Whether you're racing ultra distances through the night, or just as a precaution on long treks, getting the best headtorch often isn't a nice-to-have, it's an need-to-have. If yours lets you down it could put you in serious trouble.
A good headtorch is an essential piece of kit on those occasions, and indeed any other time you want to hike or run in the dark. A bright lamp not only lights your way, but also increases your visibility to others, especially when you wear front and back headtorches, as you’re required to do at many ultramarathon events.
- Essential reading: Best hiking and running baselayers
How to choose your torch
Battery type and life are essential attributes to check. Rechargeable lights are convenient when using the headtorch for short periods, but on a multi-day hike it's generally easier to carry a few spare AAAs with you than find a socket. The longevity of all headtorch batteries will depend on the setting you use it on, so check both how long it will last at full brightness and the lower settings, rather than going by the headline number provided by companies which might be for an eco setting too dim for you to actually use.
Other useful features on headlamps include a range of light colours – red light won’t kill the night vision of those around you in camp – and buttons that can be operated with gloves on, for when you’re facing freezing or wet conditions.
How many lumens do I need?
The brightness of the headtorch is the key thing to check when buying one. Runners popping out for a jog under streetlights don’t need much in the way of lumens – something in the way of 80-150 lumens will suffice to make you more visible – while those running in complete darkness will want 300-500 lumens as a minimum, with some lights offering as much as 1,000 to ensure you can find your way.
Hikers can get by with a little less brightness due to moving more slowly, and will also be happier with a heavier headtorch than runners, who should put a premium on weight. Heavier headlamps are often cheaper and have longer battery lives, but are less comfortable.
Best for running: Petzl REACTIK+
Different conditions and activities require different things from your headtorch, so the rechargeable REACTIK+’s ability to adapt to the environment you’ll actually be facing is invaluable. You can set it up for your preferred activity via the partner app, where you’re also able to check the amount of burn time you have left, or you can rely on the light sensor to adjust the brightness of your beam automatically during your run.
This is ideal on longer runs in changeable conditions, whether you’re starting in twilight and running into the depths of night, or heading from open ground to under tree cover. You don’t have to take it off or fiddle with the headtorch to adapt to the changing conditions – it will automatically reduce or increase its brightness to fit the bill.
On the highest setting the REACTIK+ puts out 300 lumens of light, which is bright enough for running though some people might prefer more when venturing over especially treacherous terrain. On that setting you get 2.5 hours of battery life, which can be extended to ten hours when you drop the brightness to 80 lumens. There is also a red light setting, along with an emergency reserve which drops the white light to 15 lumens for two hours.
Biolite Headlamp 330
The thin, lightweight design of this headtorch is what sets it apart, since it means the lamp sits right against your forehead and doesn’t bounce around at all while on the run. That not only means it doesn’t annoy you by moving around your forehead, but also ensures a steady beam of light to guide you.
That beam of light tops out at 330 lumens, on which setting you’ll get 3.5 hours of life out of the rechargeable battery. You can set the light to flood, to show more of the area around you, or spot, to light the path ahead. You can also lower the lumens to increase the battery life to 40 hours, and there’s a red light setting.
Best for ultramarathons
The NAO+ features the same reactive lighting as the Petzl REACTIK, but packs a far bigger punch when it comes to brightness, with the lamp putting out 750 lumens on the highest setting.
The battery life is also substantially beefed up, with the NAO+ lasting 6.5 hours on its highest setting when using reactive light, and running for 15 hours when putting out 320 lumens.
If you opt for constant light then these numbers drop, but the NAO+ should still have enough burn time to get you through the dark sections of an ultramarathon, though it’s worth noting it uses a rechargeable battery so you won’t be able to carry replacement batteries with you on the run.
There’s a red light on the back of the headtorch, which is required at many races to pass kit check, and although it obviously does add to the overall weight of the lamp, it balances it out to sit comfortably on the head. The NAO+ tips the scales at 185g, which is still impressively light for a torch with front and rear lights and such a big battery.
Best for hiking
Silva Explore 3
The Silva excels when it comes to the essentials needed in a great hiking headtorch, namely a long battery life that uses replaceable AAAs, rather than a rechargeable lithium battery, plus a comfortable design that’s also IPX7 rated, so you can be sure it won’t break even if you spend every day for weeks trekking through a monsoon.
There are three light modes – a 350-lumen white light that will burn for 40 hours in normal conditions, and 35 hours even if the temperature is below -5°C, a red light that’s great for shuffling around camp at night without losing your night vision, and an orange light that’s perfect for map reading. You can also set the white light to 150 or 50 lumens to extend the battery life.
Forclaz Trekking Headtorch 400
This study headtorch can be run off either a rechargeable battery or AAAs, with the former being ideal for shorter hikes and the latter more useful on multi-day treks. Using the rechargeable battery you get three hours of life at the 200-lumen setting, and you can also increase the brightness to 400 lumens in a pinch, though this will naturally run the battery down more quickly.
There are also 30- and 80-lumen modes, and you can set the beam to be wide or narrow. Should you push your luck with the battery too far the Forclaz Trekking Headtorch enters a reserve mode, where you have an hour of 25-lumen light to find either a change point or your spare batteries.
Best for battery life
Black Diamond Icon
The Icon offers a rare combination of both a bright beam and excellent battery life, with the highest setting on the torch putting out 500 lumens and lasting for 70 hours. To achieve those kind of numbers you need to slot four AAs into the pack on the headtorch, which is obviously a lot of weight to add to your head, but you can detach the battery pack and put it in a rucksack or pocket to spread the load.
There are several different settings for the white light, and the Icon offers a trio of colourful options to those looking to retain their night vision, with blue, green and red beams available. The Icon is also robust enough that you can wear it in all environments without fear of losing your light, with an IP67 water and dustproof rating.
Best for budget
Kalenji Onnight 710
There are cheaper headtorches out there, even within Decathlon’s own Kalenji range, but we reckon the Onnight 710 offers the best value for money you’ll find when hunting down a running headlamp. The highest setting puts out 300 lumens of light for three hours before you have to recharge the battery, which is enough even when running without any other source of light, and there are also 120 and 30-lumen settings that will do you when running under streetlights at night.
The Onnight 710 is also lightweight and comfortable to wear for long periods, and with an IPX4 rating it’s weatherproof enough to survive a cloudburst, even if it isn’t fully waterproof. If you’re looking for a budget headtorch for hiking, then you’ll find cheaper options that will satisfy, but for runners the Onnight offers an excellent balance of price and features.
If you’ve been reading this list wondering why headtorches need so many features and blanching at the prices listed, then perhaps the TIKKINA will suit you better. It has one button that controls three different white light modes, the brightest of which is 150 lumens, and it’ll last for a very solid 60 hours on that setting.
Those features alone make the TIKKINA great value given its low price, but it has a couple more appealing attributes on top of the basics. The first is its low weight – at 85g you’ll quickly forget it’s even there. The second is its compatibility with Petzl’s CORE rechargeable battery accessory. You can run the TIKKINA off three AAAs or pick up the CORE rechargeable pack for around £20 and slot it into the headtorch if you’d prefer.
Lifesystems Intensity 155 LED Head Torch
It may not be the most impressive in terms of features but for the price this Life Systems option is perfect for the occasional night runner/hiker that doesn't want to break the bank.
As well as being one of the most lightweight and compact options, the 155 LED Head Torch offers an impressive level of functionality considering the cost.
With up to 155 lumens of brightness, it's more than enough for most trails and the six lighting options are far more than we expected for a head torch of this level. Those modes include three light settings and three red light options with a distance of up to 62 meters.
The angle of the light can be adjusted easily depending on your location or whether you're ascending or descending and Life Systems claims that you'll get up to 35 hours of light from 1 AA battery. Which is pretty impressive for an entry-level piece of kit.
This is a headlamp you’ll ideally never have to use, but we reckon it’s still a must buy. Like Liam Neeson, the e+Lite has a very particular set of skills, which mainly consist of being able to sit in your backpack or jacket pocket for years without you even noticing, before springing into action only when you really need a headlamp in a pinch.
The e+Lite is incredibly light at just 26g, waterproof and able to withstand temperatures ranging from -30°C to 60°C. With a CR2032 battery installed, it can sit in a backpack for 10 years without running out of juice, ready to replace your main headlamp if it fails on you, or guide you home if you find yourself out after dark unexpectedly.
As you’d expect given its size, the e+Lite doesn’t have the most powerful beam, putting out just 50 lumens – it’s a last resort option for emergencies, not the light you should use as your go-to for trail-running or hiking. It also has a red light that can be spotted from a distance if you’re awaiting rescue.