Choosing a Headlamp for Trail Running

Steven running on wooded, snowy trail with headlamp

Whether you’re trying to beat the heat before the sun rises, sneaking in some late-night miles, or simply enjoying the pure pleasure of doing it in the dark, a good headlamp with features appropriate for trail running can mean the difference between a joyful jog and a ruinous run. Keep reading to learn why you need a headlamp for trail running and what to look for.

Why Do I Need a Headlamp for Trail Running?

Just as in hiking, the obvious benefit of a trail running headlamp is its ability to illuminate obstacles such as roots and rocks in the trail, helping to keep runners upright and injury free. In addition to shining a light on potential hazards, headlamps are also great for increasing the visibility of a runner to other trail users, making them easily recognizable to everyone from dog walkers out for a leisurely stroll to mountain bikers looking to set a personal record on Strava segment

The added visibility a headlamp provides is also a nice touch if you need to run a bit on the road to access your favorite trail (it increases your visibility to cars) or just want to supplement your trail run by pounding the pavement for a few miles. 

Steven running on winter road with headlamp

Best Beam for Running

One of the primary decisions facing trail runners when choosing a headlamp is what type of beam they will need. Headlamp beams are primarily available in two styles: a focused light and a wide beam 

A focused beam provides a concentrated light that allows runners to view far down the trail or get a super-clear look at the ground beneath their feet. Focused spotlight beams are also ideal for making quick repairs like fixing a broken shoelace. A good indication of the power of a spotlight is beam distance. Beam distance is a measurement of how far a headlamp will project usable light and is listed on the package by most manufacturers. 

Drawing of headlamp beams, showing hiker using focused and wide beams
Headlamp beams: focused (left) and wide (right)

Alternately, headlamps are also available as wide beams. A wide beam is more diffused, which increases the width of the light thrown but shortens beam distance. Wide beams are excellent for lighting up the edges of the trail, increasing peripheral vision, or reading a trail map. 

Because the needs of trail runners varies—for example, the soft, wide beam is all that’s required for sunrise or full-moon runs while the focus of a focused, narrow beam is vital for making high-speed descents in the dark—many headlamps are able to switch between them. 

Light Up with Lumens 

Lumens are the measurement of a headlamp’s brightness and offer the most reliable way to judge a headlamp’s power—simply put, the more lumens a headlamp has, the brighter and more powerful it will be. However, it’s worth noting that the maximum amount of lumens is only attainable by a headlamp with fully charged batteries. Even with a full battery, maximum lumens are only achieved by a headlamp for a short period of time, as the higher the brightness of the beam, the faster the batteries are consumed.  

Graphic showing two different types of headlamp beams

A headlamp capable of 200 to 300 lumens should satisfy the needs of most trail runners, while those tackling particularly technical trails or dark forests may opt for an even more powerful headlamp. Because the needs of trail runners are ever changing, a dimming adjustment is a particularly valuable feature, as it allows users to increase brightness when needed and decrease the light output and conserve battery power when not needed. 

Troy wearing headlamp, using red light setting

See the Light

The primary light color of nearly all headlamps is white, but many headlamps also feature an alternate red light. Red lights can be handy for navigating popular areas at night; there is no annoyingly bright beam to disrupt people trying to sleep, for example, if your run takes you through a campground or a favorite trail abuts a neighborhood. They are also perfect for getting ready at a trailhead, as they use less battery than white beams and won’t disturb your night vision.

A Battery that Lasts as Long as You Do

How the headlamp is powered is another decision facing trail runners when choosing a new light. Most headlamps include one of two types of batteries—single-use or rechargeable—beware, batteries are not included with all headlamps. Traditionally, single-use (primarily AAA) batteries have provided the power to headlamps, but more and more manufacturers are now offering headlamps with rechargeable batteries. 

Headlamps powered by integrated rechargeable batteries offer a host of advantages to trail runners. Since most runners won’t be out for more than a few hours at a time, the headlamp can be charged between runs to provide paramount performance. Furthermore, since trail runners normally use their headlamp with some frequency, rechargeable batteries eliminate the need to keep spare batteries for your headlamp handy. Lastly, rechargeable batteries keep heavy headlamp users from sending a slew of traditional batteries to the landfill. 

Headlamp with rechargeable battery
A headlamp with an integrated rechargeable battery

Although a headlamp powered by rechargeable batteries is the smart choice for the majority of runners, there are a few users who may prefer a headlamp powered by traditional batteries. The most notable of those users are ultra runners, since they cover huge distances over extended periods of time and traditional batteries can be carried for repowering on the go. 

Some headlamps offer the ability to run on both rechargeable batteries or traditional batteries, delivering the best of both worlds. 

A Weighty Issue

Trail runners know that every ounce counts, which is why the weight of a headlamp is something that should be considered. The weight of a headlamp is also important to trail runners, because a too-heavy headlamp can lead to a sore neck. Typically, the longer a headlamp lasts and the brighter it is, the heavier it will be. When searching for a headlamp for trail running, try to balance your needs for battery life and brightness with a mind for keeping the weight down. 

All measurements are not created equal, and many manufacturers list headlamp weights with and without batteries. When comparing headlamp weights, make sure you’re comparing the same measurement. 

Fit for Moving Fast 

It can be easy to get lost in all the technical aspects of a headlamp, but another important consideration is how the headlamp fits. Trail runners should look for a light that fits securely, doesn’t pinch or irritate, and doesn’t bounce around while on the move. Most headlamps come with an adjustable elastic band for securing the lamp to a runner’s head. A few headlamps, however, offer alternate attachment methods. Some have a third strap running from the front of the band to the back of the band for a more secure fit, while the others use a single elastic shock cord to increase wearing options. 

Some runners find the light from a headlamp can throw off their depth perception and choose to place the headlamp around their waist instead.  

Durability Desired 

In a perfect world, every run would take place in ideal conditions. Sadly, we often find ourselves logging miles in all kinds of weather and terrain, necessitating a headlamp that can stand up to everything thrown at them. Use the IP Code to judge this. If you live in a dry climate or are a fair-weather runner, a headlamp with an IPX4 rating should suffice. All-weather warriors should look for waterproof headlamps with either a IPX7 or IPX8 rating to survive rainy runs. 

Muddy trail in Pennsylvania forest

Do you have a favorite headlamp for trail running or a great trick for getting the most of your headlamp on the trail? If so, we want to hear about it! Leave your favorite lamps and best tips in the comments below.  



Questions? Talk to a gear specialist.