accidental activation inside a pack, which can burn up precious battery power.

Other modes include:

  • Variable light output (high, medium, low)
  • Strobe light pattern
  • Auto-adjust (dims, brightens or switches to strobe pattern automatically)

for kids

Children's headlamp on a wooden surface

Kids are out there backpacking, beside their parents on the trail or way ahead of them, and they need light. Kids need to see rocks and roots to avoid injury. Adults need to keep track of excited children in the dark. Headlamps specifically designed for younger people are the answer.

Youth headlamps:

  • Are lighter weight
  • Feature smaller straps (for smaller heads)
  • Emit fewer lumens (to protect kids’ eyes)

the takeAWAY

Troy in dark forest wearing headlamp

A reliable light source is an important piece of gear for any backpacker. A bright headlamp is a great option, but it’s important to understand the pros and cons of the available beam types (wide, focused or adjustable).

As with most of their gear, backpackers need to balance headlamp weight with other concerns. Headlamps with integrated rechargeable batteries can save you some weight by not requiring backup batteries but consider the weight of the charging system. Removeable batteries, rechargeable or not, allow you flexibility.

Ultimately, your preferences in terms of weight, your needs in terms of brightness, and your desires for other specialty features will guide you to the right light.

Ready for a New Headlamp?

Let us light the way!

Shop Headlamps »

Questions? Talk to a gear specialist.